Beijing Comrades, by Bei Tong
Translated by Scott E. Myers
Publisher: The Feminist Press
Release Date: March 15, 2016
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
When Handong, a ruthless and wealthy businessman, is introduced to Lan Yu, a naïve, working-class architectural student—the attraction is all consuming.
Arrogant and privileged, Handong is unsettled by this desire, while Lan Yu quietly submits. Despite divergent lives, the two men spend their nights together, establishing a deep connection. When loyalties are tested, Handong is left questioning his secrets, his choices, and his very identity.
Beijing Comrades is the story of a torrid love affair set against the sociopolitical unrest of late-eighties China. Due to its depiction of gay sexuality and its critique of the totalitarian government, it was originally published anonymously on an underground gay website within mainland China. This riveting and heartbreaking novel, circulated throughout China in 1998, quickly developed a cult following, and remains a central work of queer literature from the People’s Republic of China. This is the first English-language translation of Beijing Comrades.
If you haven’t read the blurb, please do 😉 It will give you a short overview about the book and its one-of-a-kind history.
Beijing Comrade is a fascinating story because of it’s authentic portrait of Chinese gay culture in the 90s and I am sure that many of its themes still have validity today.
As someone who grew up in a Western culture, lived two years in Macao, and now studies Sinology (China studies), I’m particularly interested in how life is and was for LGBTQIA people in a country with a complete different background than mine and I jumped at the chance to read this book when the first English translation was available in March this year. Beijing Comrades was not only entertaining to read but I took a lot of information and comprehension from it.
I think it’s really interesting how many problems and prejudices gay people (I am consciously not talking about LGBTQIA here, because the protagonist in this book is gay and I am sure that experiences for, i.e., transgender people are different) face that are quite similar to our own Western experience but are on the other hand rooted in a different origin. I grant that probably more or less all over the world people always feared and rejected people who were different and they didn’t understand, but while in Western culture a lot of the problems and rejection root in religion it does not so in China.
China is, to me, a very contradicting country. Apart from Korea, I can’t think of many countries that have changed so much over such a short time period, yet stayed the same in other aspects. Family is China’s cornerstone. It seems there is nothing quite as important. Coming from a Confucian background, it is moreover expected from the children to honour and please their parents. The highest goals are to marry, have children, take care of the parents, and have a good job and reputation.
You probably already see the problem with that. Now bring into account China’s (now abandoned) 1-child policy and you can imagine how much more pressure lies on the only-child.
Beijing Comrade shows how this view on family and the relations between parents and child have a huge impact on gay men, in this case on Handong and his lover Lan Yu.
This book is not a romance, although it tells a love story. Handong’s and Lan Yu’s love story is as beautiful as it is ugly, as hopeful as it is hopeless. Handong is, especially in the first part of the book, not a very likeable character and remains egotistic over a long time, maybe even until the end. He changes a lot though and regarding character study and evolution this book has a lot to offer.
When describing the book, I always want to say that it’s very Chinese. But what does that even mean? Is there a Chinese way? I’m not a fan of stereotypes, so I am aware of the problem, of generalising.
I still want to give some examples what I mean with this and what is portrayed in this book.
There is, of course, the above mentioned important role of family. Above that, I’d say, in comparison to Western culture, it seems that ethics like honesty, faithfulness, and integrity are of lesser importance. It is way more important how things look like than how they really are, and help is taken in any form possible. It’s a constant bargaining in favours and being connected to important people is an advantage that is used for personal gain and protection.
What you can expect from Beijing Comrades – should you be as interested in the topic as I am and want to spent 15 bucks on a paperback – is not only a view into Chinese gay culture and society but also love, sex, and betrayal. You will of course be confronted with homophobia (also internalised) and wrong assumptions about homosexuality in general.
I found it a bit hard to rate this book because how do we rate cultural heritage, a work that on its own is important and has influenced many people in China? I think the translator did a brilliant job. I think this book is a bit long and repetitive and therefore I’m rating it with 4 stars.
Bei Tong is the anonymous author of Beijing Comrades. The pseudonymous author, whose real-world identity has been a subject of debate since the story was first published on a gay Chinese website over a decade ago, is known variously as Beijing Comrade, Beijing Tongzhi, Xiao He, and Miss Wang.