CONSTANCE AUSSOURD looks into the Chinese transgender community through Jin Xing’s story.
In China, Jin Xing’s story stands out. Formerly a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army’s theatre troupe, she is now an acclaimed contemporary dancer who is part of a new dance production. Jin Xing is also the host of a televised talk show, has been invited to be a judge at a talent contest, and is the mother of three children. At 43 years old, Jin Xing is not only known for her artistic performances, but also for being a transgender woman. Over the years, Jin Xing has emerged as the most prominent and controversial symbol of personal freedom as well as gender equality in China. She is one of the first Chinese to undergo a sex reassignment surgery, and the first one to be officially recognized as such by the Chinese government.
Nevertheless, conservatism in Chinese tradition and stereotypes surrounding transgender people, both still alive in China, have made Jin’s endeavor arduous. Jin Xing declares in an interview in The Guardian that a sex change is “very tough for people to accept it” around the world. But under China’s conservatism her voice is even more unique. She argues that in China, “homosexuals are like a small island,” and “transgender people are a tiny island.” Li Yinhe, a Chinese sociologist and a well-known LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) rights advocate, supports Jin Xing. In the same article in The Guardian, Li recognizes that even though Jin is still discriminated against by society, she faces this challenge with bravery. “She has a good family and a successful career,” Li continues, adding that Jin’s “achievements have made her an icon.”
Jin Xing joined the Chinese army as a young soldier and dancer, where even the artists had to go through the soldiers’ training everyday. Not only was she struggling with grenades and machine guns, which was hard to handle with her frail body, but dance classes were a challenge as well. Discipline was key, and professors forced their students to contort until they became flexible enough. From a very young age, Jin Xing experienced jealousy toward her sister, and started to want to become like her. When she was 19, Jin went to New York to learn contemporary dancing. A short while after settling there, she started thinking that she was gay, which was considered a crime or a mental illness at that time. However, she quickly discovered that it was not homosexuality that she felt. In fact, this childhood sense reemerged, and she remembered “a weird feeling” in herself that she should be a woman. She underwent surgery for a sex change at the age of 28, and as a result the best male dancer of the country became the best female dancer. Chinese society struggled to accept this, but Jin Xing’s self-confidence enabled her to move forward and to make China’s public opinion reconsider how they viewed this question. Her conservative parents, against all odds, accepted her without second thought. In an interview for CNN with Jaime FlorCruz, Jin confessed that her father, after a speechless moment, told her: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”
Nevertheless, the change did not go entirely smoothly. When Jin Xing woke up from surgery, she learned that a nerve in her leg got damaged and that she would probably have a limp for the rest of her life. She saw the news as yet another test and came back on stage three months later. Jin Xing later met a German businessman, Heinz Gerd Oidtmann, with whom she adopted three children. Today, Jin Xing hosts her own talk show, The Jin Xing Show, where she takes on social issues, and authorities trust her even though her nickname is “poisonous tongue.” Her outspokenness has helped her to build a reputation, where words, she says to Matt Sheehan, correspondent for the Huffington Post, are like acupuncture needles, “they go right to the nerve and twist it.”
Nowadays, the Chinese transgender community is estimated to have around 400,000 people. The Chinese government grants them rights, allows them to change their identity papers and legally acknowledges weddings after a sex reassignment surgery. However, the LGBTQ community still lacks recognition and legal protection, and as a result they do not know whether any of their meeting or gathering will face opposition from the authorities. The Chinese government seems to be discreet on this question, and it has maintained general restrictions in agreement with its conservative policies. These policies go hand in hand with the Chinese saying, “do not encourage, do not forbid, do not promote.” On such an important issue, silence tends to be harmful.
Homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism are still considered to be “abnormal” in China. Although discussions on these issues tend to be more open online, recent measures implemented by Xi Jinping threaten freedom of speech by censoring and filtering online information. For example, the software Green Dam, which blocks access to sites containing the word “gay,” might be enforced on all computers. Furthermore, transgender people in China often face harassment from the police and have serious difficulties to obtain a job. The fact that a public figure such as Jin Xing can discuss the issue is encouraging, but for hundreds of thousands of transgender people in China, this is unfortunately far from sufficient to live a life free of discrimination.
This article was originally written by Constance Aussourd and published in French in Le Mandarin website (link). It has been translated in English by Constance Aussourd for China Hands.