A generation with no theme

Reflections on young China – by 'Fred'


Ed: Something a bit different on the Anthill today. This week the US edition of Wish Lanterns was published, with a new cover, and an illustrated map by Beijing's own Liuba Draws. To mark the occasion, this essay on China's young generations penned by none other than 'Fred', one of the people I write about – a Party official's daughter and politics student from Hainan. I gave Fred a copy of the book of course, and she surprised me by writing this fascinating reflection on its themes, which I translate here with no edits except for style (so references to 'Fred' are about herself, in the third person). – Alec Ash


In the south of China, kongming lanterns rise into the night sky on the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. In the twilight they drift ever higher, until they become just bright dots far away, hiding in a sea of stars. The ancients believed that these lanterns can illuminate wandering ghosts on their way home. Today people believe that the lights carry their wishes up to heaven. They are not kites, tied to earth by cords of string; they float with the wind, scattering in all directions, just like the protagonists of Alec's book.

Wish Lanterns tells the stories of six Chinese “post-80s”. These six stories form a triangle. Lucifer and Mia stand in one corner, believing in their own uniqueness and creativity, believing that their dreams and rebellions are worthwhile; they are not obviously related to China's past, present or future, as if they had crossed over from a Western country. They represent the "Westernized" side of China's post-80s.

Fred stands in another corner; she thinks a lot but does little. Eleven years of training at Peking University and a PhD in political studies affords her a knowledgeable view of the world. She tries to understand the last century of Chinese history through the lens of western philosophy, tries to embed herself in a larger whole, seeking a reasonable explanation of the world. She represents the intellectual side of China's post-80s.

Snail stands in the third corner. He does not have any of the fixed ideas of Lucifer, Mia or Fred, but is pushed passively this way and that. He studies because his parents want him to go to college; he plays online games because everyone else is; he stays in Beijing because his wife wants him to stay. He represents the "nothingness" side of China's post-80s.

Somewhere in between these three corners stand Dahai and Xiaoxiao. They are the most common kind of post-80s, pursuing “small but solid happiness”, reading Han Han's novels, aspiring to the lifestyle of “artistic youth”, occasionally complaining about the government, but without excessive expectations for life. They represent the "average" side of China's post-80s.

These six stories in Wish Lanterns are all equal, faintly interplaying and echoing each other, like six colors forming a not-so-pretty but a true portrait. Alec's writing style is artfully sketched and always restrained; his understanding of the absurd details of life in China leaves people a deep impression. His characters are not cute, they have done no glorious deeds in bustling Beijing, they are just insignificant ordinary people. But their struggles, thoughts, successes, failures, hopes and disappointments will inadvertently touch a young Chinese reader, as if she had seen her own shadow.

So what does this group portrait show? This is a portrait of a generation without an undercoat of paint, so that when people want to comment on it, there’s no place to start. Each generation should have its own "grand narrative", with shared events and symbols for their age. For the “post-30s”, the ancestors of the post-80s, their mission in youth was to “save the nation”: an independent, powerful country was their spiritual totem. Mia's grandfather, a car mechanic for the People's Liberation Army in Xinjiang, has unlimited trust in the Chinese Communist Party.

For the “post-50s”, parents of the post-80s, in their youth they lived through the Great Leap Forward, re-education in the countryside and the Cultural Revolution: political movement after political movement, one great change following another. So they want stability and order, just like Fred's parents who, though dissatisfied with the Communist Party, are willing to work for it. The “post-60s” encountered the Tiananmen Square incident, and knew the risks of rashly discussing state affairs, but they also believed that China's economy would become more prosperous, that the government would become less corrupt, and that speech would become more free.

These "grand narratives" provide the backdrop for all of these youth generations. Under the light of these narratives, the rises and falls of each individual life are not so abrupt and random; each spirit’s highs and lows has an axle around which it turns. But what is the “grand narrative” of the post-80s? College entrance exams? SARS? The Beijing Olympics? Or the 2001 Sino-US air collision over the South China Sea?

This list of events don’t fit an overarching narrative because they haven’t undergone deep public discussion, they don’t trigger the impulse of a whole generation to join together, and they aren’t romantic or memorable enough. Because the public debate of the post-80s is all surveilled, tolerated and guided by the “relevant authorities”; and surveillance, tolerance, and guidance are not sufficient to merge so many different colors together into a masterwork. The underlying spirit of the post-80s is so gloomy and dark, like the colorless buildings on the streets of Beijing, gray and cold.

This generation without a spiritual backdrop can only make a temporary oasis into a grassland, or a floating island into a continent. By embracing individuality and dreams, using dreams to cut yourself off from what’s around you, these dreams only have to do with your own success or failure. Mia seems to have succeeded; Lucifer hasn’t yet. Either, like Snail, you let yourself be carried by the tide, pushed by the desires of your parents, partner and child. Or, like Dahai and Xiaoxiao, you follow the "normal" tracks of life: do a job you dislike for a house, a car and a stable day-to-day life, until gradually you forget where you buried the diary of your childhood.

As for Fred, she wanted to be an honest thinker, but found it was difficult to make a living as one. She loves her nation and the thousands of years of culture behind it, not the government or the Party. But who will care about the difference between the three terms? Beijing's smog and high house prices are driving her back home to China's only tropical island; but where is her spiritual habitat?

Wish Lanterns ends as the lanterns rise into the sky. Lookers-on only watch the slowly rising lanterns, floating high and far, but do not think about where they will fall once the candle is burnt through. Will they fall on the inextinguishable lights of Beijing and Shanghai? Or into the unseeable depths of the South China Sea? Or in a peaceful dilapated village, or a virtual world online? Standing at the tail of youth, how will Lucifer, Mia, Fred, Snail, Dahai and Xiaoxiao flow into the torrent of the times? Nobody knows. We can only evoke the spirit of the wish lanterns, flickering their lights in distant places.

Fred teaches politics at China Youth University of Political Studies