The Solution Is a Gay Socialist Utopia Built for Two

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Comrade is a loaded word. Tongzhi, literally “same aspiration,” was the appropriate term of address for an entire generation of Chinese, from influential Party officials and generals to ordinary mothers, street-sweepers, and butchers. Its usage signified membership in a shared, Communist dream of equality and progress. Sometime in the late-’80s, tongzhi took on a secondary meaning for a less public community. It began to mean “gay.”

Unlike many linguistic changes, this shift was deliberate. The new connotation was proposed by Edward Lam, one of the artist-activists who organized the first Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1989. In borrowing and reshaping tongzhi, with its suggestion of unity and shared purpose, they hoped to bring gay Chinese people out of the shadows and into the broader community. That same year, the Tiananmen protests began. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed. Tongzhi took off, but the broader community it once symbolized had fallen apart. You have to wonder if activists had begun to feel uneasy about the term by 1990, and the promises it seemed to make.

Among mainland China’s earliest, best known, and most influential contemporary gay novels, Beijing Comrades (originally called Beijing Story) is also China’s first known e-novel. Its pseudonymous author (here called Bei Tong, nothing more than a contraction of the book’s title, Beijing Tongzhi) published the narrative in segments incorporating the suggestions of online readers; the first installment went live in November of 1998, nearly a decade after Tiananmen. The result was a classic of queer consciousness-raising erotica.

It was also the beginning of a vogue. As the ’90s drew to a close, Internet literature — novels, stories, articles, and essays produced online — took off. While fan fiction and other forms of Internet literature (wangluo wenhua) enjoy popularity around the world, nothing compares to Chinese readers’ passion for the form at its height. By 2012, there were more Chinese reading online literature than doing online shopping.

The popularity of Internet literature was ostensibly driven by the threat of official print censorship. More likely it was the result of expanded Web access for a wide variety of readers and writers, communicating readily, quickly, and cheaply. Users’ efforts to create a peer-to-peer network were not so different from the motives of late-’80s gay activists working to establish a community of equals. As one early Internet writer noted, “The real significance of Internet literature is that it gives literature back to the people.”

Like the Gospels, a cultural touchstone of a different stripe, Beijing Story exists in several radically different versions. Despite its outsize popular influence — Beijing Comrades was also made into a 2001 movie by Stanley Kwan — the book has never been officially published in mainland China, or rendered into English. This translation is based on an expanded version prepared by Bei Tong in hopes of a state-sanctioned (guanfang) publication, although the state’s blessing — necessary for mainland publication — was ultimately withheld.

And like the Gospels, Beijing Comrades has its own apocrypha. “There are those who believe that she is a tongqi,” translator Scott E. Myers writes of the author, “a heterosexual woman with the misfortune of unknowingly marrying a gay man. Others suggest that he is novelist and essayist Wang Xiaobo” — despite the fact that Wang Xiaobo was dead when the novel was written in 1998.

There is also this particularly tantalizing explanation: Bei Tong, author of that enduring vision of gay male affection, may be a straight Chinese woman living overseas. (At minimum, a Chinese someone living overseas; Myers remains somewhat ecumenical.) Bored and aimless as a New York expat, Bei Tong has explained, “I immersed myself in the world of the Internet: playing chess, chatting online, surfing porn sites. When I read all the pornographic stories that were out there, my first thought was: F—! What the hell is this? I knew I could write something better.”

And then she did.

Our lovers don’t meet cute — they meet dismissive. Handong, the narrator, is a self-confessed “brat” making his vague fortune in business. Lan Yu, a Xinjiang kid working his way through college, is at first unimpressive: boyish, underdeveloped, with uncertain Mandarin and a “faint anxiety in his eyes.” “Don’t your parents give you money for school?” Handong asks during one of their first exchanges. The irony of the book’s title, at least in this translation, is soon apparent. Our titular lovers are not comrades at all, with the equality of income, status, and purpose that the term implies. Lan Yu asks for a job, and Handong thinks something could be arranged. In the morning, he leaves Lan Yu 1,000 yuan and a note to forget about working and focus on his studies. Lan Yu takes only half, and as a loan. He intends to make good.

