Jin Xing’s sitting room comprises two distinct halves. One side, with stiff leather armchairs and a large television, is considered the “male” corner, explains Jin’s husband Heinz-Gerd Oidtmann, as we wait for her to arrive. The other, “female” side contains a chaise longue in deep plum, scatter cushions, an antique wooden bed with elaborately carved panels and a banana-shaped Missoni sofa that is a riot of colour, fabric and pattern. “The many facets of Jin Xing are reflected in this piece,” Oidtmann says, resting a hand on the sofa.

Having dawdled on the terrace to enjoy the panoramic view of Shanghai, we re-enter the sitting room to find Jin nestled in a chair in the “male” corner. A lithe 47-year-old dressed in a black dress and a grey fine-knit cardigan, she rises, offers a hand and says: “Nice to meet you, I’m Jin Xing,” with the mildly supercilious grace of the very famous.

It is difficult to place Jin in a neat category; her life is characterised by continual personal and professional reinvention. Born a boy to ethnic Korean parents in north-eastern China, Jin joined a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) performance troupe as a child. In her late teens, and by then one of China’s premier dancers as well as a colonel, Jin took a scholarship to study contemporary dance in the US. She spent most of her twenties as a successful male dancer in New York, Rome and Brussels, then returned to China for gender reassignment surgery aged 27.

After the operation Jin decided to stay put. Since then she has founded China’s first independent modern dance company, Jin Xing Dance Theatre, become a single mother of three adopted children, married a German business executive and, more recently, become a judge on televised Chinese talent shows such as So You Think You Can Dance. Her forthrightness earned her the nickname “poison tongue” and the adoration of millions on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site. The Jin Xing Show, an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show, launched in January and is already a major hit.

Jin and Oidtmann, who met in first-class on a flight from Paris to Shanghai in 2003, moved to Grosvenor House — part of the Jin Jiang Hotel complex in Shanghai’s leafy French Concession — three years ago, to afford the family of five more privacy.

Built in 1934 by Sir Victor Sassoon — the Harrow and Cambridge-educated real estate tycoon responsible for much of the city’s art-deco architecture — Grosvenor House is testament to a once-despised foreign occupation but is now one of the most exclusive postcodes in Shanghai.

During the Maoist period of the 1960s and 1970s the building functioned as a state guesthouse. Then, as now, its Old English-style suites with high ceilings, parquet floors and art-nouveau flourishes were deemed fit for foreign dignitaries. US president Richard Nixon stayed in the couple’s four-bedroom apartment in 1972 when he signed the Shanghai Communiqué, the first step towards Sino-American rapprochement after decades of isolationism.

Jin started her life somewhere quite different. Her first home, in Shenyang, Liaoning province, was half the size of her current living room — a single space that functioned as a kitchen, lounge and bedroom shared by Jin, her parents and older sister. “My father was a military officer, that means the government provides you with accommodation,” she says. “It was a tiny space. But, of my childhood, I have no complaints. Chinese kids at that time were happier, society was more relaxed.”

Jin speaks English with a trace of an American accent and says “oh my God” a lot. As her initial frostiness dissipates, she chats with a rapid-fire gusto, skipping from one point to the next, stopping mid-speech to rephrase a point: hers is not the easiest conversation to follow.

When Jin left the family home aged nine, she was not allowed to return for three years. She had always wanted to be on stage and was one of 30 children selected from 3,000 to join the PLA troupe. “At that time it was a privilege,” she says. “In the 1970s — if your kid is chosen by the government to go into the military to learn an art or as an athlete — it means your whole life is secured.”

Today Jin’s army training would be deemed abusive. She asks if I have seen Farewell My Concubine, the 1993 film about a male Peking opera star who, after a lifetime playing women, struggles to distinguish real life from the stage, and male from female. In one scene, when the young hero is in training, his arms are shackled to a wall as his legs are forced into the splits with piles of bricks. “I got the same thing,” Jin says. “What I learnt is, if you want to get something, you must sacrifice first. I chose to become a dancer, so why complain? They gave me excellent professional training, and a certain honour.”

In the 1980s, during a period of economic reform in China, some of the best and brightest students, scholars and performers were sent overseas, in part to enhance the country’s global image. As China’s top dancer, Jin benefited from this opportunity even though she became Communist party agitprop. “I didn’t feel like I was being used — that was my job,” she says. “Whatever I was told to do, I did it. That was my training. But now I look back, I think I was a tool.”

Those days feel remote when you stand at Jin’s kitchen sink. With a view of the Pudong skyline and the world’s second-tallest building, the Shanghai Tower, it must be the best place to do the washing-up in the city. The apartment is scattered with objects suggesting a life well travelled, such as a saddle made by a herdsman in Inner Mongolia and statuettes of dancers, including a bronze ballerina en pointe by Matteo Lo Greco.

In 1994 Jin’s dancing career was almost cut short when she woke from 15 hours of reassignment surgery to a partially paralysed leg. Surgeons blamed an inattentive nurse. “I thought, ‘you wanted such a big change, maybe this is another lesson’,” she says.

Three months later Jin was back on stage, though it took the public longer to adjust. “It was a national taboo: the best male dancer became the best female dancer,” Jin says. A Beijing newspaper at the time asked: “What is a sick transsexual doing on our stages?”

A winged sculpture
A winged sculpture © Jonathan Browning

“There was a lot of misunderstanding, prejudice,” says Jin, brushing it off. “It was OK, I was prepared.” Jin’s own parents were quick to accept her change; her father made just one remark on learning the news: “Finally matched.”

As Jin built her dance company’s reputation and appeared on TV, audiences warmed to her candour, relishing her occasional temper. She once scolded a fellow talent show judge for exploiting a contestant emotionally: “This is the biggest weakness of Chinese TV and I hate it,” Jin hissed. The clip went viral.

In China, where the state monitors what people with influence say in public, it is surprising how an iconoclast like Jin has flourished. “I think I’m doing them [the state] a favour,” she says. “In me they can say: we have a free artist, an individual personality. My life is the perfect witness to China changing.”

That may be so, but does she not still feel like a tool? “No, I don’t feel I’m a tool because I know the system, I know how it functions and have learnt how to make the most of it.”

Photographs: Jonathan Browning

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