Jin Xing is China’s most celebrated choreographer, dancer, and transgender role model – an outspoken and inspiring figure who as she says ‘is always challenging the boundaries of Chinese society.’ With 350,000 fans on Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter), and an array of regular TV gigs, she’s also a national celebrity, and a symbol of the diversification of popular culture in contemporary China.
It gives me great pleasure to post the following edited transcription from a talk given by Jin Xing at the University of Minnesota on 16 February this year. Colloquial and compelling, the piece reads as something of a manifesto on Jin Xing’s life and dance practice, and has been edited in consultation with the speaker herself.
For those already interested in Jin Xing, get ready for a real treat. For those who haven’t heard of Jin Xing yet, allow us to introduce you to one powerful personality.
A childhood in the military
I was born in 1967, when the Cultural Revolution was just starting. As a child I had a dream to be on stage, not necessarily to dance. People say, You chose dance and I say No, dance chose me. I just wanted to be on stage. I like the feeling of the lights on me, curtain going up … whatever it is I do next. [laughs]
So at nine years old I was spotted by the military as a dancer. This sounds very bizarre for a Western audience, I know. Why would you get artistic training from the military? But in the 1950s, the Chinese government had a strong link with the Soviet Union, and we adopted certain systems from them. Each military state had its own performance troupe, including an opera company, acrobatics company, theatre group, and dance company. They had the power; they had the money. If you went into the military it was a super privilege.
So they came to my home and said we want to take this little boy to the military to study dancing. My father was a military officer so he was happy and said ‘Join, it’ll be a big honour for the family.’ My mother however said ‘No. This boy is not going to be a dancer. He’s going to study.’ My mother and father were both of the Korean minority, and were very strong traditional people.
As a nine-year-old child I was a very determined person, and I went on a hunger strike for two days. I told my mother I was going to military school to be a performer. My mother said No. I said Yes. And eventually my mother gave up. OK, she said. You’re nine years old you can make your own decisions. But she made me write it down, to declare it on paper: that this was my own decision, and that if one day I woke up and thought it was all too tough, I wouldn’t be allowed to quit. This letter was going to stand as evidence that they hadn’t forced me, and I had chosen this road for myself.
So at nine years old I wrote two letters. One for my parents that said this is my personal choice and I’ll stick with it. The other letter was to the Military Academy, and it said You’ve got to take me. If you don’t take me you will regret it your whole life. [laughs] A nine-year-old boy!
So I got to go to military school and was happy for a while. But after three years of training … I don’t know if I can tell you how tough it was. At thirteen I came home and asked my mother Can I come home from school? My mother looked at me sternly and said, No. You chose dance so you stick with it.
The West and modern dance
So this is where my education as a dancer began, but at that time I had no knowledge about contemporary dance. Twenty years ago in China, contemporary dance represented individualism and freedom, but it was not something from Chinese culture. I had a strict training in Russian ballet. In the ‘80s we turned to French ballet, which was much softer than that, and then I combined this education with the dancing of China’s fifty-six official minorities. In China we have fifty-six minority cultures, and each has its own beautiful style of dance and music. So ultimately I got a lot of training. This in the end is my background.
So until that moment, until I was seventeen or eighteen, I had no idea about modern dance at all. For us, ‘modern’ was completely Western, and had nothing to do with being an Asian dancer. I just knew that it was something that you couldn’t pursue in China, that is was something that happened in America, in New York. But then in 1987 I heard about a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, Asian Cultural Council and American Dance Festival. It was sending a delegation to China to train the first generation of modern dancers. Twenty students were to be selected in the first round, and then among those twenty students they would select one student to go to America to study.
Of course, I thought: Bingo.
At that time I had no idea about modern dance. But I said, OK, I’m going to go to America to study. If they’re going to choose the best, I have to be the one. In China’s National Dance Competition for both 1985 and 1986, I was the number one male dancer. So I thought, if you’re going to choose the best one you’ve got to choose me.
And they did. But of course, America didn’t know that I belonged to the military. The Chinese government said he’s a military dancer, so how can he go to America? It’s completely against the law and regulations; it’s impossible. America didn’t care though. They said, if Jin Xing doesn’t come, nobody can take up this scholarship. We want the best. We want the person who can contribute to the future of Chinese modern dance. And we’ve chosen him. The Chinese government couldn’t say anything. They just wanted to drop the case.
After two months of nothing happening, and of the government not letting me go, I almost gave up hope. I gave up my studies, I left school at went back to Beijing. Then suddenly I got a phone call – it was like a phone call from God. It said: Jin Xing, come back to school, we’ve got the stamp that will allow you to get your own passport and go to America.
