Interviewing Jin Xing is tiring enough: her emphatic but accelerated delivery fills pages of a notebook within minutes. It must be truly exhausting to be her. Her starring role in a Shanghai play has come to a close, but there is a new contemporary dance production, a TV talk show to host, guest spots as a judge on a TV talent contest and three children to mother.
And that is just at the moment. She has crammed much more into her life, partly thanks to the fearsome military discipline forged as a colonel in the People's Liberation Army performance troupe. She may be the only acclaimed dancer capable of blowing up a bridge. Although just 43, Jin's life has spanned numerous roles, two continents and, most famously, both genders.
But in China, which remains in some ways highly conservative, her frankness is almost unique: "Homosexuals are like a small island. Transgender [people] are a tiny island." This is not a complaint. For one thing, Jin does not believe in them: "I hate whining." For another, she believes that the surgery makes her "more privileged, because I have a wider angle in looking at society and life".
Her career has earned plaudits from Li Yinhe, a sociologist and one of the best-known advocates for lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual rights in China: "She is still discriminated against … but she is brave in facing it. She has a good family and successful career. Her achievements have made her an icon."
As a young boy, Jin joined the army's entertainment troupe. The performers had to undertake routine army training and young Jin struggled with grenades and machine guns too big and unwieldy for his small hands and slight body. The dance classes were equally harsh, with instructors physically contorting the children's bodies until they were flexible enough.
"In Western culture, you'd call it child abuse. In China, that's the culture: You want to be the best? You do it." Were they beaten? "If you made a mistake? Of course!"
She applies this to her dance company: "Nobody breaks my rules. Big trouble." Then she flashes a smile.
She studied contemporary dance in New York, but the lessons learned outside the studio proved as important as those inside: "If you ask what I am proud of, I am only proud that once I was 19, when the government sent me to the United States, I took charge of my own life."
It took her years to make the hardest choice. Even as a small boy, Jin knew that "something was wrong. I so envied my sister. I felt I should be her." Unable to make sense of the feelings, he sublimated them for years. For a while after moving to New York he thought he might be gay. Finally, that childhood sense re-emerged, "a weird feeling in myself that I should be a woman".
To Jin's surprise, her parents accepted her decision without question; her father always felt there was something different about his child.
A few years later she sat next to a German businessman on a flight from Shanghai to Paris. Heinz-Gerd Oidtmann rang her the next day, although he took a few days to digest the news that Jin had been a man. They soon became a couple. Oidtmann calls her a "control freak", she jokes, and she has struggled to adapt to his European mindset: "I've tried to learn to take a holiday. After three days I feel guilty."
As for the three children she and Oidtmann adopted, they are kept away from iPads, "rubbish" TV and junk food. But "when mommy's travelling, [daddy] takes them to KFC …"
Jin has her own debate show, which airs on a Hong Kong station rather than the heavily censored mainland channels. But Chinese officials trust her, because "they know I know the borderlines".
Besides, what better way to demonstrate the changing face of China than through an outspoken transsexual former colonel? – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Additional research by Cecily Huang