Although the novel, in its earliest iteration, was written at the turn of the century, it is intended as a decade-sweeping period piece, beginning in the mercurial 1980s. Handong rhapsodizes on
the many distractions ushered in by the so-called age of reform, the era of primitive accumulation that had promised to transform China from an impoverished nation into a powerful one…In principle even those without powerful family backgrounds could jockey for successes never before thought possible. All you needed was some guts and determination and entry into the get-rich-quick class was yours for the taking.
The plot of Beijing Comrades is, in part, the story of Lan Yu’s self-making under Handong’s watchful eye. Lan Yu works a string of more or less menial jobs that span the range of his worlds: as a tutor, as a construction worker pulling 12-hour shifts in the summer, much to Handong’s amusement. “‘Five-hundred yuan a month!’ I repeated with a derisive laugh. ‘A motel hooker’s asking price is four times that!…Besides, what the hell kind of job is that?’”) Handong offers him instead a series of easy luxuries and interest-free loans, which Lan Yu virtuously resists.

Erotic fiction is a careful trick to manage: detailed enough to feel fresh and compelling, spare enough to feel — in the reader’s hands — participatory. The characters themselves, particularly Lan Yu, have the blank, Mad Libs quality of much romantic fiction. “He had the clean, soapy smell typical of young men,” Handong considers. “When I looked at his face, I saw not just a handsome young man, but the breathtaking power of youth.” In his afterword, Petrus Liu refers to Lan Yu, perhaps charitably, as a “role model of nonidentity.” Still, this too is the tactic of much romantic fiction, at least since Pamela and Pygmalion: as the audience imagines its personal Lan Yu, Handong shapes one in his own image. Handong’s “nefarious agenda,” as he playfully admits, is “to make [Lan Yu] shake off the cultural and intellectual arrogance of the new world and learn to enjoy the material pleasures of the new one.”

As Lan Yu holds firm, Handong begins to wonder “which emotion was stronger, my affection or my resentment.” Affection wins out, as it must. For Handong, Beijing Comrades is a story of slowly softening and falling in love. Although he initially sees his time with Lan Yu as no more than a sexy hobby — “like horse-racing,” as he explains to his distraught mother — he eventually wises up and sees the error of his ways. He swears devotion, just in time for the Year of the Snake.

As a tribute to the ’80s, the novel is sweetly nostalgic. The Teresa Teng cassette sitting on a dresser will bring back memories for Chinese of a certain age, as will chunky Big Boss cell phones and the ideological preciousness of characters’ names — Handong (defend Mao), Aidong (love Mao), and Jingdong (revere Mao) make for formidable siblings. There are references to West Berlin, and the capital’s beautiful blue skies in the summer, when “[f]or three solid months, there wasn’t a bicycle lot in Beijing that wasn’t jam packed.” By the end, as the millennium approaches, our heroes are stepping out of their “burgundy Cole Haans” and slipping into the boudoir.

“The intensity of two men making love can never be matched by straight sex,” Handong proclaims, and Bei Tong makes you believe it. The book falls significantly higher on the erotica spectrum than Fifty Shades of Gray. The lovers’ sexual adventures are compellingly rendered by Myers, who, by marvelous coincidence, was working at a gay bar in Beijing even as Bei Tong was writing her novel in New York. Like the love affair, his translation begins a little stiltedly, but becomes increasingly assured. Slang is a barrier never fully crossed, but Myers makes capable work of “the local vernacular, which was so legendarily vulgar it had its own title: Beijing Bitching.” It’s a plausible summary of the book, from Lan Yu’s perspective.

Once firmly united, the lovers’ romance is strikingly sweet and normative. “He smiled and pushed his nose against mine as if he were a bear rolling its cub…‘I don’t have to come,’ I whispered into his ear. ‘I just want to hold you.’” The novel finds new tension in an implausible series of disasters: tonsillitis, coma, cerebral hemorrhage; suicidal parent, wicked stepmother; seedy prostitutes, sexual assault; criminal investigations, stints in prison; reversals of fortune, sad parting after sad parting after sad parting. Tiananmen features as a plot point, but only as a winsome threat to poor Lan Yu. Ditto the cringe-worthy red herrings about AIDS. (“If you meet someone new,” Handong warns, “you have to be careful. I don’t want to hear through the grapevine that you’ve caught some kind of disease!”)

