Notices, links and meta

Young China redux

Your humble blogger rises from the ashes for one last post before this (now very) old blog is archived for perpetuity, or until I forget to renew the domain license, whichever is the sooner.

I arrived in China on August 22 2008, two days before the Olympics ended (and I was there at the closing ceremony). I had backpacked through the country the summer before, teaching English at a Tibetan village in Qinghai province which I wrote about here, but now I was here to live and learn the language for two years, at Peking University. At that time I became interested in the generation of young Chinese around me, my peers, and started this blog as a way to keep up with six of their lives – mostly my friends on campus, but also an environmentalist and an entrepreneur.


Now, eight years later, after returning to China as a writer in 2012, my book Wish Lanterns is published by Picador in the UK today (and next spring in the US). It follows the lives of six young Chinese, too, and grew out of the seed that this blog planted. But it’s a different six – a wannabe rock star, a migrant addicted to online gaming, a Party official’s daughter, a fashionista, a netizen and a small-business owner – and has a wider scope, taking us from scorching Xinjiang to freezing Dongbei, from tropical Hainan to the outskirts of Beijing. You can find collected reviews and Q&As here.

In that respect, my mission is done. I set out to get under the skin of young China, back when I was another young arrival from the West. Now I’m thirty, and the generation of post-80s Chinese that was my beat are in their late twenties and early thirties too, giving way to the post-90s and (gosh) the post-00s: the next “generation that will change China”, in the words of my tagline. Even my blog that replaced this one, the Anthill, has closed its gates, and my new gig is editing the LARB China Channel while I look to the edge of China for my next big writing project.

Looking back, I remember fondly those first years, when blogging was young and exciting, just as China was in my fresh eyes. This blog is dead, but those memories still live.

Back in China

I just couldn’t keep away.

For the last couple of years I have been in London, running literary interviews for the curation website Five Books. (China-related ones include Ma Jian, Orville Schell and Jeff Wasserstrom.)

Now I’m back for the long run, living in Beijing and writing freelance, as correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books among more long-term projects. I will also be blogging again – but not here.

My new space on the web is the Anthill. Whereas on this blog I followed the lives of six young Chinese friends for two years, on the Anthill I will be posting a more occasional and eclectic mix. The focus is narrative writing, which is the kind I most enjoy. There will be stories and snapshots from Chinese society – especially young China, ever my beat – but also fiction, satire, and oral history.

The Anthill is also an experiment in group blogging. It’s an “open blog”, where anyone can submit a story from or on China. So there will be posts from other like-minded writers too, alongside mine and edited by me.

So, please follow me at the Anthill (RSS: http://theanthill.org/rss.xml), and on Twitter @alecash, where I also post links to my articles elsewhere – like yesterday’s dispatch in the Economist from Tongren, or my profile of a Tibetan friend there which featured as a chapter in the book of reportage Chinese Characters.

Oh, is anyone there, by the way? If you still have this feed on RSS, dead wood for two years, your faith has been rewarded by one last hurrah! If you’re following a link, please do look at the archived posts below (my six most read posts are in the left sidebar), for a snapshot of student China from 2008 to 2010.

The blog is dead. Long live the blog.

Adieu to Six

UPDATE: [January 2011] After much umming and erring about whether to resurrect this blog from London, I’ve decided that I am too far away from China to be writing about it. But I will be blogging again when I’m back in the Orient, before too long a wait …

First things first: a couple of links. Here you can read my column in this month’s issue of Prospect magazine, on the influx of foreign students who – like me – go to Beijing to learn Mandarin. While here you can see my photo essay on ‘young China’ – the theme of this blog – for the China Beat. I took those pictures over the two years I lived and travelled in China.

“Past tense!” I hear you cry. “-ed?” Yes, I’m writing from London, where I will be based for two years before returning East. I thought I wouldn’t leave Beijing for love nor money, but one of those reasons is indeed why I’m back in Britain (you can guess which).


Next, here is where we leave the six young Chinese who I’ve been following on this blog – stories from the generation that will change China.

Ben is going strong in his online clothes shop. His bedroom business has expanded from just him and a leaky roof to a staff of three and booming sales. He still can’t pronounce the word ‘entrepreneur’.

Leonidas is back on “my island”, as he calls it, off the coast of Shanghai. “No TV, no internet, no noise, no traffic jam,” he writes me. A perfect summer break before his final year at Peking University.

