Half Dream

March 6, 2006

Jin Xing (with Catherine Texier), Shanghai Tango: A Memoir, London: Atlantic Books, 2007.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

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It cannot be easy being a transsexual in China, especially when you are the only son in an extended family with expectations that you will carry on the ancestral name.  Being a famous dancer who moves from male lead roles to female lead roles after pioneering gender reassignment surgery in Beijing ensures that the spotlight of notoriety falls on you, even without the added pressure of a China Youth Daily journalist questioning your right to perform on stage.  So it is just as well that Jin Xing is an emotionally tough character with an extraordinary sense of self-importance.

Jin Xing considers herself China’s greatest modern dancer.  And she believes she is China’s greatest choreographer.  Fortunately, Jin Xing makes no claim to being China’s greatest writer.Shanghai Tango presents powerful feelings of a boy in the grimy industrial city of Shenyang who senses from a young age that he is really female.  Jin Xing’s father is a military officer who works in another city during the final years of the Cultural Revolution, and he is both physically and emotionally distant from his only son.  Jin Xing develops exclusively in a female world, bathing in the female washroom, enjoying his sister’s clothes and developing an obvious attachment to long hair.  Jin Xing’s mother is stubborn and determined – like her self-willed son who goes on hunger strike until he is allowed to enrol in the army’s dance school at the age of nine – but she is hurt in a loveless and unsupportive marriage, eventually divorcing Jin Xing’s taciturn father.

In the military dance academy Jin Xing is trained beyond the point of physical cruelty (pulleys are used to stretch the muscles of the young students) and he becomes a prize-winning dancer.  But Jin Xing always feels imprisoned inside a male body. He enjoys dancing female roles, grows his hair long to accentuate an androgynous look, and feels sexual attraction for heterosexual men.

Shanghai Tango presents Jin Xing as talented and determined, but very selfish and arrogant, with a self-confidence and lack of reflection that often grates: “My technique is impeccable and my virtuosity so precise that I can perform any sequence of movements on the spot.”  The memoir also reveals Jin Xing to be ruthless and vindictive.  Upset with a petty official in the dance school, Jin Xing kidnaps the woman’s six-year old daughter and glories in the woman’s despair as she searches for her child all afternoon.  And in a successful bid to be released from the army school to take up an American modern dance fellowship, Jin Xing exposes a gay choreographer, telling him that his conversations have been taped and denouncing him to the authorities, ultimately ending the man’s career.

When Jin Xing arrived in America – at this stage still a male lead – he focused completely on dance and sex, experiencing his first penetrative sexual contact and frequenting the “supermarket” of New York’s gay bars.  In one of the few humorous touches in this memoir Jin Xing turns the table on fantasies of Eastern eroticism: “Western sexuality!  It is the stuff of legends and I finally have the chance to experience it for myself.”  The short, balding man who first seduces Jin Xing may look like Vladimir Illyich Lenin, but at least “he lives up to Westerners’ reputations” for sexual prowess.  Later Jin Xing dates a tall Texan cowboy, but life on the ranch lacks culture and the opportunity to star on a public stage.

In 1989 Jin Xing was so preoccupied with the variety of gay bars in New York, and with his need to move beyond dance technique to dance style, that the Chinese Democracy Movement of that year completely passed him by until someone told him about the killings on Tiananmen Square.  The euphoria, idealism and social demands of the protesters do not rate in Jin Xing’s memoir.  And the tragedy of the military suppression, the killings, arrests, and subsequent political and cultural winter serve merely as an excuse for Chinese students like Jin Xing to stay on in America.  He accepts the suffering of others as “a gift of fate.”

From America Jin Xing travels to choreograph advertisements in Rome, where Jin Xing sees an elegant transsexual broadcasting on TV. Jin Xing also teaches dance in Belgium before feeling the urge to return to China.  Jin Xing could have had sexual reassignment in Europe, where the surgery was a more established procedure, but he felt the need to be reborn as a woman in China.  There is a strange sense of nationalism or cultural chauvinism in this memoir, with Jin Xing maintaining that a Chinese can never really feel at home or relaxed in a foreign country.

The memoir explores Jin Xing’s sexual self-discovery and elicits our sympathy in her quest for personal liberation.  She reiterates difficult conversations with her mother and friends who could not understand her desire to become a woman.  Jin Xing was told that  “real men” would not love her because “they want a natural woman.”  Jin Xing also relates some gruesome medical stories that border on malpractice, with her foot slipping from the stirrup during surgery and her left leg being crushed, leaving it numb and grossly swollen with damaged nerve endings.  But Jin Xing’s memoir exhibits a total lack of empathy for other transsexuals.  She dismisses as misfits those Thais who undergo breast enhancement surgery but retain their penises, and for some inexplicable reason she finds Brazilians superficial: “Not for me the casualness of the Brazilian transsexuals who have operations on a whim, as though they were going for a simple facelift.  For me it is a rebirth.”

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After prolonged therapy to regain movement in her leg from the botched operation in Beijing Jin Xing returns as a dancer, choreographer and owner of the bar Half Dream – where she presides as queen bee over a clientele of China’s nouveau riche and wealthy foreigners.  Her story is one of personal ambition and fulfilment, including the joy she receives from adopting three children, but her half dream – between East and West and male and female – does not awaken to a permanent Chinese love.  Jin Xing lives in China, but her lovers are Western men.

Having been trained in a system of severe discipline, Jin Xing is herself autocratic in the operation of her dance company – so much so that a number of dancers rebelled against her – but she never reflects on the broader themes of tyranny and control in her society.  The only time Jin Xing touches on the political situation in China – including the cultural phenomenon of using a network of personal contacts to get things done – is when she relies on her father to arrange for a change to her identity card or when she uses a political patron to establish her dance company and protect it from criticism.

For someone who considers herself a non-political artist, Jin Xing’s memoir ends on a truly grotesque political note.  Jin Xing calls Madam Mao her “heroine” because Jiang Qing supposedly turned her frustration at Chairman Mao’s infidelity into a single-minded determination to produce “the ten major masterpieces of the Cultural Revolution.”  The autocratic and selfish Jin Xing looks admiringly at Jiang Qing as a woman who battled for her own power, but she makes no mention of the cruelty, censorship and artistic stultification of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a prescriptive movement which was not proletarian, cultural or revolutionary in any meaningful sense, and which was only great in the same way that the Great Plague or the Great Famine were great.

Photo credit: Public Interview with Jin Xing Northrop, University of Minnesota 

Photo credit: Fortune Live Media, Flickr Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

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