[Jin Xing is China’s first officially recognised transsexual; a former army colonel; and the force behind the country’s largest and only independent dance company. Her Shanghai Beauty opens tonight at the Arts Centre - having visited Shanghai in December last year, we start by talking about the place.]
I always say that Shanghai is a three-F city: for the outsider it’s fascinating, for the insider it’s frustrating and for both it’s frightening. We don’t know what’s going to happen, what direction it’s going in. We’re so keen to develop the economy, financial development, that we’re losing a lot of our cultural heritage. Especially in education and art education. We did have a strong art education before. Now, the whole country seems so much into economic development and being a strong superpower. There’s so much focus on the numbers.
We lose a lot at the same time. I mean the traditional morality and values, social issues, what the real idea of life is. The Chinese are good at that, because after thousands and thousands of years of culture we really understand what life is about. Not just numbers and economic achievement. Now we’re losing a lot of those details. The train has to stop speeding up, it’s too fast.
[My first visit to China, however, was back in the early 90s. The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 were still fresh and had become indelibly associated with the image of China as an oppressive and violent regime in many Western minds. I was surprised then to speak to people in Beijing and hear them heatedly argue against the need for immediate change. For change to occur, it had to be one the whole society agreed with. The alternative was precisely the cause of many Chinese problems. That’s what people were saying, anyway.]
I agree with that. Now China is moving too fast. The motivation is right but it’s too fast and the people are not ready yet.
[We get talking about Red Detachment of Women, one of the eight “model plays” permitted during the Cultural Revolution.]
The first ballet I saw was the ballet you’re talking about. That ballet inspired me to get on the stage as a child.
[Red Detachment of Women is so striking to my eye because of its obvious conflation of ballet and politics, which would seem anathema.]
No, not at all. It’s a typical Chinese idea. I think some of this idea carried on strongly from Russia, which influenced North Korea and China. In these three countries the military always played an important role in the politics and culture and art. Even today, still.
[Jin Xing learned to dance in the military – joining the PLA at the age of 9 and advancing to the rank of colonel in the army’s dance company.]
They provided the best education you can get in this country. The quality, the discipline, everything led you to become ready to be an actor or performer. The education’s fantastic. Of course this idea of the military training an artist, for Western countries it seems strange or bizarre. But for myself I really benefited a lot.
[But isn’t the military about curtailing the freedom of its members?]
I think at that moment freedom was limited for everybody, not just the military. In fact in the military you do have a privilege because you’re a representative of power in the country. I did travelling a lot, domestically. Of course international travelling for everybody is limited, but now these days I think that limitation has disappeared a little bit. But for me as a child in the military, from the outside looking in it was a very isolated environment. But I was free in my heart and my mind, never blocked, so I received a high quality education in art and at the same time I was full of fantasies in my mind.
Dancing is a tough job for anyone, not just Western or Eastern or whatever. If you want to become a professional dancer discipline is highly required. Also, as a person with such a complicated personal history, and developing contemporary art in China, I needed that soldier’s fighting spirit, to go against the system. That kind of education helped me support my company for ten years, independently.
[Jin Xing says that she’s not opposing her country’s politics or representatives of power]:
I’m challenging social boundaries. I’m not against anything, no. But I’m challenging mentalities, which is what China needs, the people, the government, everybody. I always do things different from others. I follow my own track. I follow my own law.
Six or seven years ago a few hated me for promoting my art because I’m a representative of the individual and independence. For so many decades in China art was always an arm of propaganda. It was highly sensitive, doesn’t matter what kind of artist you are you were always highly censored. But for me as a person, I have so much exposure in the world that in a way they appreciate what I do, the artistic achievement. In another way I do challenge the system and the idea of performing art in China, in the government mind.
So they have no comment. They just leave me alone. Of course, don’t expect to get any support from any of the government. That’s the sacrifice, the price I pay, but I earn my freedom.
It’s very tough, because with the quality of performance I have to convince society that we’re one of the best dance companies in China, and now the government realises that this company is important. Of course it took a decade. But the military energy and spirit for fighting is still pushing me. I hold on to it.
I have a thousand opportunities every minute to give up and go back to Europe and live my own life but I stay in China. What for? Everybody asks ‘Why do you still live in China? You can live in any country you want?’ Because that’s what I want. I know it’s tough but I want to be the one.
[This led Jin Xing to insist upon having her sex change operation in China, despite the fact that the country didn’t even have any recognised post-op transsexuals].
I’m a very superstitious person. My first life is my mum giving birth in China, so I’m Chinese. My second life I gave myself birth but I’m still Chinese, so I have to do it standing on this ground. Simple as that, there’s no other explanation.
I’m not the first to have the operation. Before me there were 30 or 40 other cases. But I’m the only one to confront society. I didn’t change profession, I still connected with society. I continued to work as a dancer rather than disappear, become another person. I treasure my 28 years of male experience, it made me who I am today.
[Did her prominent public profile smooth the way for more acceptance by official circles?]
That must have some influence, I’m sure. My profession, my fame, helps me out, makes it much easier. But at the same time you’re always under the spotlight. Everybody talks about you. But fine, I’m prepared for that.
Now they say they’re pushing the front line because they do have a free artist. Before they didn’t comment. Because Chinese people love this, in the Western world the mixing of personal life and professional life together. Now I think they really deeply appreciate what I do for developing contemporary art. And they also realise that my personal choices are equally deserving of respect. I didn’t do anything to offend society. I didn’t give a bad influence, I gave a good influence to young people just as an individual.
