Ausgabe 12/2006

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

Jin Xing has a one-of-a-kind biography: born as a boy, he advanced to the rank of colonel in the Chinese army. Then came the sex change and the staggering career as a world-class prima ballerina.

By Erich Follath

Jin Xing poses in front of the Grand Theater in downtown Shanghai, on People's Square, self-assured in a red, body-hugging turtleneck sweater and relaxed black jeans. A larger-than-life-sized poster of her visage, heavily made up as a cross between East and West, advertises her latest performance -- as prima ballerina in a ballet version of Karl Orff's "Carmina Burana," a performance she choreographed herself. The sweeping curves of the chrome and glass opera building, an architectural interpretation of classic China, shimmer in the background.

"The rectangle represents the earth and the circle the sky," the diva explains. "They are the yin and the yang, the cold and the hot, the female and the male in perfect harmony." And then she sighs: "If only this harmony had existed in my own life."

Jin Xing, 38, isn't particularly religious, but she is convinced that there is a God. But what could have been his purpose in allowing her to be born so "incorrectly," forcing her into a foreign body, making her into something so completely incomplete?

Her life is a pas de deux in every possible direction. She is a revolutionary tolerated by the party, a national artist with her own, privately run company, an avant-gardist with a feeling for the mainstream. She is careful to not be pigeonholed and to dance her way away from the clichés. Jin Xing is an original. This is partly due to the fact that China's top prima ballerina, a woman the German newspaper Die Zeit has called "probably the world's best dancer," has a completely out-of-the-ordinary life history. Eleven years ago, the charmed choreographer was a man or, to be more precise, an officer in the People's Liberation Army.

"Today I serve as both an advertisement and an alibi for the party," says Jin Xing, smiling ironically as she sips a cup of herbal tea in the opera building's quiet cafeteria, as the world outside rushes by -- a world of taxi drivers cursing their way through perennial traffic jams and designer-clad "office ladies" tripping past gleaming skyscraper facades along Shanghai's opulent Bund Boulevard with its "Bar Rouge" and its Ferrari showroom, all within view of the cradle of China's Communist Party.

"Whenever a foreign politician talks about human rights problems in the People's Republic, about record executions or about the cultural destruction of Tibet," Jin Xing explains, "our people respond: Yes, but we have a transsexual colonel, whom we allowed to obtain a sex change, and who now performs as a prima ballerina."

A childhood during the Cultural Revolution

Jin Xing was born on Aug. 13, 1967, the second child in a family living in a China that, at the time, was caught in the throes of the Cultural Revolution -- a time that was filled with hardship and displacement, resentment and denunciation. Her parents originated from Korea, which made them particularly suspicious to the government. Nevertheless, Jin Xing's father received training as an information officer in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the northern Chinese city of Shenyang. Her mother, a Japanese translator, was perceived as a potential traitor and was banished to the countryside together with her small children. Jin Xing grew up surrounded by women -- his grandmother, mother and sister. Jin's early childhood memories include images of her mother being endlessly subjected to humiliating interrogations by the Red Guards.

At the age of six, Jin saw a film about dance and asked for a ballet outfit, a request the parents were willing to humor as a child's quirk. But when Jin went on a hunger strike at the age of nine in an effort to force his parents to allow him to attend a ballet school, they realized that their son's enthusiasm for pirouettes was more than just a whim. They decided to make a "real boy" out of Jin Xing. But after much conflict and many tears, the family finally reached a compromise. Jin Xing agreed to join the army's dance company. At the time, when dictator Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, permitted only a handful of revolutionary propaganda operas, the PLA had the best of all ballet companies.

To avoid later accusations, the parents instructed their son to write the following statement in his best handwriting: "Dear parents! I swear that it is my own wish to join the army, and that I will do everything within my power to serve my country and the Communist Party."

Jin Xing felt like a soldier in an opera. The uniforms were much too big, the guns were overwhelming and the hand grenades slid through his delicate fingers. His trainers were merciless. Whenever he was unable to complete an exercise, they sent him to the guardhouse and ordered him to write confessions attesting to his failure. "I became a master of the art of writing the self-critique," Jin says.

For Jin, life really began after he completed basic military training. No one could dance the main part in the revolutionary piece "The Spotted Dear" as passionately and skillfully as Jin Xing. At 17, he won his first national ballet award.

Jin Xing behaved like a man, because that is what was expected of him. Although feminine emotions had been stirring in his body for some time, he did his utmost to suppress them. In an action film sponsored by the military, he played the motorcycle-driving leading man without using a stuntman. But secretly he dreamed of being a she: a heroine, a dancing queen, a prima ballerina.

A new life in America and Europe

But Jin Xing adapted easily, and he quickly advanced through the military ranks. He loved the uniform, along with the power it gave him over others. Everything, including his self-esteem, was secondary to his career. When a greasy superior came on to him because he thought the beautiful "feminine" young man was gay, Jin Xing did more than just reject the man. He blackmailed him to gain permission to leave the country. Jin Xing, who has since been named China's top dancer, received a scholarship to study in the United States, and in New York the young Chinese dancer discovered modern dance. Jin Xing, though a technical virtuoso, was suddenly confronted with a new kind of challenge: Whereas virtuosity was the most important factor back home in China, freedom of artistic expression was just as important in New York.

Jin Xing rose to the challenge, earning a standing ovation at his first major performance. The New York Times called the dancer from the Far East "a genius." But an obstinate Jin Xing refused to limit himself by joining a single dance company, instead preferring to continue learning and experimenting. Money soon became a problem. He spent his mornings doggedly perfecting his movements. But to make ends meet, he had to work the lunch shift as a waiter and afternoons as a salesman in a leather goods shop and as a warehouse manager. At night, he gave dancing lessons. Still, he was living the American dream.

The Chinese sensation won an award for his choreography at America's top-ranked dance festival. In the private sphere, Jin Xing also began exploring new horizons, searching for his sexuality. Fascinated by the gay scene, he felt "like someone traveling through" Manhattan's gay bars. But he always felt like an observer in a world to which he didn't belong. At some point he was convinced that he had fallen in love with an American cowboy from the Midwest and, confused, moved in with the man, only to end the relationship, by this time feeling more lost than confused.

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