Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong

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I began reading Beijing Comrades on my computer, scrolling down through four hundred electronic pages. I’ve never done this before with a book—I insist on turning pages and feeling flimsy paper under my fingers. It is a strange sensation, moving through a story without feeling the pages move from one hand to the next. I filled a parallel Word document with notes, unable to scribble in the margins or dog-ear pages. I would say none of this matters, except that this is how the novel was first published: online, read as a two-dimensional scroll.

The author is a mystery—Bei Tong an untraceable username-turned-pseudonym that doesn’t reveal any gender identity. Translator Scott Myers uses the feminine pronoun in his introduction to the book, so I will, too. She is open about her motivation for writing Beijing Comrades: alone in New York, depressed, reading a lot of online gay erotica, she was convinced she could write better stories. In the English language text of Beijing Comrades, Myers pulls from three related but independent original texts, cutting and pasting them together. There are three distinct Chinese-language editions: the 1998 Chinese text published online, a cleaned-up 2002 adaptation published in Taiwan, and the rewritten edition Bei Tong attempted to publish in China shortly thereafter. The project failed due to state censorship. The resulting translated novel is an uneven and exciting hybrid.

Beijing Comrades recounts the torrid and tragic love life of Chen Hangdong, a driven, arrogant businessman with an insatiable appetite for power and control. He sleeps with men and women alike without considering the consequence as he takes advantage of a liberalizing China. Driven by a desire for control and ownership, Chen Handong gets what he wants—and what he wants is no attachment. He takes pleasure in taking over other bodies. He lies often and well, most of all to himself. This works well for a while. Throughout his twenties he takes and takes, acquiring wealth, property and lovers. At times he seems like a puppeteer, in constant control of the many moving pieces he manipulates.

This control falls to pieces when he meets Lan Yu. A student seven or eight years his junior, Lan Yu was supposed to be another one-night stand, a teenage boy strapped for cash. Lan Yu destabilizes the ease with which Handong uses the city as his playground and people as his playthings. He forces Handong to reconcile with what he cannot control: the moments when desire extends beyond the physical and into the muddier territory of the heart. Through their relationship Handong encounters death, love, and social unrest; each causes him discomfort, recasting his glorious unfettered world as something fragile. Lan Yu becomes more of a lover than a plaything.

Although it’s a work of fiction, Beijing Comrades reads like a memoir. The tone is frank and honest, the sentences short and clear, like a story recounted over cold beers late into the night:

It was one of those rare mornings when Lan Yu and I awoke in the same bed. We were at Tivoli. He had told me the previous night that he was looking forward to sleeping in late because he didn’t have to be at work until eleven. I woke up before him and got out of bed to look out the window at the beautiful fall scenery. Then I turned back toward the bed to look at Lan Yu, who was still asleep on his stomach. He loved that position. Right cheek pushed up against the bedsheet-covered mattress, a tiny pool of spit quivered in the lower corner of his mouth. He rolled onto his back, using his foot to push the blanket down to the base of the bed, and I noticed that the underwear he’d put on before going to sleep had somehow disappeared. He was naked now except for the calm serenity that enveloped him after the untamed frenzy of our lovemaking the night before. For a long time I stood there by the window, scrutinizing him and wondering if I was really going to do what I thought I was going to do. Quietly I stepped across the floor back to the side of the bed and gently pulled the blanket up to his chin.

Thoughts raced through my mind as I looked down at him. Did I really want nothing more from him than his body? Was I with him for no other reason than to satisfy my sexual desires? If I ended our relationship, would I be losing anything?

Bei Tong wastes no words softening the story. It all moves fast. Explicit, erotic scenes accelerate the text, breaking up the internal monologues with intense, charged moments. The erotic scenes articulate Handong’s inner conflict with clarity and edge. These sex scenes render tangible the emotional rollercoaster of maintaining a private identity in an unsympathetic public world. Handong recounts how “words were dangerous. Anytime we used them, they only threatened the fragile simplicity of the casual relationship we had.” The exchange of words recognizes the world beyond the body, beyond the safety and pleasure of a shared bed. By taking the reader into these spaces in intense detail, Bei Tong insists on the importance of the sex itself in navigating and living the conflict between private and public lives. Unable to solidify their relationship with language, Lan Yu and Handong fuck.

Bei Tong’s text has been deemed dangerous and unfit for publication in its original language. Whether its refusal in China stems from its depiction of a gay relationship or from the erotic passages is unclear—both are plausible reasons. But the underlying fear of how her words may threaten the apparent simplicity and inevitability of straight, clean public life is the book’s most dangerous quality.

What Handong wants, and what he wants to want, are not the same, and cannot coexist. He believes he can keep sex and identity separate; that he can sleep with men and live a conventional married-with-kids life. As much as the narrator might want to divorce sex from identity and identity from sex, he cannot. His desire takes him to a place where he does not want to be. Beijing Comrades forces the reader to reimagine neat categories as something complex and slippery.

In a translated text, the narrative framework may remain the same, but the experience of reading undergoes a fundamental change because it is inextricably tied to language, which is fettered to politics and history. In translating Beijing Comrades, Scott Myers takes advantage of what another language offers: the book can now be published, printed, and distributed to bookstores and libraries. In China, a piece of online erotica could be written off as marginal. But to print the novel assigns it value. The stories behind the publication of Beijing Comrades reveal a wary relationship between texts and societies. Only its English-language edition can the novel be integrated into the printed canon. Translating Beijing Comrades into English gives it an escape route. Translation liberates the story.

Nina Sparling is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. More from this author →