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China lets go: Wish lanterns are released into the sky for New Year (Sheng-Fa Lin CC BY-ND-SA 2.0)

At a time when the future of China is so important, it is surprising that so little is understood, outside the world of specialised studies, about the hopes and fears of those most likely to shape it: the roughly 200 million people in the People’s Republic currently between the ages of 15 to 24.

It is this conspicuous lacuna that Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China seeks to fill. He does so by telling the stories of six young Chinese born between 1985 and 1990 from the time that they entered the world practically up to the present day. His deft style, welcome restraint (he writes the lives of his subjects but does not comment on them or, with a couple of exceptions, appear himself) yet discreet sympathy for the travails of those who have plainly become close friends, make the stories more compelling than they might otherwise have been.

Some idea of the predicament of China’s young makes this book more valuable still. This should probably begin with the understanding that few societies impose so many burdens on their young people as Chinese society in general and the People’s Republic of China in particular. The heaviest of them can perhaps best be described as the “thrall of the past”. China’s long history is a source of strength and an object of pride. Yet for young people in particular it imposes a straitjacket that tends to confine moral and social behaviour to patterns acceptable to the older generation, traditionally the object of veneration since the very foundation of Chinese society. No wonder that reformers and revolutionaries of every stripe have appealed to China’s youth to rise up and overthrow the old order, for national rejuvenation would not be possible without it.

No one understood this better than Chairman Mao. Sixty years ago, he shook off the shackles imposed by rivals at the top of the Communist Party to urge the Red Guards (his own creation, most of them in their late teens or early twenties) to destroy the “old society”. His targets were “feudalism” (by which he meant much that captured what it was to be Chinese in everything from manners to morality), and the “revisionists” whom he alleged had seized control of the Communist Party. The resulting ten years of terror and mayhem ruined the country. It also left many of the Red Guard generation — the parents of Ash’s young lives — embittered, cynical, and understandably uninterested in politics.

Those who followed came to maturity (the term is applied here only in respect of the number of years reached) in an age of economic reform championed by Deng Xiaoping. The changes wrought have been even greater than those under Mao and, for the most part, they have been much more positive. Yet they have also been deeply unsettling, especially for China’s young.

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