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Chinese dancer becomes cultural icon after sex change operation

By Jessica Hopper and Meghan Frank
Rock Center

Jin Xing is one of the brightest personalities in China today. She’s a film star, talk show host and celebrated dancer, but it’s her life off stage that’s propelled her into the spotlight. She was the first person to have a sex change operation in China, and go public with it. Seventeen years later, she’s become a cultural icon in China and the government even uses her as an unofficial ambassador of the arts.

“They want to tell the world, ‘We do have an independent, free artist like Jin Xing,” Jin explains.

Jin recently embarked on her first U.S. tour with her company, Jin Xing Dance Theatre. The premiere was in New York City, the place where she studied modern dance 20 years ago. Now 44, her return to New York fulfilled a promise she made and kept for two decades. 

“When I left New York, I said, ‘I only come back [to] New York with my own dance company.  I don’t even come back [to] visit,” Jin told Rock Center’s Kate Snow.

Her return to New York was also the first time she experienced the city as a woman. The last time she was here, she was a man.

From an early age Jin loved to dance and perform, but he felt different from the boys around him. He preferred playing with girl’s toys and wished he was a girl like his sister. One night during a thunderstorm, he ran outside in the hopes that lightning would strike him and transform him into a girl. To his dismay, nothing happened.

When Jin was nine, he was selected to attend a military school for dance, but his parents didn’t approve. When they refused to send him, he went on a hunger strike for two days.

“It worked.  Then my mom said, ‘Okay, if you made a decision, you have to write a paper, promising you won’t regret your choices and you won’t put that regret on your parents in the future,” she said.

At the military school, Jin learned to fire a machine gun and blow up a bridge using a bomb, but most importantly, he learned to dance. The dance instruction was strict. The military instructors would tie each student’s leg to a vertical column so that they were forced into the splits.

“We are screaming and shouting, but the teachers, our teachers, are sitting there reading a morning newspaper and looking, ‘five more minutes.’  I think, according to America or western law, this is completely child abuse, no doubt,” she said.  “But in China culture, you have to sacrifice.”

Jin threw himself into dancing. He thought if he could only become a famous dancer, people wouldn’t pay attention to his personal life. By the time he was 18, he had won acclaim as the best male dancer in the People’s Liberation Army. He was selected to come to America to study modern dance in New York City. He arrived barely knowing any English and said at first he felt overwhelmed.

“I was standing on Madison Avenue with my backpack…I see people rushing beside me. Then I say, ‘Wow, this is my city,” she said.  “I [felt] a little bit lost because I was the best dancer of China…[but] nobody knows.”

Jin quickly found his footing, training with top tier dance companies and emerging choreographers like Mark Dendy. 

“Jin Xing was amazing, is amazing, still amazing,” Dendy said. “There’s always a look in the eye when someone’s really, really great and we just say, ‘They’ve got it.’”

Dendy said that Jin’s speed and ability to use space set him apart as a dancer.

“Pirouettes, grand jetes… he had, she had amazing air,” Dendy said.  “It’s the ability to go up in the air and have a cup of coffee and come down.”

Jin describes this time in New York as liberating but confusing. He began to date men but something didn’t feel right. He had big questions about his sexuality and his identity as a man. He wasn’t sure if he was gay, or if he was transgender and what should he do about it. He left New York for Europe, but after a few years he made up his mind to return to China and undergo sex reassignment surgery. Jin was 28 when he underwent the operation.

Jin’s mother struggled with her son’s decision. She was worried the surgery wouldn’t go well, and afraid for her son’s future. Jin was even more scared to tell his father, a former military officer and member of China’s secret police, about his decision to become a woman.

Jin told his father, “I become a woman. I become your daughter.”  Jin’s father was silent for a moment, then he got a cigarette out and said, “Okay, finally matched.’”

Her father said, ”Strangely enough, 20 years ago, I look at [you], I was wondering, I have a little boy, but you behave everything like a little girl. So after 28 years, you find yourself, congratulations.”

Jin Xing became one of the first people to have a sex change operation in China.

The surgery went well, but there were complications. The operation damaged Jin’s left leg and she feared she might never dance again, but three months after the surgery, she was back on stage in Beijing.

Her performance prompted some to complain about Jin to Beijing’s cultural bureau.

“The best male dancer becomes a female dancer,” she said.  “I think people tried to find different ways to find an explanation for me.”

Following her surgery, some said that Jin had sacrificed her body for dance or to make it more acceptable for her to date men. Jin quickly dismissed those claims.

“It’s completely for myself.  This is my life.  I have to [be] honest with my life,” she said.

Jin said at first, the Chinese authorities didn’t address her sex change.

“They stand back a little bit.  One side, they appreciate me, still appreciate that I’m a good dancer,” Jin said.  “But somehow, they have no comment, no opinion about my personal choices.”

In 2000, Jin Xing’s life changed again.  She became a mother, adopting her son Leo, then her daughter Vivian and lastly, her little boy Julian.

She was content as a single mom, until she unexpectedly fell in love with a German man on a flight from Paris to Shanghai.

“I’m in the lounge and I’m waiting for boarding and a Chinese lady appears at the lounge.  I wouldn’t say low key.  She was wearing a long leather coat, miniskirt, leather boots, Louis Vuitton bag on one side and a Chihuahua in her hand,” said Heinz Gerd Oidtmann.

The two were seated next to each other on the plane and quickly connected. The next day, Oidtmann called Jin and asked her out.

On their first date Jin revealed to Oidtmann that she was once a man.

“I was shocked,” Oidtmann said.  “This image of a sexy, attractive woman was gone and I was really confused.”

Oidtmann took a day to sort his thoughts but he returned to Jin and said that he wanted to continue to see her. A year later, he proposed and they’ve been married for seven years. But Oidtmann admits it’s still strange for him to see photos of his wife as a man.

“Somehow, I’m not really connected to that part of her life.  I want to keep pure the female image that I have of my wife and it is very purely a female impression that I have of her,” he said.

It’s been 17 years since her sex change, and Jin Xing’s star continues to rise. In addition to dancing and choreographing, she’s acting in films and appearing on China’s versions of Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. Her popularity continues to grow and the regime that was once quiet on her sex change now pushes her out front as a cultural leader.

“They give me the space to become who I am in China as an independent artist and [at the] same time, I’m getting a lot of positive image [for China] as an artist, as a cultural ambassador for China,” Jin said.

The Chinese government, while more comfortable with Jin, still monitors her closely.  She says the government watches what she posts on China’s version of Twitter and keeps a close eye on her dancing.

“In China, before all the performing arts are only used for propaganda use, but if the art form [is to] become independent, that takes a little time,” Jin said of China’s censorship.

And while Jin acknowledges that some people come to see her perform because of her personal transformation, it doesn’t seem to bother her.

“If my personal story can bring [the] public into the theater, I’m already successful,” she said.  “Because after one and a half hour, they’re talking about my dancing, they’re not talking about my sex change.”