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.
Von 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.

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.

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