Being Gay in China, Circa 1987

Mid-way through Bei Tong’s unforgettable novel, Beijing Comrades, you will encounter a rather remarkable scene between the main character/narrator, Hangdong, and his mother, who has discovered that her son has been having a relationship with another man. Hangdong’s mother wants to see her son—who is a successful businessman in his early thirties—married. This is how Hangdong responds to her: “Listen, Ma. You’ve misunderstood! What you don’t know is that this kind of thing is a big trend for rich people…. I mean, some people actually compete with one another to see who can have the most fun! But nobody takes it seriously. You just get a guy and go do stuff…. Anyway, I’m over it now, so it doesn’t even matter…. I’m into horse racing now. I mean, it’s kind of the same thing. It’s just a hobby.”

It’s a ludicrous scene in an often-magnificent novel about being gay in China thirty years ago. Hangdong has multiple relationships with men and women, described as passionately and as graphically as anything I have read in decades. I’m reminded of the novels of Henry Miller and William Burroughs I read back in the 1950s after they were first published legally in the United States. The sex scenes in Bei Tong’s novel are that graphic, with equal passion on Hangdong’s part whether they involve men or women. No surprise then that he marries Lin Ping, a woman he has lusted over since the moment he first saw her. The move appeases his mother, and for just a little longer it appears as if Hangdong might genuinely be bisexual. “I liked men because of their masculinity, and women because of their femininity.”

Hangdong relates his story from Vancouver, retrospectively, beginning with his growing attachment to Lan Yu, a poor university student, who is ten or twelve years younger. Lan Yu’s poverty and Hangdong’s vast resources immediately become part of the calculus. One of beijingcomradesHangdong’s closest friends, who is straight, tells him about the poor student, implying that any relationship that develops between the two of them will largely be economic. But—as their relationship grows during its early years—Lan Yu never asks for money and refuses to spend the generous amounts Hangdong insists that he take. Lan Yu continues to wear the same threadbare shirt whenever they are together, seemingly unimpressed with the older man’s riches. This is significant, a clear indication that he cannot be bought, and much later in the story when their roles are much more equal, Lan Yu is the one who will be in control.

The background details of their relationship are rich with memorable details. Initially, Hangdong is mostly interested in going to clubs, in flashy cars and watching porno, and having multiple relationships. He’s also constantly trying to convince himself that he is normal, that Lan Yu is a temporary attraction. Then, the events at Tian’anmen Square take place, jolting the younger man into a newfound maturity. Lan Yu went to the square with other students, and when Hangdong finds him he is covered with blood but alive. Their relationship grows. It is no longer simply sex, but love. Moreover, the younger man has taught the older one compassion. Sadly, it is at this place that Hangdong’s mother increases her pressure on her son to get married, and after that pressure he meets and believes he has fallen in love with Lin Ping.

The relationship between the two men falls apart soon after as Hangdong—believing he has the younger man’s best interest—tries to convince Lan Yu that they are both straight, even though the younger man has never had relationships with women and shows no interest in them. Worse (in what is truly the saddest part of the novel), Hangdong seeks the advice of a psychiatrist who tells him that he is heterosexual but Lan Yu is homosexual. The psychiatrist advises the younger man to undergo hormonal injections and, if necessary, electroshock to cure him of his homosexuality. Soon afterwards, Hangdong breaks off their relationship and marries Lin Ping.

Everything I have written about thus far takes place in, roughly, the first half of the Beijing Comrades. Although the reader knows that Hangdong is recalling his early life from Vancouver (and has married a second time), there is little to indicate why he has ended up there. By the end of the novel, those changes will be explained, but a discussion of Bei Tong’s novel would be incomplete without referring to other matters. First, the author is a woman, not a man, as you might have assumed from what I have already said. I would never have guessed this if Scott E. Myers didn’t explain this in his note at the beginning of the text.

Moreover, there are several versions of the text to consider. The first was published online, in 1998, as an enovel, as “Beijing Story by Beijing Comrade.” The author was assumed by some readers to be a man, though a the producers of a 2001 “film adaptation of the novel, speak unequivocally of Bei Tong using feminine pronouns.” Then there’s the 2002 publication of the novel, in Taiwan, as an edited (presumably censored) text. And now, Myer’s translation, which he says restores all of the erotic passages. Myers was put in touch with Bei Tong by the filmmakers of the movie version, and notes “the long course of our communication.” Presumably, he has not met or spoken to Bei Tong; at least he does not mention this. Thus, my question: is there any genuine proof that Bei Tong is a woman?

All of this is quite curious, in part because of the contextual essay (“From Identity to Social Protest: The Cultural Politics of Beijing Comrades”), by Petrus Liu, at the conclusion of the book. Because of the novel’s multiple versions, Liu refers to the work as an “authorless” text, but his reason for saying that may be because the writer was/is a woman and not a man. Liu further refers to the novel’s “intricately detailed and candid details of gay sex,” yet nowhere does he address the gender of the author of the work, i.e., female, not male. As a queer text, might this fact be important, or is the normative issue unimportant except to heterosexual readers?

I have addressed these issues because of my genuine appreciation for Beijing Comrades, the most passionate account of gay sexuality that I have ever encountered. The graphic sex will not be for all readers but the tenderness of Hangdong and Lan Yu’s love for each other is a wonder. And, finally, it should be said that although Myers’ translation is gorgeous, often beautiful, it is full of strange irregularities with pronouns and case.

Bei Tong: Beijing Comrades

Trans. by Scott E. Myers

Feminist Press, 404 pp., $16.95


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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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