They also know I’m a very outspoken person. I do thousands of interviews with people all over the world and I always say the right thing, the true thing. If in China you’re looking for a person to say the truth without all the political influences and opinions, Jin Xing is one of them. So the government knows what I’m saying.
[Not that attitudes towards transsexuals have undergone any massive revolution in China recently.]
Slowly, slowly. They take their time. They want to change rapidly but that’s a part of Chinese culture as well, things take time. Something might change in one year in a Western country but in China it’ll take five or six years. And things that take ages in Europe might in China take one day. That’s the difference. We’re in a different time zone.
[Are there political points made by works such as Shanghai Beauty?]
People who are used to seeing things from a political point of view can take many, many things from my work. But I always say that’s the freedom of art: if you want to connect my work to a political issue that’s fine, that’s your opinion. But I’m a free artist. I choreograph what I see in society, what I live in.
From the 60s, 70s, 80s to today, in China, people’s ideas of beauty are changing. As a person opening up their eyes in the Cultural Revolution I see the colour influence on beauty in China. Everybody in one colour, in one uniform, everybody the same. That’s the history influencing this work.
Not just physical beauty, the beauty of the dancer, but the beauty idea: for instance, I discovered in the Western world the whole body is part of the beauty concept, whereas in Chinese culture the body is completely covered and beauty can just be taken from facial expressions. That’s very traditional China. But now that’s changing. It’s very much globalisation. Girls will explore their body shape much more.
In Shanghai Beauty there’s no storyline. I think that opens a free space. If people just follow the images I’ve put on stage and listen to the music you’ll have some kind of perspective on the situation, and on China.
The movement itself is still very strongly Chinese because I have such a strong traditional classical training, and Russian ballet and everything, but the physical movement I developed is very much me, my style. The concept, how to put it together, that’s something I’m learning from my Western experiences of contemporary art.
[Which began when, at 19, Jin Xing travelled to New York on a full scholarship to study dance for four years.]
As a 19-year-old boy, you’re standing in Manhattan in Madison Square just looking around. It’s exciting but at the same time frightening because before 19 I’d been in the military all my life since nine, and organised by the government. I know what I’m going to do in the military until I’m 50 or 60 years old. But at 19 you’re alone, not speaking one word of English, in Madison Square. You’re completely lost. You’ve never taken any steps, never made any decision by yourself, never had any responsibility. That’s a big challenge for a young guy. And then I discover a completely new art form: modern dance. I think that was good timing.
[Jin Xing worked a number of jobs while in the States, too.]
I didn’t have to. I was under a full scholarship provided by the American government. But I wanted to get experience, any life experience I could get. That’s very important. I became a waiter, became a salesperson, became a babysitter. All kinds of job I’d take. I just wanted experiences. That’s in my work: real life.
[At six years of age Jin Xing first felt the feelings that would lead to changing sex at 28. When he arrived in America he was still struggling to make sense of his situation.]
From 19 years old I wondered if I was gay and belonged in the homosexual world. And I have so many gay friends, but at the end of the day I knew I must belong to this small, tiny group. I know for any society it’s a big thing to have a sex change. People are always talking about it. But people are going into hospital all the time for all kinds of surgery but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean their life isn’t the same. I had a sex change operation but I’m still me. So I’m not looking for a certain group. That can happen because of loneliness but I have enough in my life already.
Of course it was frightening. I was doubting myself, did I make the wrong decision, was my punishment to have my dancing taken away. But in another sense I’m alive and I know. I’m asking such a huge gift from life that the price must be very high.
[Talk returns to freedom – in fact, everything we’ve been discussing has touched on different notions of freedom. Jin Xing says that beyond the flag-waving political freedom that obsesses the West, there are forms of personal freedom that go way beyond ideology.]
Modern art is a public form of freedom. This freedom can be very difficult for people to take. They’re always yelling for more freedom in society but you give them freedom in the theatre, letting them think in their own way, people get afraid. In the Western world as well. People are looking at contemporary exhibitions and thinking ‘maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I’m an idiot.’
I don’t say all contemporary art is wonderful work. Most of it is rubbish. But if you have excellent work that people are looking at in different ways and they have different explanations… If you want an artist to create freedom you need an audience to appreciate freedom.
We have a long tradition of traditional folk dancing and so many years of propaganda, dancing as a very strong propaganda tool for the public. But contemporary dance can still be quite challenging for the general public. Even in dance circles, in the profession, because contemporary theatre really requires a certain confidence and freedom of mind. And that’s difficult. But I think it’s all we can give. Since society is changing so much around the individual and independent ideas, contemporary art has become more and more important.
That’s the wonderful thing about the theatre. All of the public, no matter your social background, what kind of education you get, you sit in the audience in the dark and enjoy the performance and you let your heart and mind be free. It’s quite an amazing challenge for some of the public.
[Jin Xing founded her company in 1999.]
I haven’t received one penny from the government.
Since the day I started my company I’ve never given one free ticket. Not even to the city mayor. People think you should give the government free tickets. No, not for my performances. I don’t get any support from them so why should I give them tickets? My own dancers’ salaries are depending on the box office. So sometimes if a 1200 seat theatre only has 800 audience, I think: fine. I’m happy for 800 people to pay for tickets. I don’t want to see the fixed glory of a theatre packed out with all the free tickets for the government. I want to see the truth.
[Government officials do attend her performances.]
Yeah, but they come very quietly because they feel a little bit uneasy that I never invite them.
They’re used to the system where they get free tickets as honorary guests. I think in front of art everybody is the same. No matter if you’re a king or queen or a normal worker, you all sit in the dark looking at the same thing. And art’s not for free.
Shanghai Beauty runs tonight until Sunday at the Arts Centre.