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Friday May 7, 2004

Changing mores of China

Rural China becomes the unlikely stage for a transsexual’s wedding, writes PETER HARMSEN. 

WHEN Zhang Lin was carried in a bridal sedan chair down a 300m dirt road to her future husband’s home, she was no different from generations of Chinese women before her. Except that until a year ago, Zhang was a man. 

Thousands of farmers watched with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief as the 38-year-old bride and her groom Yang Qizheng, four years her junior, celebrated their wedding last weekend deep in China’s conservative countryside. 

“It’s a bit strange,” said Liu Guifa, a peasant woman who had come to the village of Fenghuang in south-western Sichuan province to witness the country’s first public wedding of a man turned woman through a sex-change operation. 

The sponsors of the elaborate and costly ceremony, Zhaode Trading Co, based in the provincial capital of Chengdu 80km away, had hoped for sunshine. 

Instead, they got pouring rain, turning the unpaved roads into pools of grey mud, sticking in large lumps to the pants of the guests squeezed into the narrow courtyard where the wedding ceremony was to take place. 

A master of ceremony introducing transsexual bride Zhang Lin and her husband Yang Qichen during their wedding reception in Chengdu, China, recently. Theirs is the first transsexual marriage approved by the Chinese Government.
The weather did not prevent journalists and cameramen from as far away as Shanghai from attending an event that has seized the imagination of a public awed by the frantic pace of social change. 

“I’m so happy,” said Zhang, dressed in a white Western-style wedding gown and beaming with marital bliss. “People care for me.” 

A boisterous mood greeted Zhang, the owner of a hairdressing salon in nearby Shuangliu city, on her arrival at her new home. 

As the sedan chair appeared in the distance, the crowd emitted a deafening roar, knocked over stools prepared for the wedding banquet and trampled each other’s shoes into the mud in a desperate stampede to see the celebrity bride. 

“Please make room,” shouted an exasperated manager from Zhaode Trading Co, his white shirt in silhouette against a banner advertising electrical machinery sold by the company. “Show some respect for the newlyweds.” 

Respect was sadly lacking a year ago when Zhang decided to become a woman so she could marry Yang. 

And even though the Chinese Government gave its green light to the marriage, acceptance came only grudgingly from a society steeped in Confucian values about family and sex. 

“In the beginning, when I wanted the sex-change operation, people didn’t understand,” said Zhang, only her voice betraying her former sex. “They said all kinds of things, asked me why I didn’t want to remain a man, called me a weirdo.” 

For Zhang, the road to her countryside wedding was a difficult one, even though from her earliest years she felt that she was a woman at heart. 

“When I was a child, I liked to dress in girls’ clothes and put on make-up. I liked to do girl things,” she said. “My parents didn’t approve and wanted me to change. But I simply couldn’t.” 

Pressured by her family and surrounding society, Zhang tried to live up to the ideal of a Chinese man, even marrying a woman in an awkward and ultimately vain effort to fit in with social mores. 

A promoter for Zhaode Trading Co, sponsors of the wedding ceremony, standing beside the crowd awaiting Zhang's arrival in her husband's home village in Chengdu.
The fact that, for all the taunts she has had to endure, Zhang can now live out her dreams reflects just how much China has changed, observers said. 

The roots of these changes stretch back even before the reform era, to the early years of Communist rule and the ultra-radical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when millennia-old norms were smashed and some never restored. 

“The Cultural Revolution broke down many taboos and led to more openness and a more liberal attitude towards sex,” said Joseph Cheng, a China watcher at City University of Hong Kong. 

Today, the Chinese countryside is irreversibly transformed and is catching on to new trends almost as fast as the big cities. 

“Eighty percent of the men here go to the cities to work,” said Huang Xuefeng, general manager of Zhaode Trading Co. “They encounter many new ways of thinking, and when they come back, they make the local farmers change, too.” 

Amid the rustic affection showered on Zhang last weekend, everything was not perfect. 

Her 13-year-old daughter from her previous marriage could not attend her wedding and may be gradually slipping out of her life. 

“My daughter wants to live with me and my husband, but her mother won’t let her,” Zhang said. “All we want is a chance to raise her.” 

Zhang’s urge to establish a nuclear family on her own terms could yet collide with surviving Chinese mores. 

Although many of the attendants at her wedding approved of transsexual matrimony, they would not welcome it in their own family. 

“People here don’t really understand what’s going on,” said He Liying, a woman hugging her 10-year-old daughter Chen Ting as she waited for the bride to appear from her wedding chamber. 

“I can kind of accept this kind of marriage, but if my own daughter wanted a sex-change operation, I would definitely oppose it.” – AFP

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