I flew back to Guangzhou, got the stamp, and right away went to the local police station. Next day I got my passport and went straight to the American Consulate to get my visa. In the next two days I got my plane ticket, went to Hong Kong and flew to Seattle, and then all the way to New York. In that first month, every morning when I woke up in my apartment, I thought I saw the Chinese military catching and dragging me back. [laughs] And then I’d realise no, it’s OK, I’m in New York.
Just imagine, a nineteen year old Chinese military dancer coming to New York without one word of English. All I could say was Excuse Me, Thank You, Bye Bye. I remember I landed in Manhattan, I kissed the ground and said: Now I can be myself. Not just a dancer, but a person.
As a child I was very confused. I thought I was gay. And I thought, OK, in the military I cannot be gay, but at least I can be famous.
The ‘double-skinned artist’
I think I have strong cultural influences – Asian culture is there in my choreography – but I don’t go to great efforts to label myself as Chinese. I don’t have to. If you see me as a dancer on stage automatically the attitude is Chinese.
What’s interesting for me is to look at this question from the other side, and to ask how we receive this information, how we digest it. Some people say my work is too old fashioned and classical, but for me that doesn’t matter. I’m confident that the work I take overseas is exactly what I conducted in China.
In China we have this thing called a ‘double-skinned artist,’ or you could translate it as ‘double-faced.’ These artists make a lot of work that flirts with the Western world. They know what the West likes so they’ll give them that, often as extra work, but then they never show that work in their homeland. People in China have no idea that artists like this exist, but they can be very, very famous overseas.
They might take political issues as a metaphor and try to make something about that. Fine. They can do that, that’s their choice. But I’m not going to do it. I think you have to show the work exactly to your own country, to your own culture, as you would do overseas. Then you can bring it home.
In 2003, I toured my company to France. Some critics loved it and some disliked it. But some said it was too old fashioned, and I think: Excuse me. We are living in different time zones! When America is sleeping we are working; when we’re sleeping you are working.
And the training is different. Asian dancers have a very strong upper body; the emphasis is on the upper body’s expression, on facial expressions and hand gestures. But the Western dancer has different body proportions: they have long legs, strong feet. Westerners are much stronger in their lower half of the body.
That’s what’s interesting about different cultures. For me, globalisation is not all about everybody sharing the one thing. We can share the world, but have a million different ideas.
So don’t expect me as an artist to do the Europeans a favour, or do the Americans a favour. No. It’s not like that. I have to think what I’m thinking. I stick with my own timing. And I am confident in my dance.
Shanghai and The Jin Xing Dance Theatre
I founded my dance company in 1999 in Beijing, and in 2000 I moved to Shanghai. It was the first independent performing troupe in China. But what does that mean: independent? In America, it’s easy to understand; it means ‘free.’ But in China to be ‘independent’ is a completely different story.
All the Chinese performing troupes are owned by the government, subsidised by the government, and of course also highly censored by the government. It doesn’t matter how much work you’ve done, if the government doesn’t approve of it they can have you closed down immediately. So that’s the environment I came from, but then I said I want to start a company of my own.
It was very important to me that this company be created under my artist’s name – The Jin Xing Dance Theatre – which had never happened in China before. Every company was attached to a city, like the Wuhan Dance Theatre, or the Chengdu Dance Troupe, but there was not one company with an artist’s name. In old times, yes, but not since 1949.
I said I wanted this, my company under my name, and government said that was impossible. So in 2000 I moved my company to Shanghai and established it there. The government didn’t stop me, and that was a good sign, but of course there was no support from them either.
2004 was the Year of Chinese Culture in Germany, and the German and Chinese governments organised a big festival of the Chinese arts. The German government invited thirty-six companies to perform – acrobatics, opera, everything – and then the Berlin City Government said there’s just one extra company that we want, and that’s the Jin Xing Dance Theatre. They wanted the modern dance company. The private company. And the P.R.C.’s Ministry of Culture said No. This company is a private company and, if you insist on wanting this company, we’ll drop the whole thing.
So then I got this big letter from the Berlin City Government saying: Sorry, sorry. If we invite you the whole project will be dropped. Thirty-six companies – the government won’t send one of them. It was very clear: government was government, private was private. Even in 2004 it was still like this. But now it’s 2012, and you can see there’s already been huge progress.
Independence through commercial work
But how does my company survive? Internationally, people are often surprised about this.
I have fifteen dancers in my company, and I give them a monthly salary. In New York, everyone might be working freelance, on different projects, but this is not possible in Shanghai. Shanghai is a big city with 23 million people, and you know in China today there is such obsession with money, with materialism – it drives people crazy. If I don’t look after my dancers, if I don’t keep their minds in shape, they’ll have no way of taking part in a contemporary training class. That’s why I keep my dancers financially attached to the studio. I keep them focussed on something they like.
