The first transgender celebrity in China and her sexist dating show
Jin Xing is a progressive icon, and the first person to openly undergo gender reassignment surgery in China. Why is she now hosting a show that helps parents select docile daughters-in-law?
Jin Xing is the first transgender celebrity in China, and a progressive icon for many. She enjoys many titles: an accomplished dancer, founder of a modern dance company, a single mother of three adopted children, a talk show host, a business woman, and a wife of an interracial marriage. Now, she is once again under the spotlight for hosting a new dating show: one that features parents choosing potential daughters-in-law for their sons.
The first episode of Chinese Dating aired on Christmas Eve, and caused a storm of outrage on the internet that still continues. In the show, parents sit on chairs that move forward when they approve of one of the single girls on stage. Emphasis is put on youth (under 30), good looks, simple past relationships, a good career, a gentle attitude and family-centered values. And for men, wealth. When a girl with a doctorate degree stepped on the stage, the following caption appeared on screens: “but where’s the good looks that we agreed on?” The chauvinistic comments and the patriarchal, misogynistic standards led Quartz News to publish a video titled: “A new hit Chinese TV show proves sexist ideas still persist there.”
Yet Jin Xing has told the audience that she is proud of the show: “I told you, I don’t host average shows”, and presented it as in line with her harsh but fair attitude. (She once told the Huffington Post: “My words aren’t like massage oil — they’re like acupuncture needles, they go right to the nerve and twist it.”)
What has happened to Jin Xing, once an icon of progressive attitudes around gender and sexuality?
The military male dancer turned woman celebrity
Jin Xing was born in 1967 in Shenyang in northern China. Her father was a staff officer in the People’s Liberation Army, a highly privileged position in China, and her mother a translator. This background allowed Jin to enjoy many privileges. By age nine, she was admitted to a prestigious troupe and trained in traditional dance and acrobatics. Both are considered strong propaganda tools in China.
With her dancing talents, Jin quickly rose to the high ranks in the military. However, her ambitions and visions for life were beyond the confines of the army. In 1988, she received a scholarship from the Asia Society and left for New York to study modern dance and improve her English. In 1994, after returning to China at the age of 26, Jin once again joined the establishment: she was hired by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China.
So far, it might seem that she had chosen a life of mainstream success in the People’s Republic. However, Jin then felt increasingly uncomfortable in her own skin, and eventually made a decision: to have gender confirmation surgery and become a woman. In 1994, Chinese doctors had almost no experience with such operations, but she still she felt a pull to make the change at home. “I need the chi, I need the earth. I need them to protect me,” she said at the time. “In a Western environment maybe the technology is there, but my soul is too lonely.”
The news that Jin was to be the first person to openly undergo gender reassignment surgery became a national sensation in China. This is no easy task in any country, in particular Chinese society where one’s marital status is a dinner table topic and family is at the core of social values. Luckily, her parents were supportive, which she has said became the backbone of her confidence in her new life. However, 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. They even signed her disability papers. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Jin described 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… 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.”
Her military experience proved to be useful and her own resilience paid off: after being released from the hospital in 1995, Jin immediately began intense physical therapy. Over the following year she made a full recovery and eventually — and rather miraculously — returned to the stage as a woman.
A recovered Jin went through a re-incarnation. She founded her own modern dance troupe in Shanghai, and her story brought her nationwide fame. She was invited to be a judge on a local version of the show ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. Her sharp-tongued comments often brought aspiring performers to tears, which earned her the title of Poisonous Tongue and made her an even more beloved TV personality. Her popularity eventually led to her own show, the ‘Jin Xing Show’, a wildly successful programme featuring dance competition and viewed by an estimated 100 million every week.
A single mother who found a loving husband
In addition to her stage success, Jin also became well-known because of her adoption of three children as a single mother. In China adopting children and being a single mother are both rare, and Jin is considered exceptionally courageous.
As Jin herself explained, “I’m full of love. Of course I have love in my dancing, on the stage. But still I have too much love to give. I was deeply appreciative, I love kids. So I have no problem adopting.”
Her family once again stood by her choice. When she adopted her first child, Leo, now 10, her mother was there to help look after him. And the family was soon joined by Vivian and Julian, now 8 and 7, respectively. In an interview on CNN, Jin said: “Children immediately centered me, grounded me. Wham! In one decade I became very family-oriented. No more wild party girl.”
And then on a long transcontinental flight, she met a German businessman in the seat next to her in first class who is reported to have immediately fell for her, and later accepted both the fact that she was once a man, and that she was a single mother of three children. Upon recalling their encounter, Heinz-Gerd Oidtmann, who is now her husband, told the media that he was “swept away by the fantasy that was Jin Xing.” Although he was stunned by her “big package of the past”, after spending some time on his own, he went back to her and made ready to spend their lives together.
What adds more flavour to this apparently fairytale story, is how open and confident Jin appears to be about her past and the nature of her parenthood, sexuality, gender, and family. As she once told CNN, when her oldest son asked her “Who is this boy?” while looking at her old photo album, she replied, “That’s mommy before”. And her son remarked, “Oh mommy so cute”. “Yes, mommy was a cute boy.” Jin followed the story with the comment:
“I think it’s very natural, I tell him the family how different…each family is different; the construction of family idea and parenthood is different.”
