On September 22, 1998, the first installment of a gay erotic novel appeared on the now-defunct website Chinese Men's and Boys' Paradise (Zhongguo nanren nanhai tiantang). The book—originally called Dalu gushi (A Story From the Mainland)—quickly gained cult fame in China's gay community. It was one of (if not the) first self-reflexively gay novels to be published in any form in mainland China, as well as the first Chinese novel to be written natively on the Internet. It would go on to be adapted into a movie by Stanley Kwan in 2001 and published in an edited print version in Taiwan in 2002. This month, thanks to the Feminist Press, it is about to be published for the first time in English, under the title Beijing Comrades. Yet to this day, the true author—variously referred to as Bei Tong, Miss Wang, Beijing Comrade, Ling-Hui, and Xiao He—remains a mystery.
Beijing Comrades tells the story of Handong, a businessman with an outsized ego and sexual appetite, and his unexpected love affair with Lan Yu, a young man from the provinces who has come to the city to study architecture. Set against the cultural and political upheavals in China in the late 80s and early 90s, the narrative is at once a story about love, loss, and neoliberal capitalism. Kait Heacock, the publicist for the Feminist Press, said that the Feminist Press was interested in the book because "it speaks to our mission of publishing work that has been silenced." Moreover, now that Fifty Shades of Grey has cracked the door for sexual work to cross over into the mainstream, they were excited to be publishing Chinese erotica for the first time.
In an article appended to the back of TFP's new edition, scholar Petrus Liu, an associate literature professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, wrote that Beijing Comrades "put[s] to rest, once and for all, the myth that gay sex remains an unspeakable topic in the PRC's [People's Republic of China's] 'traditional' culture."
Indeed, unlike E.L. James's notoriously drawn-out first novel, there are multiple sexual encounters within just the first 50 pages of the book, and the text doesn't shy away from the details. Take, for example, this description of Handong and Lan Yu's second meeting:
I kissed him with feverish excitement, pressing my body against his and travelling the length of his back with my hands. Gripping his shoulders, then his arms, I slowly lowered myself to the floor, pausing to kiss his chest, his stomach, his hands and fingers, until finally I was on my knees and his cock was in my mouth. I squeezed his ass, so firm and compact… then tried to put a finger inside. He trembled slightly but didn't stop me. When I went in a little deeper he pulled back and hunched over, holding the back of my head for balance as if he was about to fall.
Due to the subject matter, Beijing Comrades has never been published in print in mainland China. "Very little gay fiction has actually been published in China," said Scott Myers, the translator and driving force behind the new edition. However, "by the mid- to late-1980s, it was possible for writers to experiment with avant garde forms and countercultural creative expressions." These works often had to find publishers elsewhere, though, as was the case with queer writer and filmmaker Cui Zi'en, whose novels were published in Hong Kong. When books with queer content were published in China, said Professor Liu in an interview, they tended towards academic texts or novels that were never explicitly labeled as "gay."
"When [Beijing Comrades] came out, there was simply nothing like it in the Chinese language," Liu said. It became a touchstone for a generation of queer men, who would use the names of the characters as slang for different types of guys. The book didn't create same-sex desire in China, obviously, but it did promote an understanding of homosexuality as an identity one could organize a community around. In the words of Professor Liu, it "gave a voice to a group, and also to social issues that couldn't be articulated before this particular language was made available."
Today the book is mainly remembered through Stanley Kwan's blockbuster film Lan Yu, according to Xiaogang Wei, a filmmaker and LGBT rights activist in Beijing. "The movie means a lot in Chinese society," said Wei. "Even though they didn't show it in the cinema, people still found a way to watch."
Given its nearly two decades of significance, then, the continued mystery surrounding the author of Beijing Comrades is quite surprising. Like Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose name, gender, and identity are actively debated online, Bei Tong remains anonymous. In his "Translator's Note," Myers mentions three commonly discussed possibilities. First, that the author is a tongqi, a "heterosexual woman with the misfortune of unknowingly marrying a gay man." Second, that the author is Wang Xiaobo, the "late husband of prominent sociologist, queer activist, and public intellectual Li Yinhe." And third, that the author was a female friend of a real-life couple who asked her to document their story online.