Marie has finally ended her torturous job hunt, choosing a teaching position in Beijing. But she still dreams of working in Hong Kong, travelling to Japan, studying in America – depending on the day.

Matilda has just finished her novel, Summer Fruit in Autumn. She posted in online, and got some encouraging comments from Chinese netizens. She still doesn’t know what to do with her life, though.

Tony will be joining me in England next academic year. He has an offer from Cambridge and a provisional offer from Oxford, to read an MPhil in International Relations. I hope to see him before long.

William dropped out of university for the second time last spring. His lifeless subject and doctrine-heavy classes simply weren’t for him. He’s now decided to give his all to environmental activism.


Finally, a few quick stats and thanks. I launched this blog on the final day of the Beijing Olympics, August 24th 2008. Since then, I’ve had over 15,000 unique visitors. And 40,000 page views. My most read posts include a video interview with Chris Patten, commentary on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, a translation of a wronged student’s petition, and my essay in Chinese on China’s ‘New Youth’.

My thanks go first to all my friends, most of all to those I follow here, who have helped me understand the nuanced and changing story of young Chinese in a new China. In the English language Chinese ‘blogosphere’, an especial thanks to: Jeff, Kate and Maura at the China Beat; Jeremy and Joel at Danwei; Elliot at CNReviews; Charlie at China Geeks; Evan Osnos at The New Yorker. And everyone else!

Adieu to å…­ (liu – six). Cheers, Alec

Here we are, June 4th, again. The first thing to say, to Chinese readers, is that we will not forget those who died on the night of June 3rd, 1989 … and nor do we apologise for keep bringing it up. On Danwei I’ve written a piece comparing the class of ’89 with the class of 2010 in Peking University, if you’re curious – but that’s not the meat of this post.

This is an essay I wrote for my Chinese language school in Beijing, IUP, as my end-of-term exam. My teacher and I had been looking at Chen Duxiu‘s essays in the early [20th] century magazine New Youth. Here I look at one essay in particular, in which Chen appeals to China’s youth to stand up, and tie it briefly to both the May 4th movement and 1989 demonstrations. I thought I’d publish it here – feel free to pick holes in my Chinese!





首先,我错了:当年该杂志还称为《青年杂志》,1916年由于跟其他杂志同名改为《新青年》。但愿改变青年的本质象改变杂志的名字那么简单。陈独秀所追求的理想恰恰是这样的一个新时代的年轻人 - 一个愿意奋斗和打破旧思想的时代。在上述的创刊文章《警告青年》里,他把反对孔教、礼法、贞节、甚至国粹的青年比喻为“新鲜活泼细胞之在人身”,把支持旧伦理、旧政治的老年人比喻为腐烂细胞。 在社会所谓的“新陈代谢”里,他接着说,这些“陈腐朽败者无时不在天然淘汰之途,与新鲜活泼者以空间之位置及时间之生命。”然而这个“天然”的过程好像也要多少人工的帮助:陈先生呼吁青年来“力排陈腐朽败者以去”。如果他们“利刃断铁,快刀理麻,决不作牵就依违之想,”那么“社会庶几其有清宁之日也”。


1919年5月4号一些大学生(北大学生带了头)集合在天安门广场上。原因在于中国政府对凡尔赛和约的软弱反应,结果当时的政府失去了所有的信用。这一天就是五四运动的高潮,而不失为对现代中国有深刻影响的一天 - 中国的青年站起来了。通过三十年的混乱和内战,陈独秀所力求的清宁日子可能到来了:1949年10月1号。但是陈先生享受不了这一天,因为首先他1942年去世了,其次他1929和他以前强烈支持的公产党分道扬镳(从《告全党同志书》 这篇文章可以看出来他的不满)。

假如陈先生1949年还活着,我认为他依旧不会相信这一天到了。因为在《警告青年》里他抱着颇悲观的态度:虽然这些青年看起来很强,但是“及叩其头脑中所涉想,所怀抱,无一不与彼陈腐朽败者为一丘之貉”。更有甚者,他对自己的寻找, 自己的呼吁,没有自信: “求些少之新鲜活泼者,以慰吾人窒息之绝望,亦杳不可得”。然而不仅仅是1919年的事情证明他错了。。。。。。




On September 15th, 1915, in the opening essay of New Youth magazine, Chen Duxiu writes:

“Youth are like the early spring, like the morning sun, like the blooming grass, like the sharp blade fresh off the grinding stone; youth is the most valuable time of life.”