But where does the money come from? I’m not a millionaire. So besides from dancing I do TV Shows. I act in theatre. I act in movies: Korean movies (I speak Korean), Thai movies …
And then in China we copy a lot of American TV shows, like America’s Got Talent – we have a Chinese version. American Idol – we have a Chinese version. Dancing With the Stars – we have a Chinese version. I’m the jury for those shows. I’m the bitchy one. Yep, I’m the bitch. But people still love me, because I speak the truth. I don’t comfort those stars; I don’t give a damn. If you dance in front of me, I’ve got to say what I think.
So I do a lot of commercial work, then I use this money to support the company.
Personal strength, sexuality and China
Somehow, with my personality, I’m always challenging the boundaries of Chinese society. [laughs] I’m always pushing things, biting at things. The best male dancer in China in 1995 became a female dancer. That’s already a big taboo for China. And then she established the first modern dance company.
And when I moved to Shanghai, I didn’t go quiet. I was running my own company, choreographing new pieces, and at the same time I became a single mother. I adopted three children from an orphanage. So a single mother with three kids – that’s also a big taboo. In China, that’s too much. I’m too much! But I say all my energy, all my strength and determination, all of this comes thanks to my government and my military training. [laughs]
I’m now 45 yrs old, and still dancing. How is it that I have the energy? I think I’m a very blessed person, and dance gives me a way to balance myself. Dance is sign language, and you can use this to communicate all of your struggles, all of your sorrows. You can choose beautiful music from around the world, and then put everything of yourself into that music, and I think that’s a tremendous gift. Even if I’m facing a very challenging social environment and social path, I always have this to recharge me back in my studio.
And when I go home as a mother and a wife, I look at my three gorgeous kids – that’s another recharger. I have to fight. Fight for what? For money, so they can have a beautiful life? No. I have to fight because society can be cruel. They are orphanage kids; I adopted them. And now they already have all this extra business with ‘oh, your mother was a man, your mother was a transsexual …’ It means I just have to work harder to establish myself as a serious artist, so that in the future these kids can grow up and be proud of their mother.
There’s a lot of debate on the internet with people saying She’s a transsexual, How can she adopt kids, She’s a disgusting person, She can’t be a good mother, etc. To that, I say: shut up. Am I a good mother or not? Only my kids can tell society that after twenty years. Nobody else can judge me.
And, I see things changing. You know in China we have the microblog Weibo, like Twitter, and these days I have 350,000 followers. Every day I send them messages and every day they know what I’m doing. And when I walk down the street, my fans range from fifteen-year-old kids to eighty-year-old seniors. People come up to me and they say, We love you! Finally somebody in this country is speaking the truth. So then I say, OK, that’s a responsibility. That’s an encouragement. I think maybe Chinese society is turning in the right direction.
We have a lot of issues though. For me today, living there as an artist, I feel like China is a three F country.
The first F, for the outsiders who’ve never been to China, who’ve only ever seen the news, it’s a fascinating country. Wow, look at the GDP, whatever. Let’s go to China. This is the China moment.
But we live in China; we see the positive and the negative. For an insider, who actually lives in China, it’s a frustrating country. Environmental protection, education, social security … there are a lot of issues. And it’s extremely corrupt, and the people always pay the bill.
And the third F, for both the outside and the inside, is that it’s a frightening country. We hope that China is turning in the right direction but simply we don’t know. Politically, economically, culturally – I don’t want to get too deeply into politics but culturally I pay a lot of attention, and I think there are issues with heritage and all kinds of things. OK, we might have number one GDP but we also have so much junk in our own backyard that we have to clear up.
But at the same time, I’m so happy here as an artist. People ask me if I want to go back to New York, or to Europe. I have a lot of job offers for teaching. I have a German husband and any minute I could move back to Germany with him. But I say No. I still keep my Chinese passport. I’m standing strictly with my government, with my people. I want to witness this change.
I always used to wonder why people didn’t want to talk about my art, why they were so obsessed with my sexual transformation, and then this Chinese philosopher helped explain it to me. He said, Jin Xing, there are many beautiful dancers and choreographers out there; there are also a lot of transgender and transsexual people. But these two combined, living in China, doing something special – that is only you.
Then I thought, Yes, OK. It makes sense. So now I’m fine with that. And if my personal story can contribute to the art world then that’s good. During the last ten years many Chinese people have come to see my show. Maybe 30% were art lovers, 70% were people thinking let’s go see a transsexual person dancing. Fine. But I have confidence that after one and half hours I can convince them by my work. I can convince them to see my dancing, not my transexuality.
Many thanks to both Jin Xing, and the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, for allowing the publication of this edited transcription.
Click here to view a recording of the original event.