Ausgabe 12/2006

Ballet, a Sex Change and a Small Revolution The Odyssey of Jin Xing

By Erich Follath

Part 2: A new beginning in Europe

Jin Xing then turned his back on America and moved to Europe, where he worked as a choreographer and dancer in Rome and Brussels. There, one part of his life's dream, his yearning for artistic perfection, his hunger for public recognition, began to come true. But something else was happening alongside his professional career, something that became increasingly central to his life: the desire to become a woman. Jin began looking into the possibility of having a sex change. He returned to China to discuss the operation with his parents, who urged him not to do it. He also asked his superiors, but they also refused to give their consent.

Jin remained determined to pursue his plans -- and eventually both private and public resistance began to soften. At the time, during the mid-1990s, China's Communist Party attempted to give itself a new, liberal coat of paint and shed its prudish and old-fashioned reputation. Jin Xing made a point of highlighting the patriotic aspects of his behavior: "I refused to have the operation in another country. My rebirth cannot take place anywhere in the world but China," he told Chinese officials.

Age 27 at the time, Jin Xing had three operations. His final operation, performed by specialists at a hospital in Beijing's Fragrance Hill district, lasted 16 hours. "After that, I felt that I was neither a man nor a women, but just a patient," he says. Because of neglect by his doctors, the blood flow to one of his calves was interrupted long enough to jeopardize his ability to walk again, not to mention dance. But the sex-change aspect of the operation was completely successful.

A difficult recovery

The new woman remained wheelchair-bound for three months. With incredible discipline, she learned to move the tips of her toes, gradually regaining her physical strength. When Jin Xing seemed a bit uncertain on her feet when performing her first choreographed piece after having the sex change operation, a Beijing newspaper maliciously dubbed her "Miss Gammy Leg," and asked "What is a sick transsexual doing on our stages?"

But other journalists, and even Communist Party officials, stood behind Jin Xing. Instead of avoiding the spotlight, she took the initiative to turn her private story into a public one. Besides her dance performances, she worked as a model and in advertising. She also opened a bar in Beijing called "Half Dream," which soon became a hot spot for local artists and foreign diplomats.

In her green VW Beetle, Jin Xing rushed from one appointment to the next and from party to party, dressed in ultra-short skirts, daringly low-cut blouses and stiletto heels: an attraction for herself and others. "I wanted to completely vamp it up, now that the little mistake God made when he created me had been corrected," she explains.

Her ballet performances became ever more extravagant, technically challenging and lascivious. She had international critics at her feet. And for a while, it even looked as though official China was ready to make its peace with Jin Xing. "A Star is Born," wrote the party paper, adding that the star had a golden future ahead of her, just as her name suggested.

Shanghai and it's famous Bund: A cultural backwater?

Shanghai and it's famous Bund: A cultural backwater?

But things didn't move quite that smoothly. In 2000, the party permitted Jin Xing to establish a private dance company and encouraged her to move to Shanghai, China's showcase city. But once in Shanghai, the Jin Xing Dance Theater encountered major problems with local officials. Apparently Shanghai ("the head of the dragon") is only avant-garde when it comes to business, says Jin Xing. Culturally, she describes it as a conservative cultural wasteland. City officials wanted her to produce Chinese ballet, but she preferred to experiment with modern dance and a creative fusion of East and West. She demanded her artistic freedom, but the party insisted on what it believes is its undeniable right to set the agenda on city stages. There has been constant conflict, and the "Carmina Burana" project was no exception.

"I'm not your socialist dancing machine," Jin Xing shouted at a meeting with Communist Party officials, in her gravelly voice, a voice that sounded as if she were speaking to the masses in a stadium or giving the opening speech at a party convention. Her eyes flashed as she tossed back the hair of her black wig like some troublesome stage curtain concealing her view of the audience. She used her delicate fingers for emphasis, stabbing them into the air like punctuation marks: outraged exclamation marks, annoyed question marks, pointed dashes, but rarely a semi-colon to slow things down. She was permitted to stage her performance for a single evening at the Shanghai Grand Theater in the spring of 2005. Then the ballet moved to Paris, "where we were sold out for months," says the spirited artist, triumphantly.

These days, Jin Xing seems to have quieted down a bit. She has written her autobiography, which was first published in France and is now appearing in Germany (but hasn't been published in China yet). She attributes her newfound calmness to what she calls "my wonderful new personal life." At a performance in Venice last month, Jin Xing talked about her family happiness. She says she has bought a beautiful old house in Shanghai's former French quarter, has adopted three young orphans, Leo, Nini and Julian, and has found the man of her life. His name is Heinz-Gerd, and he's originally from the western German city of Aachen.

The two met on a flight from Paris to Shanghai, both wearing airline pajamas in First Class, and they liked each other immediately. Until recently, Heinz-Gerd worked as a manager for a French company in Shanghai, where he sold automobile windshields. He proposed marriage, and she accepted. In a few months, the couple plans two wedding ceremonies, one in Heinz-Gerd's native Hürttgenwald region and the other in Huangpu. Heinz-Gerd, together with two nannies, is helping Jin Xing raise her adopted children, and he's also busy learning Chinese.

The artist sorts through her offers. She'll be spending a lot of time in Europe soon. She's attending a conference in Berlin this week, which will be followed by a longer tour. A Shanghai television station wants to give her a talk show. Western financiers are trying to convince Jin Xing, with her excellent connections in the world of Chinese politics and culture, to manage a bar in a top location on the Bund. But this time Jin Xing is hesitant: "I've really given up my wild life as a femme fatale. No more disco nights for me. I prefer singing lullabies to my children." For now, Jin Xing plans to continue her choreography work. In Venice, she and her company of 18 selected dancers are putting on an original piece she calls "Shanghai Tango." Her body is muscular and her movements are agile, and there is no trace whatsoever of a man-turned-woman. And to this day, hardly anyone can match her pirouettes.

Jin Xing is proud of her achievements, incredibly proud. She says that she wants to be an "heir to the great heroines in Chinese history." In her book, she names Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, as one of her models -- the ruthless revolutionary who brought so much suffering to the country during the Cultural Revolution. Does success justify anything, and can women do no wrong, as far China's prima ballerina is concerned?

"I know that Mao's wife was no shining light," says Jin Xing, almost defiantly. "But I just happen to respect women who control their own destinies. I have always taken my fate into my own hands."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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