Gay novelist's double life as family man
When did you first realise you were attracted to men?
At the age of about 10, I found myself attracted only to boys in my class. In primary school before I realised the real reason, I once asked the teacher to put me in a group of cute boys for my after-school activities team. When I was 17, the Cultural Revolution broke out, and during the 'up the mountains and down to the villages' campaign, I was sent to a remote farming area in the forest of the Greater Hinggan Mountains in Inner Mongolia . I went with a good friend of mine from school. We were two spoiled children from high-ranking families which were being devastated during the revolution. Consequently, we empathised with each other. On the night of the first Mid-Autumn Festival we spent there, we both got smashed on some strong homemade liquor, then everything you could imagine happened. That was really my first love.
Did the relationship survive?
He returned to the city while I stayed on at the farm until the revolution was over. You needed to get special approval to go back home, and he got the approval before me. We cried together almost every day before the departure, but that is how the story ends. We still catch up sometimes, but we only joke about each other. He is married too - actually he is straight - and has a prosperous career and a happy family.
Why did you get married if you are a homosexual?
The word 'homosexual' was not adopted on the mainland until the middle of the 1980s. When I got married in late 1978, people still regarded my inclination as a 'psychological problem', a perversion that needed to be corrected, if not a crime. Actually that belief still prevails among most people in today's China. Anyway, under those circumstances, I was made to believe that it was just a hobby, or a sexual amusement, instead of something lifelong that people are born with. When I reached marriageable age, I was still in Inner Mongolia and people matched me up with my future wife. Not long after I got the special approval to return to the city in 1978, we registered our marriage and had our son the next year.
So it was not happy ever after?
Believe it or not, my wife and I have never had a fight all through these years. I felt guilty and tried to be nice to her because I couldn't change my love for men. She is terribly nice, plain and truthful. How could I have the heart to destroy the beautiful thing in her heart by telling her the truth? In this marriage, the strong connection with her was built through shouldering burdens and getting through each day, instead of pure passion. It is true the marriage lacks passion and sex, but isn't it the same case with many married heterosexual couples? Also, my son is dependent on me, and I cannot withdraw from the family. That's why, despite the love of some really nice gay men, I have never ever thought about divorce. And I have decided to carry the secret to my grave.
How could your wife and son not sense the truth, after living with you for so many years, and especially since you are such a famous writer?
I have concealed it very carefully. And they don't read my work at all [laughs]. Of course they know I am doing homosexual surveys, attending conferences, campaigning for gay rights, but they think that is what a sociologist often does. I started writing about gay life in the early 1990s and several of my short novels have been published under pen names in Hong Kong since 1996. I published two novels in Hong Kong in 1997 using Tong Ge for the first time. While on the mainland, I did not come out of the closet even in the gay community until 2000, when I allowed the organiser of a conference to introduce me officially as 'Tong Ge'.
What are your plans?
I'm not writing as much as I used to. My days are numbered because I have been diagnosed with a liver disease. I was warned I had about five years to live if I did not take good care of myself. Some of my readers were sorry to hear I may quit writing fiction. But I want to use my limited time to do more practical things, to push for a society more open to 'private rights' such as homosexuality. Last year, I helped produce a book of research on gays' Aids prevention under the National Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. I am currently travelling across the nation to do a survey on gay people. I do not expect a long life; neither do I expect to witness homosexual people enjoying equality within my lifetime. Five years is enough time, so long as I accomplish my mission.