“Young people call me the Statue of Liberty of China,” says Jin, who was photographed Sept. 21 at her studio in Shanghai.
“Young people call me the Statue of Liberty of China,” says Jin, who was photographed Sept. 21 at her studio in Shanghai.
Jasper James

Meet the Oprah of China, Who Happens to Be Transgender

Jin Xing, a former male ballet star and army colonel, draws 100 million viewers a week and was the first person, publicly, to undergo gender reassignment surgery in her country. Now she shares the unlikely story of finding extraordinary success afterwards.

Jin Xing, China's most popular TV hostess, has been many things in her life: dance prodigy, prima ballerina, decorated colonel in the People's Liberation Army, choreographer, actress, wife and mother of three. She also has been a man.

The son of ethnic Korean parents — her father was a bureaucrat in the army and her mother a translator — Jin was born in 1967 in Shenyang, a provincial northeast city in mainland China. As early as 4 she felt she was different, not just in terms of her sexual identity but also thanks to a precocious talent for dance that would, by age 9, result in her admission to a prestigious troupe within the People's Army (traditional dance and acrobatics are considered strong propaganda tools within the Chinese military). For the next 10 years, Jin's rise through the ranks of the military would follow two distinctly different paths: As a promising member of the dance troupe, she studied Russian ballet, Chinese opera, dancing and acrobatics; as a soldier, she became proficient with machine guns and learned how to place bombs delicately under bridges.

Her post-military life was no less ambitious. She became an acclaimed dancer during a stint in New York, founded her own dance troupe in Shanghai and adopted three children whom she raised on her own until her marriage in 2005. Her career as a TV personality skyrocketed thanks to regular appearances as a judge on a local version of So You Think You Can Dance, where she was a fan favorite for her withering takedowns (she often reduced young aspiring dancers to tears, earning her the name Poison Tongue on social media). Her popularity eventually led to The Jin Xing Show, a wildly successful variety/chat program — it's viewed by an estimated 100 million every week — that includes a dance competition, with Jin as the sole judge. She has been a woman since undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 1995.

Now a bona fide superstar, Jin, 49, is a one-woman industry unto herself, a kind of Chinese hybrid of Oprah, Simon Cowell and Caitlyn Jenner. And yet, outside China she is virtually unknown.

Jin won't discuss the circumstances surrounding how she was allowed to change her sexual identity. She was not the first person to undergo the procedure in China. But the practice was widely considered taboo — the first media reports about gender reassignment began to pop up in Xinhua, China's official news agency, in the early '90s but usually in a negative context (the surgery was often described as a lifesaving procedure for those who had "self-harmed") — and Jin was the first public figure to transition. And since her transition was so high profile — she already was famous as a male dancer at the time — the fact that the Chinese government did nothing to stop it was widely seen as tacit permission. Today, gender reassignment remains rare, but, as with homosexuality, China's official stance is opaque. While neither is necessarily illegal, being openly gay or transgender is still risky.

But risk is something Jin is clearly comfortable with. Asked to assess the arc of her life, she starts at the beginning. "I never wanted to be a dancer. I just wanted to be onstage," she says in perfect English, her fourth language. "The stage attracted me from 4 years old."

She credits her time in the military with instilling in her a sense of resilience, but it meant growing up fast. "Performing for the military also means you belong to the military. You have a uniform, military training, a salary," she says, adding that her pay was $1.50 a month. She lived in the military barracks in the same city as her parents but rarely saw them. "Rules were rules," she says. "They didn't treat you like a kid anymore — you were in the military."

She recalls suffering almost constant physical and mental abuse, admitting that her training veered toward "child abuse," but also takes pains to say that "these days" things are improving. "Every day, I got a hard beating during the training because that's part of the Chinese mentality," she says almost matter-of-factly. "If you want a child to learn something, you've got to beat them up. If you've seen the wonderful movie Farewell My Concubine, you can see the young kids training for opera [and getting beaten] — it's exactly the same thing."

