Behind the Spotlights of Transgender China
Six years ago I met Han Bingbing (寒冰冰) in a Beijing bar, and I was intrigued by her right away. My friends told me she was a well-known post-operation transsexual who had a successful career in the fashion and entertainment industry, and called herself “China’s Number One Transsexual Beauty” (“中国第一变性美女”). We started talking, and Han invited me to come on her online talkshow the next day.
During our noodle lunch afterwards, we spoke about her life. The seemingly advanced emancipation of Chinese transsexuals surprised me. Mainland China is not exactly known for its excellent fundamental rights, yet here I was speaking to a radiant girl who had her male-to-female sex change in 1999, and now was not only officially a woman in body and on paper, but had also become the mother of her own adopted child. She was independent, successful, and seemingly happy and free.
“Mainland tabloids have entered a phase of fascination with transsexuals.”
Over a decade ago, China Daily wrote that “Mainland tabloids have recently entered a phase of sudden fascination with transsexuals.” With the rise of social media, ‘transgenderism’ has still remained a recurrent topic in Chinese media and on social media sites like Sina Weibo.
Earlier this week, pictures of a Lithuanian male-to-female transgender woman became trending on Chinese social media, where the 21-year-old woman was praised for her beauty and ‘female elegance’ (image below).
Many Chinese transgenders have stepped into the limelight to share their story with the public – such as Chen Lili (陈莉莉), who was the first transsexual woman to attempt to compete in the Miss Universe contest, or Liu Xuanyi (刘炫怡), “China’s first online transsexual celebrity”, or transgender opera star Bian Yujie (边玉洁).
Although there is a nuanced difference between ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ in English (‘transgender’ being an umbrella term for those whose identity does not conform to what is associated with the sex they were born with, and ‘transsexual’ referring to those who transition from one sex to another, Medical Daily), there is no such nuance in common Chinese language, where both would be translated as ‘bianxing‘. ‘Bianxing’ (变性) literally means ‘change sex’, and a transgender or transsexual would be referred to as a ‘bianxingren‘ or ‘change-sex-person’.
China’s most famous transgender woman probably is Jin Xing (金星), a dancer, director and actress who formerly was a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army dance troupe and underwent sex change surgery in 1995. Years ago, Jin Xing stated that she was “quite pleased” with the way in which Chinese people have dealt with her transsexuality, and that she had “experienced no discrimination” (Canada 2000). With over 6 million followers on Weibo, the dance star is very popular on China’s social media. She now has her own talk show, simply called The Jin Xing Show, which is received well by netizens.
Zhang Kesha (张克莎), who had a sex change surgery in 1983, has written a book about her experience as a transgender called ‘A Woman’s Dream’ (女人梦). She has become famous for being the first transgender in China to undergo a sex change surgery. Han Bingbing has also been open about her story, even sharing the price of the operations that turned her into “an ordinary girl”: she spent 200,000 RMB (over 30,000 US dollars) on them.
And there are more who openly discuss transgenderism. Earlier this year, famous Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe stated on her Weibo blog that she had been living together with her female-to-male transgender partner for 17 years. Her revelation lead to online discussions about transgender people, raising awareness about different gender identities within China.
“China may be surpassing the U.S. in its tolerance and acceptance of transgender people.”
With so much exposure on transgenderism in China’s (social) media, the topic can hardly be called a taboo anymore. It is now possible for Chinese transgenders to undergo surgery, change their gender in their official ID, and get married. Some even report that “China may be surpassing the U.S. in its tolerance and acceptance of transgender people.”
Indeed, it is striking how many transgenders are present in China’s popular culture, and how accepted they are by the public. Virtually all of China’s well-known transgenders are artists, dancers or performers. It is perhaps no coincidence that transgender performance has been an important part of Chinese entertainment for centuries (Kile 2013).
“China has an estimated 400,000 transgender people.”
But beyond the limelight, the situation of transgenders in China is less rose-colored. Although China has an estimated 400,000 transgender people, the numbers of the two main centres for sex change operations reveal that no more than 800 transgender patients underwent surgery in the past 30 years, suggesting that many patients have gone to private clinics or foreign countries for their sex change (Jiang et al 2014).
Sex reassigning surgeries are not covered by medical insurance in China, and are very costly. The basic surgery starts at 50,000 RMB (7900 US dollars), while the average annual salary of a Chinese worker is 28,752 RMB (around 4540 US dollars). Besides the price, the guidelines on sex change provided by the Chinese Ministry of Health are also a hurdle to many. For example, the patient must get approval by family members and obtain proof of clean criminal records (ibid., 2014).
Earlier this week, the difficulty of Chinese bureaucracy concerning sex reassignment became painfully clear when Sichuan News reported that a Chinese transgender who underwent surgery in Thailand returned to China, only to find out she could not officially change her gender on paper (read her story).
Another major problem is employment discrimination. Within the arts and entertainment, transgenderism is commonly accepted, but in everyday life, transgender individuals are often discriminated, as they are considered “abnormal” or even “disgusting” by many. Especially female transgenders who identify as male will encounter discrimination, even from within the LGBT community (Jun 2010, 351-352).
The difficulty in finding a job leads many to work in the entertainment industry. “Many transsexuals have to work in she-male shows to make money,” Han Bingbing tells China Daily.
I saw Han Bingbing again this year, at Beijing Fashion Week, after our initial meeting in 2009. She had cut off her hair and was now a blonde, wearing a pearly pink dress that showed off her sexy cleavage. She was doing fine, and life had been treating her good, she told me, before her manager came round to take her to her next appointment. Transgender China is well-off within the spotlights. But there is a lot of room for improvement behind the limelight.
* Thanks to Pei Yuxin (裴谕新) for her input on this article.
*Available online sources have been directly linked within this article.
Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 2000. “China: Treatment of transsexuals who have undergone a sex change operation, particularly in Hong Kong (1997-2000).” Refworld (4 April). http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6ad4e10.html [11.08.15]
Jiang, Hua, Xian Wei, Xiaohai Zhu, Hui Wang, and Qingfeng Li. 2014. “Transgender Patients Need Better Protection in China.” The Lancet 384 (9960). Elsevier Ltd: 2109–10. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)62372-2.
Jun, Pi. 2010. “Transgender in China.” Journal of LGBT Youth 7 (May 2013): 346–58. doi:10.1080/19361653.2010.512518.
Kile, Sarah E. 2013. “Transgender Performance in Early Modern China.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 24 (2): 130-149.
Hore, B. D., F. V. Nicolle and J. S. Calnan. 1973. “Male Transsexualism: Two Cases in a Single Family.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 2 (4): 317–21.
Jun, Pi. 2010. “Transgender in China.” Journal of LGBT Youth 7 (May): 346–58.
Ruan, F. F., V. L. Bullough and Y. M. Tsai. 1989. “Male Transsexualism in Mainland China.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 18 (6): 517–22. doi:10.1007/BF01541677.
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