Tian Chenglei is a character in the sci fi series Trees written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Jason Howard. The series is set at some undefined point in the future and the story opens ten years after the world wide appearances of alien structures nicknamed “trees” because of their mostly cylindrical shapes and dizzying heights.
Chenglei is a man in his twenties who has lived his whole life in a small farming community. He is artist who decided he wanted to study at an art school, the oddly named Factory 818, in the city of Shu which has been designated as a “Special Cultural Zone” by the Chinese government. In reality the government considers the city and its people as one large scale experiment but what test is being conducted remains unknown.
The young man makes his way to his apartment building where he is greeted by its manager, an older man named Uncle who also has a gregarious personality. Once known as Workers Accommodation 793 building, it was christened by Uncle as The Great Spaceship and all of its occupants, many who are also artists, are colorful and vivacious. However, for Chenglei the sights, sounds, and kinetic energy of Shu are quite overwhelming and he holes up in his new apartment drawing in a sketch book. It takes Zhen, a woman who lives on the same floor, and her amiable cajoling to persuade Chenglei to explore the city and visit his new school. While the idea for Zhen to get him outside originated with Uncle, they soon discover how much they enjoy each other’s company and how intrugued each is with the other’s attitudes and ideas. One thing leads to another and they have sex and spend the night together. After they part, Zhen is resigned to have Chenglei reject her because of numerous instances in her past. Meanwhile, Chenglei has a heart to heart talk with Uncle to help him sort out his feelings, not about Zhen whose self assurance he admires, but his feelings about himself and what he has to offer to Zhen. Uncle brings up the topic of different sexual orientations to help ease Chenglei into talking about himself who confides that back home gay men are derided and subjected to electro shock therapy. Chenglei implies his reason for moving to Shu was to avoid the possibility of such treatment because he thought he was gay; a perception which confuses him because of his feelings for Zhen. Uncle suggests to Chenglei he may be bisexual which elicits a revelatory reaction from the young man. With everything about himself now surprisingly falling into place, Chenglei goes to visit Zhen but then hesitates. He’s surprised to find Zhen waiting for him in his apartment. What follows is a beautifully written scene by Ellis in which the two characters talk about life and romance and dreams and expectations which gently ushers them into a heartfelt, nascent relationship.
All rights reserved Warren Ellis and Jason Howard.