There’s some slight professional jealousy flowing through my veins right now as I begin this book review, for you see, Alec Ash stole my ideal life.
I guess I should explain.
Roughly ten or twelve years ago, I had dreams (and let’s be frank, dreams are all they were) of transforming myself into some kind of literary genius type figure based in China. Too poor and too unconnected to go down the traditional route of interning in London for five years in order to gain a foothold in the journalism industry, I basically tried to game the system by attempting to achieve it in China instead. China was cheaper, was a country that I held a passion for, and seemed to be a land of opportunity where any young and diligent young pup could build a name for themselves with enough hard work and talent.
Sadly, life didn’t turn out quite as planned, and I find myself today in the very same position that I was trying to escape from over a decade ago – stuck in the corporate life with no outlet for any creativity. Ash, on the other hand, has managed to achieve quite the name for himself within Beijing’s literary circles. He has helped to set up websites like Beijing Cream (Rest in Peace, Laowai Comics Guy) and The Anthill, has organised Whisky and Writers nights at The Bookworm (Beijing’s premier venue for sitting around looking pretentious behind a MacBook) and now he has a book out through Picador that is getting rave reviews on outlets like the FT, the New York Times and the BBC.
In short, a part of me really wanted to hate his book.
And then, because he is such a bastard, he actually wrote a very good book that is impossible to dislike.
In some ways, Ash is a reverse mirror image of myself. He covers a lot of the same ground that I cover in my own book Party Members – generational pressure, university exams, corruption, house prices, even regional TV talent shows – but somehow still manages to find some light within the darkness whereas I can only find darkness. Partly this is due to his subject matter. Wish Lanterns follows the lives of six young Chinese all born after 1980 as they struggle to build a foundation for their lives in and around Beijing. It would be a very grim book indeed if these young people didn’t have hope to build better lives for themselves. For sure, there is darkness – and more than a few of the dreams of Wish Lanterns‘ six protagonists eventually hit a dead-end – but there is life and hope along the way. If there was any truth to Xi Jinping’s nonsensical propaganda slogan of the “Chinese Dream”, then the content of that dream is to be found somewhere within this book.
The six protagonists are used as narrative devices to highlight different aspects of modern China. Each one has a different journey and their various class backgrounds and career choices gives Ash an opportunity to explore the entirety of modern China through these windows on their lives. Wannabe rockstar Lucifer gives us glimpses into China’s banal television industry; upper middle-class Politics student Fred (former China TEFL teachers will be unsurprised to learn that Fred is a girl) allows Ash to tick off the boxes of China’s political changes over the last three decades; party girl Mia highlights the edgy arty side of Beijing; and the slightly more ordinary (but no less interesting) three remaining protagonists of Dahai, Snail and Xiaoxiao are vehicles to explore the every day events of marriage, birth and death in the Peoples’ Republic.
Despite the different backgrounds of the various characters, they all share some of the same challenges. The heavy prospect of marriage and buying a house looms over every single one of them as they enter their mid-twenties; the pressure bearing down on some of them more than others. My favourite character in the book was Snail – a rural migrant from Anhui who more than any of the six protagonists experiences the most setbacks on his journey: internet addiction, lack of housing prospects and (in the book’s saddest moment) miscarriage of his first child. Snail named himself after the titular gastropod due to his childhood sightings of them in his countryside home and his foresight in knowing that his future home was to be wherever the turbulence of China’s social upheavals would take him. Yet he also shares another trait with his namesake: the weight of familial expectations and pressure slowing him down in comparison to his peers. It’s the struggle and hope that still remains within Snail despite the challenges that life throws at him that makes it hard not to respect the perseverance of many of China’s millennial generation.
Ash certainly knows his topic well and has done his research. I was impressed by his thorough knowledge of modern Chinese history, but I was ultimately more impressed by the little details that proved he had really gotten to know his case studies. On more than one occasion he mentions something that I was arrogantly sure I was the only foreigner in China who knew about it, for example the joke that Hebei’s capital Shijiazhuang is referred to as “shit plus dirt” or the ins and outs of mid-2000s PC games like Counter Strike.
Wish Lanterns is well written, in-depth, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. As loath as I am to mention Peter Hessler lest I get arrested by the Cliché Police, Ash actually succeeds in out-Hesslering Hessler as he manages to provide a wide-ranging full-scope overview of what life is like in today’s China, but doesn’t embarrassingly avoid some of the more risqué topics that Hessler frequently avoided. There is sex in the book (especially in Lucifer’s chapters); Ash doesn’t go as in-depth as other topics he covers, but at least it is there and not conspicuous by its absence as I found to be the case in Hessler’s River Town.
My above mention of Peter Hessler (I’m sure Ash is sick of hearing about him) brings me nicely to my final point about Wish Lanterns. There is one character missing in Wish Lanterns, and that is Alec Ash. In interviews, Ash has stated that he deliberately kept himself out of the book as he wished for the book to be about the subjects themselves and not about their foreign friend and his life in China (although there is one teeny tiny mention that Ash allows himself right at the end of the book). However, though Ash is missing from the book, in retrospect he is actually there all the time. The stories of Dahai, Lucifer, Mia et al are all told by Ash; and it is Ash who selects what is featured and what is deemed important enough to include. At the same time I was reading Wish Lanterns, I was also reading some essays by Isham Cook, especially one entitled The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma. Have a read. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Ash has simultaneously managed to successfully build a career for himself within respectable publishing circles and has written a book that shines light and positivity on aspects of Chinese society whereas I’ve often only found despair. One wonders if this is due to a positive mindset within the author or if his balanced coverage of China is a prerequisite of the requirements of large publishers.
A relevant paragraph from The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma:
Let’s unpack this a bit with the help of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of ventriloquism or “ventriloquation” (The Dialogic Imagination). To ventriloquize is to pretend to assume the voice of the Other. Of course, this is something creative writers do all the time; fiction and drama depends on the ability to capture a multiplicity of voices (what Bakhtin calls “heteroglossia”). In the case of nonfiction, however, the writer is bound by a compact with the reader to tell the truth, and by other constraints as well—ethical, legal, financial, etc., as mentioned above. These constraints are amplified in the case of journalists writing for the big publishers, where power and monetary interests are at stake. Here the writer’s relationship with the reader is more complex and bi-directional. He or she is no longer merely the author ventriloquizing the Other, but is just as likely being ventriloquized as the subject and instrument of power.
I highlight the above not because I wish to criticise Wish Lanterns, but because after reading the book it raised questions within myself about my own attitudes. It may be possible that the positives and hope that are expressed towards Chinese society within Wish Lanterns are due to the demands of an international publisher with interests in countries across the world, but if I accept that the truths within Wish Lanterns are filtered through the author’s voice (or the voice of his publisher), then I must also accept that the “truths” in my own more negative attitude towards China is filtered through my own perspective. The characters in Wish Lanterns who have it much tougher than I do, like Snail, certainly don’t wallow in gloom. I’m reminded of the final sentence in Ray Hecht’s South China Morning Blues:
“Well, this is my universe, my voice, my perspective, it’s for me, and at least that means I get to have the last word.”
Any book which provokes self-reflection and contemplation within the reader – especially unexpectedly – is a worthy read. Add to that the already significant achievement of creating a narrative that wonderfully captures the zeitgeist of modern China in a way that few others have and you have a very good book indeed. However, since this is my book review I get to have the last word: you’re still a bastard Alec for being more successful than me.
Wish Lanterns is available on Amazon.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.