In the wake of China’s opening up, Chen Handong, a wealthy, hedonistic Beijing businessman from an elite cadre family meets and falls in love with Lan Yu, a first-year college student from the far northwest. What begins as a sexual dalliance quickly escalates into a passionate, frantic, and bewildering love affair. Chen, a lover of extravagance, high-end restaurants, and sexual conquest of both women and men, finds himself falling in love with a man 10 years his junior.
Chen’s ultra-elite status provides a buffer between him and the political climate of the 1980s, but Lan, as a struggling student, is swept up in the drama of first protest and the repression that ended that decade. Representative of a generation of optimistic youths, Lan joins his classmates, as well as millions of members of varied urban social groups, in participating in the 1989 demonstrations calling for an end to government corruption and greater political freedom. He is, more than that, presented as having witnessed in the wee hours of the morning what became known as the “June 4th Massacre” in Tiananmen Square. Fortunately, unlike fellow protesters slain by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, Lan survives the killings.
Although Chen is aware of Beijing’s burgeoning underground gay scene, Lan and Chen are largely alone in their secret relationship. Lan, for one, is content with not defining his sexual orientation, and yet the stigma associated with homosexuality, the demands of his high-profile job, and his conviction that homosexuality is a mental disorder convince Chen that his gay relationships were merely a phase. Pressured to meet his parents’ demands for marriage to the opposite sex and continuation of the family line, Chen tries to suppress his love for Lan.
Over the course of their eight-year relationship, Chen and Lan face a wide range of obstacles from the death of parents to dismissal from work on charges of “hooliganism” (a euphemism for homosexual behavior) to imprisonment for corruption. In his succinct and thought-provoking epilogue to the book, Singapore-based literary scholar Petrus Liu remarks on the “radical generalizability” of the novel’s setting: it tells a tale, he says, could have taken place anywhere, meaning that the setting is not central to the narrative. While I agree that at times the locale — Beijing — is less important than the love story itself, ultimately societal attitudes toward queerness, shifting economic and political tides in reform-era China, and government repression are constant presences in the characters’ lives. Disillusionment with capitalism — the sense of moral loss and displacement in a fierce market-driven economy — shaped the social milieu of many places during the final years of the century. Yet, these factors were particularly palpable in China and anchor the book in a particular historical moment.
This aspect of the story line also makes Beijing Comrades a powerful critique of China’s post-socialist economic boom. For much of the novel, Chen represents the prodigal, immoral result of unfettered economic growth while Lan embodies innocence, purity, and authenticity. Over the course of their relationship, Chen realizes that what matters in life is not the brand of his car or the size of his house, but the ardor and tenderness he shares with Lan. I will not reveal the book’s ending, but it is one that will surprise some but strike others — including regular readers of LARB who remember the claims made in Laura Goode’s “Dead or Straight: The Conundrum of the Lesbian Coming-of-Age Story” — as conforming to one standard LGTBQ literary pattern.
More than just a beautiful story and profound exploration of sexuality, this English translation of Beijing Comrades owes much of its success to the skill of the translator, Scott E. Myers. The novel moves seamlessly from humor to frantic passion to sorrow, and Myers’s use of language captures these disparate emotions perfectly. What’s more, Myers manages to synthesize three separate versions of the novel — created with varying degrees of censorship for different audiences — into one text that retains the best aspects of earlier iterations.
Finally, it is worth noting that the identity and life story of the book’s author remain largely unknown. While some have speculated that Bei Tong is the husband of a famous queer activist, Myers and others suggest that she is in fact a woman. Still other fans of the book argue that Bei Tong is the straight wife of a gay man, but this is entirely speculative. In his opening comments to the novel, Myers rightly asks what effect knowing Bei Tong’s identity might have on our reading of the story and whether this would undermine, for some, the authenticity of her authorial voice? These questions remain unanswered, but they, like the haunting story itself, leave the reader with much to think about.
Sarah Mellors is a doctoral student in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. Find her on Twitter at @s_mellors.