When Colonel Jin Xing grew tired of the People's Liberation Army, he didn't just change his job: he changed his sex. Now she's one of the world's leading choreographers. William Leith hears her remarkable tale
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The Independent Culture
THE MORNING we met, Jin Xing, 32, a former colonel in the People's Liberation Army, had decided to wear a sleeveless tartan dress with a traditional Chinese collar and a high slit up the thigh. She painted her nails and lips in cherry, and wore high-heeled ankle boots and a short cardigan. But something had not been quite right; when she woke up, her long black hair, normally manageable, had frizzed, and the former colonel, now a choreographer and nightclub owner, was not happy. It was a bad hair day.

At noon, she was sitting in the coffee bar of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, wearing a short dark wig. She was in England to host "Beijing-London", a week-long event designed to promote the atmosphere of the new, open, arty Beijing. The exhibition will consist of Chinese poster art, Chinese pop music, a Chinese rave, Chinese performance. What we are celebrating, it appears, is that Western youth culture has, in some form, arrived in China. As well as hosting it, Jin Xing will perform a dance piece at the event.

Jin Xing looked tired. As the most famous transsexual in Beijing, she is the West's ideal symbol of the new, changing China, and must bear the weight of our expectations. Just as China is, we like to tell ourselves, throwing off the shackles of its totalitarian past, Jin Xing, having felt captive in his trim, muscular male body, threw off the shackles of masculinity and became a woman. "In Beijing, only a small group of people recognise me," she told me. "Mostly intellectuals and students. But they come up to me in the street; they want to meet me. They are inspired by my free spirit."

We sat down with a bottle of still mineral water. Jin Xing does not drink "except for special occasions". Neither does she smoke or take drugs. In Beijing, drugs are not the symbol of liberation and cool that they have been in the West; they are, Jin Xing says, a symptom of the underclass. She likes London, she said, partly because British people, unlike the Italians, the French and the Americans, are reserved, as are the Chinese. "It must be something to do with history," she said. "Just like Chinese people, English people think before they start to make a move. The Americans don't think that much - they just go for it."

Politically, Jin Xing has kept out of the debate over the recent visit of the Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin. In China, she has an "interesting relationship" with the government, a relationship which involves mutual wariness. Officials are afraid of what she might say, but respect her cultural power. When I made a point about the nasty treatment of protesters in the street, she assumed I was talking about events in China, rather than in Blair's Britain; her view of British politics, like the liberal British view of China, was simple. Blair, whom she met at an official lunch in Beijing, is "cool". Conversely, her views on China and Tibet are not simple. "China should leave Tibet alone," she said finally, "but the Dalai Lama - he loves acting." In China, she said, there is not much sense of England or the English. "People," she told me, "think England is over. The Germans, French, and Swiss are much more active in China. And America is very big. Every so often, something English comes along, like the Royal Ballet. And still, everybody knows the Royal Family. Charles. Diana, of course, was very big."

Jin Xing was born in Shenyang, the son of a Chinese-Korean military officer and an interpreter. Her father's Korean grandparents had emigrated to China, and her mother had arrived at the age of 11 during the Korean war. "I don't have a Korean accent," she told me, "and I don't look Korean. Koreans tend to have flatter faces. My face looks Chinese, apart from the eyes, which are a Korean shape. Korean women have beautiful eyes."

As a boy, Jin Xing first performed on stage at the age of four. But for as long as she can remember, she says, "I knew inside of me that I was completely a woman. I was born with a woman's mentality, attracted to the bodies of men. I was always attracted to men. For a while, I thought I was gay. I had sex with guys, but homosexuals are not attractive to me at all. The men attractive to me were heterosexual, or at least bisexual." She said, "I looked at my sister, and thought, `I should be you, and you should be me'."

At the age of nine, the young Jin Xing was sent to a military academy, where he spent "nine months of the year dancing and training to be a dancer, and two months learning to shoot and plant bombs. All the celebrities were in the military, because that was where the money was." He saw no action, but travelled "all over China" entertaining troops in the People's Liberation Army. "I had 10 years' training in Russian Ballet." His dance style was, she told me, "physical rather than theatrical." When she crossed her legs, I could see the muscle separation in her calves.

