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Book Review: Wish Lanterns

Expert expat Alec Ash delivers portraits of young China

There are two kinds of expats in China: the ones who are still confused by the country and its people, and those who think they know China in and out. If you are part of the first group, you should read this book. If you are part of the second, you should definitely read this book to be proven wrong.

In Wish Lanterns Alec Ash presents us a China we’ve never seen before—a young China, a China that’s growing not just economically but in its ways, and one that isn’t scared to question itself. Since moving here in 2008, Ash clearly wasn’t twiddling his thumbs as a student at Peking University. He later went on to write for publications like The Economist, Prospect and Foreign Policy, so reading this book, expect a reporter’s approach to everyday stories, with thoughtful insights and historical references chosen with medical precision.

The people taken to form Wish Lanterns are Ash’s previous interview subjects, and through them Ash sets out to capture this country by pulling himself out of it. He presents a China without the voice of an expat—who would’ve thought?! But it works, and it works wonderfully.

In true journalistic fashion, the book is as in depth as it is literarily sound. Each chapter zooms in on a person Ash puts under his watchful eye. The short chapters, without overly complicated references (but with just enough touching-base through the mention of chuanr), easily flow from one to the next. Surprisingly again, reading this book feels like flicking through a cohesive novel, and nothing like an ethnographic study of Chinese culture and history (which is perhaps a more apt description of the book).

Each person Ash focuses on is unique—there is the blog-obsessed Dahai from a military background, Fred, a child of the Party struggling through her Ph.D, Lucifer who dreams of becoming famous, Snail who tries to live through World of Warcraft, Xiaoxiao with Harbin roots, and Mia who rebels against and eventually succumbs to a career in the fashion industry.

The chapters masterfully allow the reader to make up their own mind about each of the subjects, and draw on points in history that might have had an impact on them as children of the post-80’s China. These let the reader know that while Chinese youth may appear to turn a blind eye to the red slogans hung around the city, in reality they all have a different take on them. For some, they are a source of inspiration and for others a reminder of the past.

The historical events become somewhat of 9/11 moments in the story, where each character is presented with a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ These breaking points are what make this book in particular so unique. Ash doesn’t shy away from complications, from doubts and uncertainties the youth experience—instead he just tells it to us straight and doesn’t try to generalize about anyone or anything. While reading, it becomes a study of the self (or selves) as much as a study of China.

The stories Ash’s subjects tell are authentic and genuine, with the ugly and the beautiful laced throughout. We see them laugh and cry, get angry with their parents and miss them at the same time. We watch them grow and change, and of course we also see them fall in love. Each milestone gives just a little more insight into the world behind closed doors, and reading this book might leave you more curious about Chinese culture than you ever were before.

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