When interviewed, Myers said he thought that the author (whom he refers to as Bei Tong) is likely a woman. Although they've never met or spoken, after nearly six years of occasional correspondence (primarily over email, occasionally via snail mail), he said, "I don't have any doubt whatsoever" that he has been corresponding with the real author. As Myers writes in his postscript, she told him she was living in New York at the time she wrote the novel, up near Columbia University. Myers speculates that she may have been a foreign exchange student.
"She spent all of her days chatting with friends online and reading graphic [gay] porn fiction," he said. "She decided she could write something better. Why she felt that need, I don't know."
Although a more widespread phenomenon in Japan, there is a small subculture of women, called funü, who write and read gay erotic fiction in China. According to Xiaogang Wei, funü literally means "rotten women," but he said the term is similar to "fag hag," although the Chinese version is different in that these women may or may not actually know gay men in real life.
Ling Yang is an assistant professor in the department of Chinese at Xiamen University in Fujian, where she has studied and written extensively about funü. Its central element, she said, is the production and consumption of "Boys' Love (BL)," which she defined as "a genre of male–male romance written mostly by and for women"—although she is quick to point out that it is not only women who enjoy these stories, and among those who do, not all are heterosexual.
When Beijing Comrades was written, funü was just catching on in China. Yang said that the book has "great historical significance" but questioned its place in funü subculture. "I personally would not consider it a typical BL narrative," she said in an email interview. She listed a number of reasons for this, including the fact that Handong and Lan Yu's relationship is not exclusive (and in particular, that Handong continues to enjoy sleeping with women after they meet), and that "there is a streak of male chauvinism in [Beijing Comrades] that will definitely upset hardcore funü, as many of them have a strong feminist consciousness." For all of these reasons, Yang said she also "seriously doubt[s] that the author is a woman."
If women didn't sometimes write chauvinistic books, Ann Coulter wouldn't have a career. Still, the misogyny makes the book somewhat of an odd duck on the Feminist Press's publishing list. Almost all of the female characters in the book receive short shrift, and most are positioned as villains (inasmuch as Beijing Comrades has individual villains). For example, Lin Ping—Lan Yu's main rival for Handong's affections—is introduced by Handong as "Satan, a bewitching demon luring me to ruin." Although Handong goes on to say that he himself was the true demon, Lin Ping is variously shown as histrionic, materialistic, calculating, and simply a body to be objectified—a panoply of sexist stereotypes.
Moreover, Handong's overall understanding of his own sexuality is rooted in a kind of men-are-from-Mars/women-are-from-hell binary. As he puts it early in the book:
That, I think, is the difference between men and women. When a woman has sex with you, it's because of something you have – genius, money, or whatever – or because they want to find someone who will let them be a parasite forever… But when men have sex there's no rhyme or reason. They're just satisfying a primitive need.
While this idea of sexuality is complicated over the course of the text, the base misogyny is never called out as such.
Myers, the translator, said he was nervous about how the Feminist Press would perceive the book's gender politics. "It's very hard to say what the Feminist Press's motivations were in taking it," he said.
Lauren Hook, the editor who handled Beijing Comrades for the Feminist Press, agreed that the text was not "something that we typically publish," but she said that the press found value in bringing forward an underground text that had expanded a globalized understanding of sexuality. And in an age when queer publishing is drying up, Beijing Comrades may have continued to exist only in digital form were it not for the Feminist Press.
Liu, who wrote the article published at the end of the new version, voiced a similar argument. "I think the fact that you have a candid description and a reflection on human sexuality makes it a feminist work," he said simply. Besides, he argued, there is a difference between a book that depicts misogyny and a book that is misogynist.
At the end of the day, Liu believes, what's most important about the book is not who the author was, or the politics of the text itself, but the place it holds in Chinese society. "It matters less who wrote it than who read it," he said. The text has been used for feminist purposes—to expand what is speakable, thinkable, and doable in the realm of human sexuality in China. Bei Tong's intentions, identity, or ideology come second to those aims.
It's still possible that Tong could come forward, though Myers said that she's not interested in doing so. In fact, it's now been over a year since she responded to any kind of correspondence whatsoever. Tong might be afraid of political or personal reprisals, or embarrassed to have written gay erotica, or she might simply not want to be at the center of media attention. Or, perhaps, she wants Beijing Comrades to stand on its own before a new audience, much as it did the first time she published it anonymously.