Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash
(Picador, 2016)

Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China

by Alec Ash

There are approximately 322 million Chinese aged between 16 and 30 - a group larger than the population of the USA, and destined to have an unprecedented influence on global affairs in the coming years. The one-child policy has led to a generation of only children; there is intense competition for education and jobs, and a tug-of-war between cultural change and tradition, nationalism and the lures of the West. We know the headlines of their lives, but what of the details?

Following the lives of six young Chinese, Alec Ash has created an immersive, narrative account of how it feels to be young in today’s China: what it means to be an artist, to face academic failure, to remain single, to be addicted to the internet, to be wealthy and privileged, to choose not to join the Party.

Told as six first-person accounts, Wish Lanterns is a vibrant and intimate book, for readers of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy.


A gem of a book. Its brief chapters flow like a skillfully crafted set of interconnected short stories, yet all are rooted in the real life experiences of six individuals. An impressive debut book by a writer to watch, who makes the most of all he learned while spending his twenties coming of age in the same shapeshifting China as the half dozen Chinese youths whose varied passages to adulthood he chronicles so elegantly and empathetically. ”
- Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know
A provocative portrait of a fast-changing society riven by internal contradictions . . . a fine addition to the field, one of the best I have read about the individuals who make up a country that is all too often regarded as a monolith, but which abounds with diversity on multiple levels. Fluently written with nice touches of humour . . . this books supplies much food for thought, informing the wider debate while retaining its value as a closely observed picture of how some Chinese live today”
- Financial Times
Wish Lanterns is a beautiful and thoughtful book about the life of young people in China. Alec Ash has succeeded in giving us an intimate and complex portrait of the one child policy generation. It skillfully documents their features, modes of life and dreams of the future. I enthusiastically recommend you to read it”
- Xiaolu Guo, author of I Am China
Without listening to Young Chinese, you won't understand what today's China, the woke up dragon, wants to do next. Alec Ash's book has opened a window in the wall between China and the west for us to see the hopes and fears of these young Chinese who are struggling to build their lives in a world that their parents could never dream of”
- Xinran, author of The Good Women of China
In Wish Lanterns Alec Ash hangs out with China's "post-80s" generations to give us a series of fascinating and insightful snapshots of where the country might be heading. The Rat Tribes, Leftover Women, Ant Tribes and Bare Branches are all revealed as complex and conflicted, yet filled with hopes and dreams for their own, and their country's, future.”
- Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking
Here is a completely novel take on contemporary China. Alec Ash embarks on a different sort of Chinese journey, following six Millennials from the nation's far-flung corners as they make their way to university, on stage, deep underground, and even abroad. The result is a work of heart-felt reportage, and also great suspense, as we wait to learn each character's fate. I couldn't put it down ”
- Michael Meyer, author of In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China and The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
Through series of profiles of young Chinese from various walks of life and different geographic regions, Alec Ash has assembled a fascinating mosaic that gives us a wonderfully vivid sense of what it's like to grow up today in the People's Republic of China. By simply describing the lives of six youths, Wish Lanterns enables a reader to get an immediate feel of how contradictory life in this dynamic but still unresolved country often is”
- Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society, New York City
A wonderfully readable and engaging account of that most mysterious of all groups - Chinese millennials. Alec Ash weaves the joy, heartbreak, drama and trauma of this group through disparate stories, making up a highly realistic, and at times poetic, account of the people who are likely to have the greatest future impact of any one group in the world today.”
- Kerry Brown, Professor of China Studies at King's College London
Compelling and beautifully written”
- Prospect
The people currently ruling China lived through the upheavels of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen. The millennials who will shape China's future face very different pressures and challenges. In a study that is both literary and political, Ash tries to understand China's future through the lives and aspirations of its rising generation”
- Gideon Rachman, Financial Times