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Beijing Comrades: A Torrid Chinese Love Affair Translated

Beijing Comrades: A Torrid Chinese Love Affair Translated


In this central work of queer Chinese literature, the story of a torrid love affair between wealthy businessman Handong and naive student Lan Yu is set against the political unrest of the 1980s. Bei Tong is the anonymous author of Beijing Comrades, and his true identity has been a subject of debate since the work was first published on a gay Chinese Web site in 1998 and quickly earned a devoted following. The book, excerpted here, is now translated into English for the first time by Scott E. Myers.

By May that year, social tensions were escalating. The democracy movement swept through universities and surrounding neighborhoods like wildfire, not only in Beijing but in hundreds of cities across China. At the height of the protests, students and workers were erecting barricades to hold back People's Liberation Army troops. The army circled the city to beat back demonstrators, who had come together to express their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform and quickly numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

On April 27 Lan Yu abruptly announced that he and his classmates were planning a student walkout. On May 13 he informed me that there was going to be a hunger strike. He bubbled over with excitement as he spoke.

"Are you guys out of your fucking minds?" I asked, turning a corner in the Xuanwumen District. We were in the car on our way to dinner. "Just not happy with things being OK the way they are, huh?" I looked to my right and saw Lan Yu in the passenger seat, scowling at me like a kid who'd just been scolded.

"You used to be a student, Handong. You of all people should understand this!"

"Listen," I said. "If students are really that concerned about the nation, they should just keep studying. And us businessmen should just keep doing business."

Lan Yu raised his hands in exasperation. "People like you are parasites of the nation!" he shouted, though not without the faintest hint of irony in his voice, as if he knew he was parodying an outdated revolutionary language.

"Well, fortunately for me this isn't the Cultural Revolution. If we were back in those days, you'd probably ferret me out and parade me through the streets for a public denunciation! Sorry, mister, this is 1989, not '69!" I laughed.

He smiled and kissed my right hand, which he'd been holding in his lap. My eyes were glued to the road in front of me, but I could feel his gaze on my face.

"Hey," I continued, "just don't get sucked in too deep, OK? Something bad could happen. I mean, really, look at the Cultural Revolution. What good came of that?"

"I know," he said. "I won't. I'm not even participating in the hunger strike. I'm just a sympathizer." He lifted my hand and pressed it against his cheek.

And so it was that all across Beijing, students were "making revolution." According to Lan Yu, however, some students were less interested in making revolution than in doing their own thing. He told me there were three distinct "parties" on campus that benefited from the student walkout.

The first were the "Trotskyites." They weren't really Trotskyites. They were just called that because, in Chinese, "Trotsky Party" sounded like "TOEFL Party." Those were the TOEFL maniacs, the students who spent all their free time studying for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, usually to get into a good study-abroad or graduate program. Relieved of their class duties, members of the Trotsky Party were free to spend the walkout studying for their impending English exams.

The second group of opportunists was the "Mah-jongg Party"--the students who would be happy to do nothing but play mah-jongg all day. So when the revolution came, that was what they did.

And finally there was the "Butterfly and Mandarin Duck Party." Those were the couples who were more than happy to have additional time to gaze into each other's eyes.

I tried to make Lan Yu confess he was part of the Butterfly and Mandarin Duck Party, but he insisted he wasn't. That party, he told me, was strictly for "serious" couples. I didn't say anything, but it wasn't lost on me that he obviously felt that what we had was nothing more than a secret pleasure stolen in the night.

The truth was that what we called ourselves didn't matter anymore. The only thing that mattered was that we were together nearly every day at this point. When we weren't in bed, most of our time was spent dining in restaurants. I was cautious about this latter activity, though, frequently changing locations so we wouldn't be seen together often.

I knew a few gay spots, but never took him to any. There were no real gay bars in Beijing in those days, just private parties and a few hotels whose bars were known to be gay meeting points. None of the bars openly called themselves gay, but it was common knowledge that many of the patrons were. To me, taking Lan Yu to these places was out of the question. He was like a perfect piece of jade: flawless, unblemished. Taking him out would have been tantamount to inviting other guys to go after him.

One night we went to a karaoke bar where the working girls provided the "three accompaniments." The first accompaniment referred to chatting, the second to singing, and the third to drinking or fucking, depending on the girl's character and which bar you happened to be at. I deliberately chose a very innocent-looking girl to accompany Lan Yu, and she spent the evening chatting, singing, and drinking with him. When we stepped out of the bar and into the street, I smiled and poked him in the ribcage.

"What's the matter? Did she scare you?"

"No, I just wasn't into her."

"You need to practice being with girls!" I said with a laugh, placing emphasis on the word girls as if this would somehow make him see the obviousness of what I was saying. "Otherwise, how are you going to find a wife?"

Lan Yu shoved his hands in his pockets and pinned his eyes to the sidewalk before us. I knew him well enough to know what silence meant. He was upset.

"Look," I continued, "you're young now, but pretty soon you're going to have to start thinking about this!"

Abruptly, he halted on the sidewalk and gripped my shoulder. "Why do we have to get married?" he asked in a fraught voice. "Aren't things fine the way they are now? What's wrong with what we have?"

I gave him a conciliatory smile but didn't say anything in response. I knew exactly what was wrong with what we had. But I didn't tell him because I didn't want to fight about it, especially not in public.

"Do you want to get married?" he continued.

"Of course I do!" I laughed. "Maybe I'll go out and find a nice little lady this weekend!" He was visibly hurt by my flippant comment, but I just didn't feel like getting into it. It was my fault for having brought up marriage to begin with.

It was past midnight when we got to the car, which I'd parked in an open lot on the roof of a building. It was dark and quiet, and our footsteps knocked loudly on the concrete rooftop. The only light was a flickering glow emanating from the window of a tiny Public Security booth perched near the top of the staircase. Inside, a guard sat fast asleep in front of a small black-and-white TV. A comedic performance was playing, and soft peals of audience laughter erupted periodically and floated into the night sky. Apart from the three of us, there wasn't a soul around.

I couldn't see Lan Yu's face clearly in the dark, but I could sense that there was something wrong. He stopped abruptly and turned to face me.

"Handong," he said after taking a deep breath. "I'm not getting married. There's no turning back for me."

He stood close to me, so close that I could smell the familiar scent of his breath. The tension rose in my chest and I fought the urge to throw myself into his arms. I never would have thought I could have done this in public, but in one rapid motion I grabbed him and held him tight. There's no turning back for me either! I thought, though I couldn't bring myself to say the words.

I pulled him closer and pressed my lips against his, and I suddenly realized that this was the first time we had ever kissed in public. I remember thinking we should have been on a tropical beach, on the highest mountaintop, or in a beautiful clearing of trees. We should have been surrounded by a halo of sunshine. But there was only darkness. u

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