After 16 years in the army, Jin Xing was one of the best male classical dancers in China. In 1987, he was chosen to participate in a cultural exchange between America and China, and won a scholarship to study with Martha Graham in New York. Back in China, he was the first choreographer to set up independently, the first to use Western dance routines in Chinese dance, and the first choreographer of a Western musical - The Sound of Music. In 1998, three years after her sex-change, she won the National Cultural Award, China's top award for the arts. This is much more politically and culturally significant than it sounds - imagine if Damien Hirst turned into a woman and then became a dame, and you'll have some idea.

It was in America that her idea of becoming a woman took shape. "In America," she told me, "I realised I wasn't gay. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, `I wanna be a good woman - perfect.' I tried balancing myself in a different way. I looked for information about sex-change operations. Then I went back to China." Jin Xing returned to China for her sex-change partly for spiritual reasons. "My mother gave me birth in China," she said, "so the second time I choose my identity, it must be in China. The earth, the smell, the air in China suit me." Another factor was the reputation of Chinese surgeons, who were performing sex-change operations in secret as early as 1983. "Chinese surgeons," said Jin Xing, "have beautiful skill with stitches." As she said this, she made stitching movements with her fingers. "And, compared with Western body types, we are difficult to heal; if we have scars, we have big scars." There were three operations, spread over five months in 1995. The first one, to implant breasts, took five hours. "The second one," she said, "takes 16 hours." She motioned her hands over her crotch and looked at me. I said, "When they put you under, did you have any second thoughts?" No, the idea of having her genitals repositioned had not bothered her. "It was easy for me," she said. Later, there was a two-hour operation "to make things perfect."

The former colonel ordered a spinach and ricotta pie. She was, she said, going to spend her afternoons in London in art galleries and shops. She had planned a visit to the cobbler to pick up a high-heeled shoe which had broken. High heels, she said, were no problem for her; as a dancer, she was used to standing on tiptoe for long periods of time. She was taking the opportunity to shop for clothes in London, because although Christian Dior, Chanel, and Versace had all recently opened stores in Beijing, the prices were extravagant. "And they are not good collections anyway," she said.

I could tell that Jin Xing was used to telling upbeat stories, about freedom, about the New China, about her Beijing jazz club, Half Dream. She was called "China's Martha Graham". But I could also see a small, coiled, ambitious person, a woman who lives alone, a woman having a bad hair day.

Being a woman was, Jin Xing said, a smaller change, in some ways, than one might expect. Her mother had been happy with the change, and her father, a conservative, had been surprisingly easy-going about it. He had said, "When I looked at you as a little boy, I thought you looked like a girl."

Jin Xing showed me her handbag. "Beijing is full of fakes. I've got one - a fake Prada," she said. Inside were her genuine Mac lipstick, her Shu Uemura lip-liner, her Christian Dior eyeshadow set. Her cherry- tipped fingers moved in and out expertly. "I have it much harder than ordinary women," she once said. "They can dress sloppily, but I have to be perfect every day."

Does she, as a woman in her thirties, have an urge to settle down? She looked at me. She had applied lipstick high on her upper lip, to make her mouth look round. She said she did, but that it had been difficult finding a man who would stay with her. "Some gentlemen fall in love with me," she said. "But they cannot take me, because they have so many things to worry about. They worry about how they can appear with this lady in society. They are not living for themselves; they are living for society. I feel like a novel," she went on, "and a lot of people just see the cover. A lot of people haven't read the first chapter yet. I want somebody who likes the novel."

Recently, Jin Xing told me, she has been lobbying hard for the part of Mao's wife in a forthcoming film called The Last Red Butterfly. She would be good in the part, she said, because "I'm such an international character - singer, dancer, actress, transsexual. The government are already panicking." She stood up and walked along the corridor with a precise, feminine gait. The taut, honed dancer's thighs kept appearing through the slit in her skirt. She said, "A lot of women live their life alone, all their life. That is so normal." The bangs of her wig stirred and settled. She said, "There's nothing wrong with that."