Jin's rise through the ranks accelerated when she won her first national dance championship at age 17, becoming, as she says, "the No. 1 male dancer in the country." She laughs softly at the memory of that first win, as she had to dance in the propaganda style, "exactly like North Korea does today, same thing." With a rising national profile and reaching the rank of sergeant, Jin saw her life take another turn when she became aware of a dance scholarship to America funded by a cultural exchange program. She was determined to win the scholarship and experience life outside China — and she did just that. But there was one problem: She was still in the army and now a high-profile propaganda tool. To make matters worse, she had attracted the unwanted attention of a superior officer. "One of the military officers, he was a homosexual and he tried to harass me. I said to him, 'Please don't. You are gay, that's fine. I've nothing against homosexuals, but I'm not one. Don't harass me. Choose somebody else.' " The superior officer persisted, however, but in characteristic fashion, Jin found a way to use this to her advantage. When she threatened to expose the officer and sue him for sexual harassment unless he let her go, he relented, and Jin moved to New York as a wide-eyed 19-year-old.

She found life in America understandably daunting. "I was the star in China, and I came to New York full of pride, and then after 10 minutes, I said, 'Shit, you are nobody.' In New York, you start from the ground, start from scratch again." She studied dance during the day while working menial jobs at night to make ends meet. It was during this time that she began to explore other aspects of herself: her sexuality and her identity. "I was 19 years old, outside of China, [and] I thought, 'Now I can think about it: Who am I?' " she says, adding that she had known from age 6 that she should be a girl but was born a boy. "Now I was free to discover myself. Maybe I'm gay? But I didn't think so. Then I went to the gay bars, met a gay friend, but I said, 'No, no, I'm not gay.' My sexuality is still like a female's. That's when I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, 'OK, I belong to that small island.' Then I started researching."

In the meantime, Jin's dance career was taking off. She won awards at America's most prestigious dance festivals, and The New York Times and other publications lauded this young male dancer from China as a virtuoso. (The Times described her original routine, titled "Half Dream," as "astoundingly assured" and added that the theme "was open to interpretation but clearly pitted the individual against a group.")

By now news of Jin's success in New York had reached China, and such was the People's Army's pride in her that she was promoted to colonel even though she wasn't technically serving. Offers began to flood in from American dance companies, but Jin was yearning to experience Europe, so she worked for a time in Rome (learning Italian and developing a lifelong love for the country) and then Brussels, where she picked up French. All the while, privately, she was researching, preparing and waiting to transition.

It would have been easier for Jin, then 28, to undergo surgery and make the transition in the U.S. or even Europe, but she felt the pull of home and family. "I saw doctors in the West, but I needed to go back to China. I wanted to be close to my mom because the first life she gave me, I was born as Chinese. So the second time I gave myself a birth again, I wanted it to be in China, too. I'm Chinese. I can live in New York, I can live all over, but I am Chinese." Telling her parents was tough, but Jin says that with the dancing, the lack of girlfriends, somehow they always knew.

The news that Jin was to be the first person to openly undergo gender reassignment surgery became a national sensation in China. An already fraught situation was made worse when a lack of oxygen to one of her legs during the 16-hour surgery put her whole career in jeopardy. The doctors were adamant that Jin would have trouble walking again, let alone dancing, and they even signed her disability papers.

Jin describes this period as the most difficult of her life. "I almost committed suicide. I wanted to become a woman, but I didn't want to be handicapped. I didn't want to lose my leg," she says, pausing every now and again, the memory of that time still clearly painful. "Maybe I needed to sacrifice more to get to what I wanted. It's not that easy to get what you want. If it was so easy, everyone would do it." Released from the hospital in September 1995, Jin immediately began intense physical therapy, her recovery aided by the fact that as a trained dancer she had always been in excellent health. Her determination paid off: Over the following year she made a full recovery and eventually — and rather miraculously — returned to the stage in Beijing, now as a woman. "It was January 1996. I've never cried onstage, but that time I cried when I took the final bow. I was thinking, 'Yes, I got back my stage and I've got back my leg.' "

(She says her reception was less triumphant, describing it as a mixture of "astonishment" at her recovery and "old prejudices.")

