Book review: China’s New Youth

Last year Alec Ash’s 2016 book Wish Lanterns was re-released with the title China’s New Youth: How the Young Generation Is Shaping China’s Future. It features a new preface by Ash, which can also be read on the SupChina website as well as a foreword by Karoline Kan, the author of another excellent book Under Red Skies. Ash’s book has been one of my favourite books about China and Jessica even uses it for the culture lessons of her students. More than enough reasons to use the re-release as an excuse to revisit and translate my original Dutch review of Wish Lanterns.

One of the most interesting aspects of contemporary China is the life of the country’s youth and young adults. After the generations that experienced the Great Famine of the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the Reform and Opening-Up policies of the 1980s, these are the young people who were shaped by the fairly stable 1990s and the first decade of the new century. They are mostly young people who have grown up without siblings and have been overwhelmed by both pampering and suffocating attention from their family. It is the generation that grew up after the Tiananmen Square uprising and in a rapidly expanding economy and society that is often struggling to keep up with the speed of change. It is the generation of ‘early adaptors’ of digital innovation on smartphones, but also the generation that competes with hundreds of thousands of peers for good study results and well-paying jobs.

It’s important to learn more about them. Not only because this is the generation that forms the current Chinese middle class and therefore an important market for Western companies in consumer goods and tourism, but also because this generation will leave its mark on the course of the country in the coming decades. Exposed to far-reaching internationalization through media usage and studying abroad, but at the same time accompanied by strong patriotism, their development is of significant importance for our future relationship with China.

Alec Ash.

In Xi’an I had two so-called millennials – although this isn’t a term used much in China – as interpreters and they both made a big impression on me in their own way. The article I wrote about Li and Wei is still among my favourite writings. So, when I read about the book China’s New Youth, written by Alec Ash, which chronicles the young lives of six different millennials, I couldn’t wait to read it. Ash is a writer and journalist who lived in Beijing and recently moved to Dali in Yunnan province. Some may know Ash as one of the founders of The Anthill , a community of individuals writing about China.

In his book, Ash describes the early years of six vastly different young Chinese individuals. When Ash came up with the idea for this book, he looked for a few people who fit certain profiles, but didn’t fit the stereotypical image of the spoiled little emperors that the West often has of Chinese youth. He built friendships with them, spent time with them, and had many candid conversations with them. The result is a fascinating book in which he has made himself almost completely invisible and the stories of the six play the leading role. In addition to rockstar-wannabe Lucifer, we have Dahai, the son of an army man, country boy Snail, who struggles with internet addiction, the enterprising Xiaoxiao from the northeast, international student Fred, the daughter of a government official, and Mia, a skinhead from Xinjiang. Their stories are all the more fascinating because they are real people and not just fictional characters. Mia is even featured on the cover of recent reprints of the book, and there are YouTube videos of the London performance of Lucifer’s band.

All characters also serve to illustrate many themes that occupy young people: internet addiction, the gaokao college entrance exam, the diaosi (‘loser’) culture, parental pressure to find a partner, etc. While the characters are all captivating, without these themes that wouldn’t necessarily also be true for their storylines. For example, the perils of Lucifer, who participates in the Battle of the Bands in London with his band Rustic and appears in TV shows, are exciting even without the themes, but Mia’s storyline does not amount to much without this thematical approach. In that respect, some characters seem less important than the thematic subjects discussed in the various chapters.

Although China’s New Youth briefly mentions issues such as Xinjiang and Taiwan and dissatisfaction with government policy, it is not a book that zooms in on politics. Only when it plays a key role in the deliberations and exploration of the characters’ coming of age does politics come into play.

Short chapters about the individual characters alternate rapidly. This is both a pleasant change and a challenge when reading the book. It reads well and through the different lives of the six, you get a good picture of Chinese in their younger years under varying individual circumstances. The disadvantage of this setup is that you usually say goodbye to a character for dozens of pages before their story continues. If you read the book at a brisk pace, that’s no problem. However, I have rarely been able to read more than a few chapters a week due to time constraints, which sometimes resulted in me completely forgetting where a character’s storyline ended and having to regularly re-read an earlier chapter. Especially towards the end of the book, when Dahai and Snail’s circumstances start to resemble each other, I sometimes struggled to tell their storylines apart. So, this is a book that you should read at a quick pace.

Don’t expect any happy endings in the book. In fact, don’t even expect endings. Since the book is about real people, there is no end to their stories. After their carefree childhood, their teenage and young adult years are marked by various struggles and challenges, from which each character emerges differently. At the end of the book, each of them still has problems and aspirations. At first this felt a bit like an anti-climax to me, until I once again realized that we are not dealing with fiction here and that real lives continue after a book.

China’s New Youth is one of my favourite books about China published in recent years and a joy to read. The book is recommended for people who know little about China’s millennials as well as for those who have already studied them for a while. During my own guest lectures, students often find it difficult to imagine the lives and thoughts of their Chinese counterparts. I often get asked: ‘Why don’t they revolt against their government?’ This book is mandatory for those students and anybody with the same question. 

China’s New Youth/Wish Lanterns is available in English. Want to know more? Then listen to the Sinica Podcast with Alec Ash.     

Conclusion: 9 out of 10