For all its sad, socially conscious pillow-talk (“Do you think gay people can have everlasting love?” Handong asks), it would be a mistake to view Beijing Comrades as an accurate chronicle of the Deng Xiaoping era, or as a representative document of gay Chinese romance. The novel is, ultimately, the stylized erotic fantasy of a (straight? female?) expat, with considerable help from online readers, produced 20 years after the fact.

But despite the author’s likely inexperience, Beijing Comrades is filled with confident, jaded insider tips — how to treat virgins, what types of women to avoid. Handong speaks with same assurance on these topics as he does on Deng Xiaoping’s China. “There’s no doubt about it,” he declares, “it’s a hell of a lot easier to seduce a man than a woman.” When it comes to women, the novel’s tone is consistently snide. Characters, plagued by needy girlfriends and manipulative spendthrift wives, complain of “the typical flat ass of most Asian girls” and their friends’ “shrill, housewife bitching.” “When a woman has sex with you,” Handong explains, “it’s because of something you have… or because they want to find someone who will let them be a parasite forever.” When Lan Yu feels jealous, Handong orders him to “Stop acting like a woman. Every little thing makes you so damn suspicious.”

It’s a curious structural misogyny, perhaps the result of a misunderstanding on the author’s part, a belief that men love men because they hate women. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between disdain for a conventional mainstream life and hatred for women, who never come off well. Nor do foreigners, for that matter — neither the “damn Japanese” nor the Western “imperialist aggressors.” The solution is a gay socialist utopia built for two.

In one of the novel’s happiest moments, Handong and Lan Yu driving through the hills, goofily singing the March of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army: “’The hope of our people is on our backs, an invincible power are we!… March on! Our troops march toward the sun! To the victory of the revolution, and the entire nation’s liberation!’ We fell into peals of laughter. Never had a song felt so good.”

The cultural order may have fallen with Mao Zedong, but Bei Tong finds that lost feeling of political and social cohesion in an ideal same-sex relationship, placing all the charged meaning of tongzhi, in its traditional sense, in a gay couple. Created on a website, crowd-sourced in serial, Beijing Comrades is the people’s public fantasy of intimacy. Handong wonders “whether two ‘comrades’ could be lifelong partners, loving one another and taking care of each other til the end.” Beijing Comrades is one generation’s best effort.


High Style and Desperate Love: On the Life and Work of Eileen Chang

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Everyone has her own Eileen Chang story. For many readers, the story crystallizes in a single horrifying detail. First you gasp. Then you thrill. When I mentioned Chang’s name to a Chinese friend, she smiled wickedly: “In one of her stories, there is a woman so thin, she can slide her jade bracelet up to the elbow.”

Before Joan Didion, there was Eileen Chang. A slender, dramatic woman with a taste for livid details and feverish colors, Chang combined Didion’s glamor and sensibility with the terrific wit of Evelyn Waugh. She could, with a single phrase, take you hostage. Chinese readers can’t forget her; most Western readers have never met her. This year, on the 20th anniversary of her death, the recent NYRB edition of Chang’s Naked Earth provides an opportunity for new readers to fall in love, and for converts to renew what you might call (borrowing a tongue-in-cheek title from her oeuvre) Half a Lifelong Romance.

Chang was born in Shanghai in the 1920s, the daughter of violent extremes. Her mother was an elegant socialite, the product of a Western education; her father was a violent opium addict, descended — ironically enough — from the anti-opium crusader Li Hongzhang. After her father took a concubine, her mother fled for Western Europe, where she skied the Alps in bound feet. Chang was five years old.

After her father’s near-fatal overdose, her mother returned home to direct her children’s education. Her father promised to end his relationship with his concubine and his opium. Neither promise panned out. After the divorce, Chang and her younger brother lived with their father. Their mother fled again to France, studying art. She would not return for nearly a decade. Meanwhile Chang’s father beat her, raged at her; when she contracted dysentery, at the age of 18, he confined her to her bedroom. She was trapped for six months, until she colluded with a nurse to escape to her mother’s apartment.

