Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Visual by Shreya Sharma
Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong is a bold, devastating, and unflinchingly honest tale of an obsessive and tumultuous relationship between two men, Handong and Lan Yu, that unfolds in the backdrop of China’s rapidly changing political terrain. First published anonymously in 1998 on an internet forum, the book has since then gained a cultural and political significance so great, it has inspired a generation of Chinese queer literature and film. This level of influence and prestige is not unfounded, the novel’s exploration of political aspirations, frustrations, cultural demands, and queer assertations has contributed to a unique and revolutionary account of Queer life.
Written during China’s reformist era, the imprint of economic and social changes of the time on the narrative is profoundly visible. Handong, who is the son of well-off and well-connected communist party cadres, is a businessman who lives for profit and makes the most of the opening of the Chinese economy. In sharp contrast to him is Lan Yu, a migrant student who, although believes in hard work, values human relationships more than money. This dichotomy between love and money is a constant issue between the two and seems to represent the opposing beliefs of a time when economic opportunities were opening but not without their own trials. A prevailing sense of economic anxiety is also present in the way Handong describes the city of Beijing as always buzzing with life and its people as always seeming to be going somewhere- a city on the run.
Moreover, the politics of the novel does not shy away from addressing the pro-democracy protests that spread across China in the ’80s and their culmination in the Tiananmen Square massacre. By making Lan Yu a part of the movement, albeit a less enthusiastic participant, Bei Tong makes the definite choice of politicizing their characters. Handong is critical of Lan Yu’s involvement and tries to dissuade him from joining the crowds. This is largely because Handong considers himself above or at least distant from such “youthful” expressions. Either way, once again, the difference between the characters and their social standing is made evident.
Handong and Lan Yu’s relationship also serves as evidence of the cultural demands placed on men and how masculinity evolves with respect to queerness. Handong loves Lan Yu and wishes to spend his life with him, but he is also aware that he can’t do so while continuing to interact with society as a “straight” man. He is immensely aware of his responsibilities as his family’s only son and despite his numerous escapades with men, he feels the need to get married to a woman and raise a family. Handong even goes as far as to project this “need” for a family onto Lan Yu and forces him to get conversion therapy, only stopping when he feels there is an acute danger to Lan Yu.
Handong, who seems to feel inadequate in his masculinity, makes up for it through his sexual adventures. He doesn’t like to be penetrated, he prefers to be the penetrator, for what turns him on is his partner’s “act of submission”- be it a male or a female partner. This insecurity in his masculinity is supplemented by acute internalized homophobia. He constantly battles with his desire for Lan Yu and tries to sabotage their relationship with meaningless arguments and affairs, only to come back to him in the end. He also meets, eats, and sleeps with numerous women, but by his own admission will never feel the same way for them as he does for Lan Yu. These complex emotions are present throughout the story in varying degrees as Handong struggles to cope with them.
Another interesting aspect of the novel is the myriad of Queer characters Bei Tong introduces to us. We meet handsome singers, submissive drummers, effeminate escorts, and rich businessmen who consider homosexuality a “hobby”. There are allusions made to the existence of Queer clubs and meetings, although our characters never find themselves in one. Handong never admits his sexuality for he “doesn’t believe in labels” whereas Lan Yu is more accepting of his identity, although even he doesn’t particularly adopt any label. In a way, the queer identities present are fluid. Critics often argue that Beijing Comrades makes for a negative representation of Queer identity. And while the claim isn’t necessarily false it can be argued that instead of categorizing the novel’s representation into fixed boxes of right and wrong one should consider it as a complex representation that makes for a distinctive account of Queer life.
Apart from the rich and elaborate narrative, what adds to the immense significance of Beijing Comrades is its mysterious author. Bei Tong’s identity, even after 23 years of publication, remains a secret. In this way, the novel is also an experiment in authorial intent. The situation begs us to ask how important knowing the author’s identity is and how, if at all, it would change our understanding of the novel. In his seminal essay on Beijing Comrades, Petrus Liu remarked that the novel does not possess one author. Since it was written on an internet forum, the feedback and ideas of commenters were incorporated by the elusive Bei Tong and the end product thus resembles a community project.
Additionally, Scott Myers, who is responsible for the English translation tells us in his note that the English novel has no single mandarin source since Bei Tong added several parts for the sole purpose of the translation. Several other manuscripts of Beijing Comrades exist- some without the sex scenes and some censored for publication in the Chinese mainland. This arguably makes the novel a living text.
Beijing Comrades’ clever exploration of social-political developments of a nation, conceptions of masculinity, and queer expressions through the turbulent and passionate affair of Handong and Lan Yu is rightfully one of the most important Chinese queer tales of our times. To the Non-Chinese reader, it serves as an introduction to sexual diversity in the non-west, and to the Chinese reader, it is a chronicle of histories. Despite debates around its nature and quality of representation, the novel is a literary masterpiece and should be considered so for ages to come.