January book review – Wish Lanterns, by Alec Ash

The Shanghai Mamas book club usually meets on the first Tuesday of the month, at a central downtown location, and this year we have chosen twelve books which all revolve around the theme of redemption. If you weren’t able to join us but are still interested in following our reading list, read our short reviews here!



After reading this highly-recommended book, you’ll quickly realize that, like many others before you, you have probably been guilty of trying to paint all Chinese citizens with same brush. It’s easy to make sweeping generalizations about a nation so different from your own, especially for expats with little knowledge of China, limited Mandarin skills and few local Chinese friends. But, this book will remove the wool from your eyes and remind you that it’s truly a country of extremes. Not just in terms of geography, climate, wealth and health, but in terms of opportunity, hopes and dreams. You’ll learn, if you haven’t already, how those born during the early part of the one-child policy years are a generation truly different to those before them.…..

The book follows the lives of six young Chinese, born between 1985 and 1990, from their early childhood until their late twenties. The book description on Amazon.com tells us that “Following them as they grow up, go to college, find work and love, all the while navigating the pressure of their parents and society, Wish Lanterns paints a vivid portrait of Chinese youth culture and of a millennial generation whose struggles and dreams reflect the larger issues confronting China today. Dahai is a military child, netizen, and self-styled loser. Xiaoxiao is a hipster from the freezing north. “Fred,” born on the tropical southern island of Hainan, is the daughter of a Party official, while Lucifer is a would-be international rock star. Snail is a country boy and Internet gaming addict, and Mia is a fashionista rebel from far west Xinjiang.”

This is the first book by Alec Ash, a British graduate from Oxford University, who has lived in Beijing since 2008. In contrast to many other books written by westerners proclaiming to understand China, Ash really does. He lived and studied with the characters he writes about, visiting their countryside homes, meeting their families and attending their weddings. As a narrator, he remains silent and invisible, helping the reader to discover each character’s day to day life, joys, disappointments, hopes and dreams, both realized and broken, for themselves. One of the book’s strengths is Ash’s ability to emphasize the individual whilst not losing sight of the collective, and he does a fantastic job of framing the life of a single person against the backdrop of recent Chinese history and events. The tone is lightweight and engaging, and not at all patronizing, enabling Ash to tackle some very weighty issues in a very non-judgmental way.

Book club tip: Non-Brits may feel the need to reach for the dictionary feature for help with some of the British terminology (‘pigs trotters’ spring to mind).