Despite her recovery, Jin, then 29, knew that she could never reach the heights of her youth again, so she focused her energy on her fledgling dance company and becoming something of a socialite in Beijing. She also wanted a family and took the bold and highly unusual step of adopting three orphans. Having three children under China's one-child policy would raise eyebrows ordinarily, but once again Jin's high profile and extraordinary history lent her a unique — and mysterious — level of autonomy. As with her silence about how she was able to transition without government interference, she won't discuss the circumstances surrounding her adopted children, Leo, 16, Vivian, 14, and Julian, 13. She does, however, defend the decision to adopt: "People talked about it, and some people criticized me: 'Oh, she's so selfish. She's transgender. How does she have a right to be raising kids?' Blah, blah, blah. I said, 'Shut up. Am I a good mother or not?' I'm a good mother. After my children are all grown up, [critics] will see they had no right to criticize me."

Although Jin is intentionally vague about how she has been able to avoid so many cultural land mines, she revels in some of the more remarkable details of her life. Her description of how she met her husband, German businessman Heinz-Gerd Oidtmann, is a case in point. Sometime in 2004, traveling back from Paris in Air France first class, Jin says, she was decked out in her silk pajamas, "looking chic," with her Chihuahua under her arm and ready to relax during the long flight to Shanghai. Her plans were disrupted by Oidtmann, upgraded from lowly business, who had the good fortune to sit next to her. "He was a nice gentleman, but I didn't want any relationship with him," she recalls. "I said, 'I'm a dancer, just finished a performance in Paris. I'm going back to Shanghai, and I'm a mother of three children.' He said, 'Why do you have three children? In China everybody has one.' I said, 'Yes, I have three with three different men so shut up and that's it!' "

Oidtmann was not to be deterred, however. He tracked down Jin in Shanghai and asked to meet her again. As a foreigner, he knew nothing of her past, so Jin resolved to tell him everything when he called on her. The scene she paints of that meeting has the cinematic flair of a Wong Kar-wai movie: a rainy night in Shanghai's French Concession, Jin and her three children standing in the doorway lit only from behind. " 'This is my life,' I said to him. 'You don't know who I am. I have a much bigger story.' " She told him everything, much to his shock. "I told him, 'I'm a huge package for any man on this planet. I'm not looking for a husband, I'm not looking for mental help, I'm fine. You have to know me from the beginning — who I am.' " She then kicked him out into the rainy night. A few days later, Oidtmann returned and said he was still keen to date her. Within a year, they were married.

Oidtmann now runs Purple Star Culture and Communication, the company he shares with Jin that organizes dance tours at home and abroad. Their relationship is one of balance, with the larger-than-life Jin as a counterpoint to the quiet and unruffled Oidtmann. In person, they are amusing company: Jin often softly teases him, but Oidtmann gives as good as he gets. Their entertaining banter found its way to Chinese television in 2015, with the couple taking part in the local version of The Amazing Race. Clips of Jin berating Oidtmann for his inability to complete certain tasks have gone viral a million times over, making him something of a celebrity in his own right.

Asked what the future holds, Jin says she has no strong pull toward Hollywood, despite a growing number of acting offers (she recently had a small role — as a villain — in the Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon). Nevertheless, she says she would like to return to America, if only to meet one person: "I know one day I'll go back to America," she says emphatically. "I want to sit down with Oprah, and we can talk."

For now, Jin is content to enjoy her status as an icon — and iconoclast — in China's evolving cultural landscape. Jin, fiercely independent, a quality somewhat at odds with China's sense of collectivism, doesn't feel as if she blazed a trail for others, or at least doesn't want to be seen as an inspiration (she shuts down any conversation related to Caitlyn Jenner or the transgender community in the West). "I'm too individualistic," she says. "Young people look at me and call me the Statue of Liberty of China. I'm maybe the person that's pushed the boundary, but don't block my road! That's it."

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