The new dating show: “I’m in charge of a good match for my son”
Why has Jin now become the host of Chinese Dating? And how has modern Chinese society produced a show whose very first episode included parents grilling the single girls with questions like “Can you do housework?” and the brutal rejection of a 40-year-old divorcee and single mom?
Chinese Dating has been slammed by critics both within and beyond China as a revival of outdated arranged marriages. Chinese netizens also expressed mixed reactions on social media, with some using the word “disgusting”, while others simply enjoyed the entertainment.
The show has been referenced in an ongoing discussion in China about the “Giant Infant” culture described by popular psychologist Wu Zhihong in his recent book The Giant Baby Nation. In the book, Zhihong attributes the psychological and social problems in contemporary China to collectivism and blind filial piety. In interviews he has also highlighted the problem in the government’s decades-long experiment: the one-child policy. According to Wu, for over three decades, such nation-wide population control, the restriction of only allowing one child in a family, has led to cosseting and too much intervention by the family into the child’s adult life, including around marriage, career, and other major life choices. Subsequently, the single child often appears to be overly self-centred and dependent on family support, and often suffers from paranoia and insecurity. We might think of the male participant on Chinese Dating, aged 23, who rapped that, “I’m a childish guy, I enjoy Disneyland, I lacked calcium as a kid and I didn’t get enough love after I grew up.”
Sun Peidong, sociologist and author of Who Will Marry My Daughter? Shanghai Parental Matchmaking Corner in the People’s Square of Shanghai (2012) insightfully describes the curious phenomenon that has been happening for over a decade, where hundreds of anxious parents gather in a public space—a large park in central Shanghai—holding the profiles of their kids to find marriage partners for them. The chances of finding a good match at the park itself are low, but the parents – who grew up in the Mao era (many of them were sent down to the countryside) and missed many life opportunities themselves – use the opportunity to share their worries with others who are in the same situation through regular meetings and thus get a special kind of social support. Sun points out the deeper social and political reasons underlying the over-involvement and intervention by parents into their children’s personal lives. People born in the 1950s share a collective anxiety as they once experienced great social instability. Therefore, Sun says, they hate the uncertainty of the future and are afraid that their children would pick the wrong person to marry.
Curiously enough, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the government, published an article defending the show, in which the producer explained that their purpose was simply to facilitate good matches and to improve inter-generational communications. Jin Xing also told the reporter that she agrees strongly with the matchmaking mentality, because “marriage is different from dating, it concerns two families”, and that she has seen enough marriages of “successful elites” around her broken due to the fact that they were “unclear about what marriage is”. She even stressed that “having equal social and economic status is crucial for a marriage, for marriage is not a Poverty Reduction Programme”.
This attitude might go some way to explain why Jin Xing, someone who has been considered a progressive figure of family and gender in China and abroad, would agree to host a show that brands itself with conservative and reactionary gender and family values.
Jin’s courage and resilience are certainly admirable, but she is also privileged in many ways. Born into a family of high-ranking military officials, she was part of the establishment, while at the same time someone who saw opportunity and was able to grasp it, with an outstanding ability to adapt to new and ever-changing environments. When she realised that she could no longer be a top dancer, she transformed and reinvented herself as a TV celebrity and a businesswoman. Together with her husband, she now overseas a transnational corporation, the Purple Star Culture and Communication. Her surgery and the public’s reaction to it were, by all accounts, extremely painful, but it also occurred at a time when China, in particular the entertainment industry and the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai where Jin has been residing since returning from the US, were becoming increasingly open-minded and hungry for change. The society at large might not have accepted her, but the social circle that she is part of has.
Therefore, it might be useful to examine how progressive Jin’s story really is. She indeed represents many marginalised voices and disfranchised groups, but she herself has enjoyed many privileges by upbringing and by career. Hence, her success and the glamourised image of a transgender celebrity, could not and is not intended to speak for those who struggle with their gender identity but cannot afford the surgery or being open about it, or the single mothers who struggle to make ends meet and to bring up kids on their own, or young kids with artistic talents but without the necessary access to resources or opportunities.
It is understandable that people tend to speak about issues from their own experience and backgrounds, just as political activists do not always value the same reforms, nor always agree on the nature of the problems at hand. A recent study from the UK has shown how feminism has failed working-class women in Britain by focusing too much on gender equality in high-profile roles. The break the glass ceiling approach that simply promotes women in the boardroom has not been as successful in changing family-friendly working culture or providing opportunities for other women to advance. Gender still has a strong independent impact on women’s earnings prospects – but class, education and occupational backgrounds are stronger determinants of a woman’s progression and earnings prospects.
It takes time and effort for any changes concerning social issues to occur, and we tend to focus on, and even glorify and glamourise, key figures who are seen as leading progressive movements or representing a recognised agenda. Meanwhile, the more ordinary stories and struggles are often ignored. The problem comes, as with Jin Xing today in China, when those figures become part of the forces that neglect grassroot-level issues, helping to prevent real change from happening.