From an early age, Chang understood that she would survive through her style. Almost immediately after her escape, she published an account of her incarceration in the Shanghai Evening Post. Later in life, Chang famously recycled and reframed her own memories; see Little Reunion, The Fall of the Pagoda, and The Book of Change. But really, all of her work was a series of little reunions with the past. She was always attentive; it was always present. As she wrote in her essay “Notes on Apartment Life,” “I am astounded by how extraordinarily clearly one can hear street noises from the sixth floor, as if it was all happening right beneath one’s ears, resembling the way people’s memories of trivial incidents from their childhood become increasingly clear and close the older and more distant they become.”

Chang’s relationship with her father would seem to be the defining tragedy of her life. Much of her later fiction captures the painful claustrophobia of their relationship; in Fall of the Pagoda, her stand-in, Lute, lives in the family compound, penned in with luxury and the stench of opium. Her story “Heart Sutra” reads like something out of Alfred Hitchcock (and, perhaps, the cinematically inclined brother of Sigmund Freud): towering apartments; broken elevators; a girl who falls madly in love with her father, while he runs away with a classmate who looks just like her.

But Chang was more wounded by her mother’s betrayals. “I had always loved my mother with a passion bordering on the romantic,” Chang later wrote. And in Fall of the Pagoda, Lute says to her mother, speaking of her father, “He never hurt me because I never loved him.”

Chang often downplayed her mother’s influence; she once claimed that the only tendency she inherited from her mother was a love for the color greenish blue. Still, her sense of style — and style’s importance — seems to have descended from the maternal line. As she later recalled, “Because my mother was inordinately fond of having new clothes made, my father once muttered under his breath, ‘People aren’t just clothes-hangers!’ One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing in front of a mirror, pinning a jadeite brooch onto a green, short-waisted jacket. Standing to one side, I looked up at her, awash with envy and unable to wait until I grew up.” In middle school, Chang used her first earnings — five dollars, for a cartoon she submitted to the Shanghai Post and Mercury — to buy a tube of lipstick. Above all, the girl was a stylist.

Chang’s sensitivity to style was an outgrowth of her extraordinary attention to detail. She swooned after smells, sounds, colors. In her writing, the result is cinematically crisp, and phantasmagorical. Take this scene, from the opening pages of The Golden Cangue: “It was almost dawn. The flat waning moon got lower, lower and larger, and by the time it sank, it was like a red gold basin. The sky was a cold, bleak crab-shell blue. The houses were only a couple of stories high, pitch-dark under the sky, so one could see far. At the horizon the morning colors were layers of green, yellow, and red like a watermelon cut open—the sun was coming up.” I don’t know anyone with a palette quite like Chang’s. She had the lunatic sensibilities of Marc Chagall, married to a Henri Matisse-like elegance.

This sensory acuity made her vulnerable. For all her father’s abuse, Chang’s most precise, terrible childhood memory was being forced to wear her stepmother’s hand-me-downs. The indignity felt like a physical assault. One dress, she wrote, was “the color of chopped beef, and I wore it for what seemed like forever, looking as if my whole body was covered with chilblains, and even when winter had passed, the scars from the sores remained — the gown was that hateful, that shameful.” During the most productive period of her life, which coincided with the Japanese Occupation, she published her first collections of essays and fiction, her masterly novella The Golden Cangue, and the short stories and novellas now known as Love in a Fallen City. But she was also making her own clothing and operating a design firm. She had finally achieved a measure of self-determination.

In her attention to fashion, Chang was alternately a menace and a non-entity. Japanese authorities regarded her writing as unthreatening; after the Communist Revolution, her work — with its emphasis on haute couture, sex, and envy — was considered “bourgeoise.” Even today, critics tend to describe Chang’s work as touchingly concerned with life’s “trivialities.” Of course, life is nothing but. “Man’s joie de vivre,” Chang announced, “is solely to be found in life’s irrelevancies.” She never quite understood “the Art of Living” as her mother wanted her to — how to properly pare an apple, or remember her own telephone number. “What I knew how to do…was listen to bagpipes, sit in a wicker chair enjoying a faint breeze, eat salt-boiled peanuts, admire neon lights on a wet night, reach out from the upper level of a double-decker bus to pluck leaves from the treetops.”

