China Book Reviews


James West, Beijing Blur: a head-spinning journey into modern China, Penguin, Melbourne, 2008.

ISBN: 9-780143-006756

A journey into the new gay China: James West's Beijing Blur

by Jason Lee

In Riding the Iron Rooster, first published in 1988, Paul Theroux painted a rather bleak portrait of China, filling his text with continual references to Red Guards and Cultural Revolution horrors. The China that he constructed was of an Orwellian nightmare, full of naïve citizens incapable of thinking for themselves. In the country’s “gloomy” high schools, he encountered entire “armies” of students, all “toiling” over creaking desks, the lights dim. China, he wrote rather disdainfully, was a country so lacking in privacy that it “was a wonder that any children were conceived.”

This perceived lack of individualism was also a constantly recurring theme of Colin Thubron’s, who in his much read narrative,
Behind the Wall, described Beijing as a city full of commuters who “moved in unisexual flocks, all jacketed in olive green and boilersuit blue.” Everyone it seemed, had “conspired to fulfil Western clichés of themselves: inscrutable and all alike.”

Despite the dramatic changes that have occurred over the past twenty years as a result of China’s modernization efforts, such negative images continue to enjoy currency, with many of today’s media analysts still prone to the idea of a totalitarian China, controlling its citizens’ thought-processes through the use of an anachronistic education system that emphasizes the mindless rote learning of texts. In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, the Washington Post for example, ran an article by its former China correspondent, John Pomfret, describing the country as “an authoritarian state” that “stifles ingenuity” by placing too many limits on the free flow of information.

This image of a regimented people, lacking in both individual creativity and intellect, is now beginning to be challenged by a new, younger generation of travel writers: Rob Gifford's China Road, Kirsty Needham's A Season in Red and Mark Anthony Jones' Flowing Waters Never Stale (reviewed earlier in the year on this site) all present the urban youth of today's China as being generally well educated and internet savvy - connected to the world - and as sexually liberated, creative, optimistic individuals, many of them well traveled.

James West's Beijing Blur is the latest in the genre, offering readers a detailed insight into the world of Beijing's over-sexed youth. Throughout the course of his narrative, West enters a brave new world of bloggers, punk-rock dens and underground queer culture - all of which makes for a fascinating read.

What West was initially expecting from China was a "display of kitsch, old-school communism: messages daubed on walls, Mao sculptures propped up against cash registers, crumbling socialist monoliths." But once his eyes hit Beijing for the first time, "all this fell away." (p.13)

Landing himself a job as a journalist with China Radio International, West, a 23 year old Australian, soon finds himself a local lover named Jason. With "flawless" skin and several piercings down each ear, Chinese Jason struts around in baseball caps, his t-shirts often novel.

West is at times surprisingly open and revealing of his romantic encounters: "...he told me to follow him through the hutong bends, my hand in his. We stopped at a roller door next to what looked like a hospital. He put his hand on my stomach under my t-shirt. It was the first time we had touched like this." (p.83)

Then later:

"He stuck out his tongue....I kissed him back, swapping top and bottom lips. His piercing clinked against my teeth." (p.84)

Three entire chapters are devoted to a discussion of Beijing's vibrant gay and lesbian scene, with West interviewing members of the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Alliance, as well as detailing his numerous excursions into gay bars like Destination. "I watched the alliance balloon with queer Chinese kids wanting to share their stories," he writes. "The strength of the alliance was tapping into this need to talk. It filled the gap. The agenda was wide-ranging and relevant: safe sex, dating, politics, film screenings, research, community activities....It felt like the salad days of an awakening gay movement." (pp.129-130)

What one learns from West's book is that gay Beijing is thriving despite a political climate that tries to keep the topic of homosexuality marginalized from mainstream discourse. One member of the alliance for example, expresses to West the view that "Chinese society is actually a very fractured society,"  the boy still angry after the government had shut down the mainland's first ever queer celebration, the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Culture Festival. "He was angry about the shutdown," notes West. "He saw it as an assertion of traditional Chinese values clamping down on difference. 'They won't allow anything unstable to break the balance of family, of normal relationships,' he said. The problem with the festival was that gay people had started to talk." (p.131)

"It might be years before pink really went with red," West later laments, "but at first glance, being gay in Beijing was OK. Bars like Destination were packed every weekend, even though they couldn't advertise. Gay kids were hooking up and starting relationships. At Destination boys were kissing boys, girls were kissing girls. But the message was clear. Don't get political. Just don't talk about it." (p.131)

Unlike the earlier generation of travelers to China, West takes the time to engage with the culture of his hosts rather than merely treating it with disdain for being some unknowable and presumably inferior Other. This especially comes across when West tries to make sense of the differences in gay culture between East and West:

" culture made sexuality the biggest thing about me. Pool Boy's culture didn't have a direct translation for the English word 'sexuality'. Until the 1990s, his culture had never treated sex or sexuality as something that could exist outside the highly structured system of family...Pool Boy felt uncomfortable with my divisions of gay and straight. Did living as a gay man mean he couldn't get married? Did it mean he had to love and have sex with one person, a man, his whole life? And what about his parents? Did it mean that he wouldn't fulfill his role for them in being married and having children? ....Becoming 'gay' or 'lesbian' made sexuality more important than having a family, and that was too high a price to pay. Pool Boy might even cease to exist." (p..137-139)

You might see guys like Pool Boy "blowing each other in the bathrooms of Destination," adds West, "but ask the same guys whether they love and cherish their girlfriends and they'll answer yes, absolutely-why-would-you-ask, yes."

"My cultural bias at the time thought that Pool Boy couldn't see the contradictions in the way he lived because he was a bit dumb...or worse, not brave enough. But in the end, Pool Boy had never thought about it, and my obsession with a homo-hetero divide didn't make sense to a boy fucking both genders without any complaints from either." (p.138)

Wrapping up his year in Beijing, West says that he felt ambivalent about the understanding of China that he had acquired: "China was many things I aspired to be myself: an optimist, sincerely accommodating of change. But there lingered questions of freedom and how to deal with the past. While it seemed clear that China wanted to drop the cultural suitcases at the bottom of the stairs and climb up into the future without them, would that forfeit something of the intellectual and cultural evolution that must accompany lasting economic success?" (p.223)

This is indeed a question worth pondering over.