Farewell to the Anthill

The end of one colony, and the beginning of the next


Five years ago, in the autumn of 2012, I returned to China after two years out, working in London. My previous blog from Beijing, in my Wudaokou days learning Mandarin, was the painfully lime-green Six (2008-10), following the lives of six young Chinese peers – the germ of an idea that evolved into my first book Wish Lanterns, published by Picador last year and a BBC Book of the Week. That autumn of 2012 I launched a new group blog or "writers' colony" of narrative nonfiction – the Anthill – on the premise that everyone in China had a story to tell.

Half a decade on, we've had quite the run. We expanded the site to include fiction, thanks to fiction editor, novelist and friend Tom Pellman, who after 11 years in China is now the other side of the pond in Monterey. We hosted two boozy storytelling events: Writers and Rum and Scotch and Stories. In 2015 we published an anthology, While We're Here, with Earnshaw Books. We were a Danwei Model Worker and a Browser Golden Giraffe. And we posted 380 stories, from a thangka of blood to (full circle) an old tale out of Tibet. But now our revels are ended, and our friendly ant icon is waving not hello but goodbye.

Every end is a beginning, and the Anthill is delighted to announce it is folding into a new online publishing venture, the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, which launched today. I've been writing for the LARB China Blog for yonks, and now, thanks to a generous seed grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the blog has expanded into a bigger magazine-within-a-magazine. I'm the new managing editor, on a part-time basis along with a team of China hands old and new, under the wizardry of Jeffrey Wasserstrom. To find out more, read our opening words and follow us on social media and email to not miss a post.


Out of Tibet

One Tibetan's story inside China – by Alec Ash


Ed: As the last post on the Anthill before we close our gates and fold into the new LARB China Channel on Monday, I'm indulging nostalgia and posting a story I wrote back in 2012 (the first longform piece I wrote), which was published in the anthology Chinese Characters five years ago, just before this website launched. It was previously up on Danwei, which is no longer accessible, so I'm archiving it here for posterity instead. It's the story of a Tibetan friend I made ten years ago in Qinghai, where I taught English in the summer of 2007 before moving to China the following year. Tashi was caught between his heritage and identity as a Tibetan, and the practical realities of his material prospects in China. It's a common story, and a complicated one, which is why it is best told simply. I'm delighted to have the chance to share it again, with some of my pictures from the time, and to remember my friend. - Alec



A man between two worlds – new fiction by George Gao



Jackson and his grandmother sat at the teahouse on the city wall overlooking the river moat. An old peddler bundled in a wool jacket walked by with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had a bamboo stick slung across his shoulders. There was a basket on each side, both filled with candy. “Ma Ya Tang,” he said, smirking at the two of them. “Five kuai each.”

Grandma Li waved the man away. She turned to Jackson and said, “When your mother was little, she used to love that stuff. But they were terrible for her teeth.”

“Yea?” said Jackson. He refilled his teacup and took a sip. He liked hearing about his mother’s childhood in Suzhou. Jackson was born in this city, though he left for the U.S. at age five. He often wondered what his life would be like if he had grown up here, instead of in the small suburb of Winslow, New Jersey.


Grindstone Mountain

Money to burn but no tomb to sweep – by Mark Treacher


Flames lap around the banknotes as they shrivel inside a rusty old oilcan, wisps of black smoke spiralling up into the overcast sky. Squatting down on his haunches, Lee peels off a few more 10,000 yuan bills from a fat bundle and offers them to the fire. His teenage son, father and stepmother Auntie Zhang follow suit, holding out the money until it catches alight. Lee’s downcast face is compelling: his mother died in 1985, of heatstroke on a broken-down train near Wuhan. Lee had just graduated; he was very close to his mother.

Suddenly the fire spits, leaping the gap to Lee’s fingertips, making him yelp and drop the money to the ground.  “Nide mama chu lai le!” hisses Auntie Zhang – “Your mum is here!”


The end of the hill

We're closing our gates in a month


A quick housekeeping note, for our patient readers. Apologies for the radio silence on the Anthill in the last couple of months – I have been in Taiwan this summer, studying classical Chinese, and fiction editor Tom is based on the other side of the pond in Monterey, California. We also had a technical glitch, now fixed, that put the site out of commission for a stretch as some of you had noticed.

More importantly, we have news: the hill, alas, is closing down. In a month or so, the Anthill is folding into the new China Channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books, which I will be managing editor of (see more in this Q&A) alongside a terrific team of China hands, old and new. Over at LARB we will still be running narrative pieces, as well as much more, so think of it as a continuation. But the Anthill itself will be closing its gates for new submissions, although the site will remain up and archived in its entirety.

We still have a last few pieces to publish, starting with a son's moving tribute to his mother on qingmingjie. A handful more will follow, taking us to late September when the China Channel launches.

Thanks for following us these last five years, and watch this space for the new reincarnation! - Alec