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Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong, trans. by Scott E. Myers

A passionate, troubled love affair between two men is set in a time of cultural upheaval, in late 20th-century China.

beijing comrades

Translator Scott E. Myers’s introduction to Beijing Comrades is itself an engrossing story: the tale was originally serialized online, and the author–listed here as Bei Tong, elsewhere as Beijing Comrade, Miss Wang and other names–remains anonymous; Myers does not know Bei’s gender. This is the first English translation and the third version of the novel to be published, combining two previous publications and a new manuscript by Bei with an expanded story and explicit sexual detail.

Beijing Comrades is about Handong, a privileged, successful, egotistical businessman, and Lan Yu, a younger man of modest circumstances. When Lan Yu arrives in Beijing as a student, Handong immediately takes him as a lover. The older man had been accustomed to myriad sexual conquests of both men and women, defined by psychological domination and materialism, but this liaison is different, eventually coming to dominate both men’s lives. Over the years, Handong and Lan Yu strain to reconcile their relationship with a culture in upheaval: late 1980s China, experimenting with capitalism, approaching the Tian’anmen Square protests, increasingly materialistic and anti-gay.

While the dialogue is stylistically inconsistent, reminding readers of the fact of translation, the emotions of the story reinforce its realism. First-person narrator Handong is not always a likable character: he is cynical, profit-driven, fickle in love and often cruel. But these flaws make him credible, and even increase the impact of both men’s anguish.

Beijing Comrades is an important entry in the Chinese historical record as well as a moving, erotic and emotional novel.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 dinners out.

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