Mr Chen, you’re too kind. I’ll do my best to treasure this valuable time – to use the opportunity when my blade is at its sharpest, when my sun is at its brightest, to analyse and shed light on what you write.

First off, I was wrong: in 1915 the magazine was still called Youth. It changed its name to New Youth in 1916, due to another magazine having the same name. If only changing the nature of youth was as easy as changing a magazine name. For what Chen Duxiu was striving for was precisely a new generation of young people – a generation willing to struggle and break down the old modes of thought. In the essay I mention above, ‘Advice [literally warning] for youth,’ Chen’s metaphor for the youth who oppose Confucian teachings, concepts of ritual, chastity, even the very ‘essence of China’, is “fresh, vigourous cells inside the human body”, and he compares old people who support the old theories and politics to rotten cells.

In this so-called ‘metabolism’ of society, he continues, these “rotten, corrupted cells at all times, by the process of natural selection, give space to stand and time to live in to the fresh, vigourous cells”. However this “natural” process, it seems, still needs a little human help: Chen appeals to the youth to “vigourously drive out those rotten, corrupted cells”. If “their blade is sharp enough to cut iron and hemp, [and they] don’t follow other’s lead or hesitate in thought”, then “maybe society will arrive at a peaceful day”.

Did society arrive at this peaceful day after all?

On May 4th, 1919, students (led by Beida students) gathered on Tiananmen square. The reason: the Chinese government’s weak reaction to the Versailles treaty. The result: the government of the time lost all credibility. That day was the ‘high tide’ of the May Fourth movement, a day with a deep impact on China – China’s youth had stood up. Thirty years of chaos and civil war later, the day Chen Duxiu strove for had (maybe) arrived: 1st October, 1949. But Chen couldn’t enjoy that day: for one, he died in 1942, but he had also split paths in 1929 with the Communist Party he formerly supported so strongly (we can see his discontent in this essay).

Supposing Mr Chen was still alive in 1949, I think he still wouldn’t have believed the day he sought had arrived. Because his attitude in ‘Advice to youth’ was rather pessimistic: even if the youth seem to be strong, if you “knock on their heads to see what they think and believe in, there’s not one who isn’t of the same ilk as those rotten, corrupted cells”. Even more so, he had no belief in his own search, his own appeal: “to find a few fresh, vigourous cells, to ease the blocked airway of my despair, is so distant [a prospect] as to be unnattainable”. However it wasn’t just the events of 1919 that proved him wrong …

On May 4th, 1989, students (once more led by Beida students) again gathered on Tiananmen square. This time, the reason was to commemorate Hu Yaobang, but it swiftly turned into a large-scale political movement. The result: according to conservative estimates, more than two hundred students were killed on the night of June 3rd. These young people, just like those of seventy years ago, were opposing the ‘elements’ that were “blocking the airway of society”, but the difference is rather paradoxical: this time, they were opposing the very Communist Party who before had opposed old modes of thought.

Chen Duxiu asks the reader: “The society of my country, will it prosper? Or is it doomed?” His opinion seems to be the latter. I say to the reader: don’t mind him. Although China, even today, still has many problems, none of them are incurable. To “cure this disease”, Chen writes, society must have “one or two youths sensitive enough to realise their potential, and brave enough to struggle”. The “disease” he talks of isn’t the disease of today’s society, but the prescription is just the same: new youth.*


* It’s rather weird, and bloody awkward, to translate something you’ve written yourself into your mother tongue. I’ve taken liberties, but hope the original author won’t mind.

My attempt at an answer is up on Danwei. I like the accidental (?) timing of this being published today, the 91th anniversary of May Fourth, when the attitudes of China’s new youth are on the minds of many. (Btw, I wrote about the 90th anniversary here.)


如果你看得懂中文, here’s a quick link to this Chinese translation of my interview with Daniel A. Bell on the film ‘Confucius’. The translation is by Professor Wu Wanwei of Wuhan University, and appears on the website Confucius 2000 (as if one Confucius wasn’t enough…). My thanks once more to Professors Wu and Bell.

« Older entries