And Lord, could she pluck. In her fiction, as in her essays, Chang knew the details that would appall, vivify, and stun. So it is that a trivial, bourgeoise writer produced some of the Occupation’s most masterful journalism. “From the Ashes” narrates her experiences as a university student in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded. “When we first heard that war had broken out,” she recalled, “a girl in my dormitory started panicking. ‘What am I to do? I’ve nothing to wear!’” When a bomb landed nearby and the students were evacuated, another student insisted on packing her best clothes into a leather trunk, which she dragged downhill through gunfire. Fashion had always been an arms race; now actual war had upped the ante.

“From the Ashes” confirmed Chang’s reputation as a consummate stylist, practical but pleasure-minded. It was a kind of sensual fortitude. “After Hong Kong fell,” she remembered, “we scoured the streets in search of ice cream and lipstick.” Her polished wit is enchanting, but critics often find a coolness to her high style. And something horrific does live in Chang’s eloquence. She describes “the cantankerous landlady whose crossed eyes stuck out like a pair of taps,” “the young wife whose neck and head could have been the blow dryer at the hairdresser’s.” Reading Chang, you have a sense of intimacy that can be easily revoked. Her eyes might lift suddenly from the page and describe you. One critic pointedly asked, “Can someone who does not connect with people be a writer?”

But she did, and she was. Chang was seduced by colors, but fell as readily for men. (In Classical Chinese, the words sex and color are, in fact, identical.) By the age of 25, already the literary darling of 1940s Shanghai, she fell disastrously in love with Hu Lancheng. Hu was an accomplished journalist. He was also a serial, and simultaneous, womanizer: At the time of their wedding, he was still married to his third wife. Hu left Chang repeatedly — first for a 17-year-old nurse, then for a 40-year-old widowed concubine. The marriage lasted three years.

In fiction, too, her high style was met by high romance. Her famous Love in a Fallen City suffers from a baffling mistranslation: this is, rather, a love that destroys cities. It’s a reference to a classical allusion — the kind of femme fatale who upends cities and nations. Her women fall in love with married men, spies, their own fathers; they dash themselves against passion and beauty; they make desperate, romantic suicide pacts with lovers who leave them to drink their poison alone. They topple cities; they topple themselves.

While the fall of Shanghai could not disrupt Chang’s output, the Communist Revolution ultimately did. In 1952, Chang moved to Hong Kong, where she worked as a translator for the United States Information Service. She had always been an accomplished English writer; her first published essay was written in English. Now she rendered American giants like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ernest Hemingway into Chinese. Naked Earth, written first in Chinese and then translated into English, was commissioned by her employer as anti-Communist propaganda.

Naked Earth, one of Chang’s most overtly political works, is one of her least appreciated, particularly in mainland China. The book is not quite characteristic Chang. Its Chinese title, often rendered as Love in Redland, sounds like a mashup of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Colleen McCullough. The English title, with its echoes of The Good Earth, seems built on the preposterous assumption that Chang would ever allow anything to leave her pen naked, uncolored by her particular style. And then there’s the provocation of naked political ideologies. As Chang herself observed years earlier, in “From the Ashes,” “Regardless of whether they were political or philosophical, world views which are too clear-cut are bound to provoke antipathy.”

Still, the commission shouldn’t undercut the novel’s artistic merits. Recent revelations about support from the American government certainly haven’t undermined the legacy of Boris Pasternak. Like Dr. Zhivago, Naked Earth jolts and arrests almost immediately. Inveterate Chang readers won’t be disappointed. There is high style here, and desperate love. (Two university students caught in a secret romance. A doomed commune. Deadly backstabbing. You do the math, comrade.) The question is whether this new release of Naked Earth can attract new readers.

That’s still an open question. Despite her renewed popularity at home, and the international success of Ang Lee’s adaptations, Chang’s fiction, like Chang herself, has run into trouble in its later years. For me, the definitively chilling Chang detail comes from “My Dream of Being a Genius:” “Life is a dazzling gown covered with lice.” It’s a terrifying foreshadowing of Chang’s final days in Californian exile, moving constantly from motel to motel to avoid the lice that trailed her. She was found in her Westwood apartment several days after her death, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. This last request is pure Chang: a grand, futile, romantic gesture. I hope Naked Earth can cross coasts. But that’s almost beside the point.