Lesbianism in China is the unexpected subject of this new novel, a bittersweet account of student life viewed through the eyes of a dutiful seventeen-year-old girl, Chen Ming, beginning her studies at the prestigious Guangzhou University. The same-sex love affair she experiences there, however tentatively, is presented as something that is fated to haunt her for the rest of her life.
However vigorous the movement for gay rights may be, and indeed is, in Hong Kong, February Flowers nevertheless constitutes a strong first offering from Pan MacMillan's new Picador Asia imprint, considering the widespread resistance to its topic in the Chinese world (Taiwan, of course, excepted).
At the start of the book the narrator's tone is deliberately flat. She's now working in the adult world, but clearly trying to forget something vital that happened to her in earlier life. As a result she's living a half-awake, over-formal existence. After the collapse of her marriage and taking a high-paying job as editor for a reference and textbook publisher, Chen Ming on the surface emphasizes her self-sufficiency. But she's also dissatisfied. "To me, it is just a job," expresses her jaded attitude. It's only when her thoughts turn to the loss of her youthful friend, Miao Yan, that light and excitement animate her, and the extent of her repression becomes apparent.
Their first meeting was banal enough. Miao Yan, a member of the Miao ethnic minority, bursts into her dormitory offering to sell Chef Kang noodles at the cut price of 50 fen a bag. More dramatically, she later appears in a bar, dancing on a table as a penalty for losing a party game. In a long-sleeved white dress, her hair pinned into a chignon at the back of her head, she looks to Chen like a goddess.
She quickly discovers that Yan's attitude to men in general is dismissive. In terms that with hindsight could be seen as encapsulating militant lesbianism in general, she tells Chen, "I can totally see through girls like you. You always dream about a handsome prince. Well, there aren't enough princes in this world, you know. Even if there were, you don't want to trust them. If you ask me, a woman's fatal weakness is to trust a man." The style may not be devastating, but you get the drift.
Thus begins Chen's ambiguous attitude to the opposite sex, and her fascination with the teasing, cajoling Miao Yan. Her burgeoning suspicion of males is further fueled by her parents and by two of her roommates, Pingping and Donghua, who view having boyfriends before the age of 18 as "dirty." When Chen reluctantly accepts Miao Yan's invitation to lunch, she has to run the gauntlet of wolf-whistles from male students watching from their dormitories. Again it's Miao Yan, not Chen, who silences them.
In what is perhaps representative local fashion — and not only in China — Chen has promised her parents not to date anyone before graduation. Even so, she dreams of love, which she typically sees as something sacred, indeed almost as a religious monument carved in stone. "I read about that kind of love in books," she says, "like the love between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, which ... made me tremble with admiration and awe."
Even so, Miao Yan has dark secrets of her own. There was something between her and a math teacher at school, she tells Chen. She recalls the wet kiss he planted on her, rather incongruously leading him to go home and ask his wife for a divorce. But it also caused Miao Yan's father to beat her naked for being what he considered a whore.