The cross-dresser of this curious book’s title was Michael Bristow’s Mandarin teacher while the author was working for the BBC in China. Using the story of his teacher’s life, Bristow skips through a range of Chinese events and people, while touching on the national character. Readers who know little about China can skip along with him.
Born in 1951, the teacher was taken out of school in the 1960s, as a result of Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, and sent to the countryside in the ‘cold northeast’ to ‘learn from the peasants’. His first job was at an MSG factory. Bristow became aware of his teacher’s cross-dressing habit only after some years of being his student. One morning the teacher appeared
wearing a smile and a full outfit of women’s clothes … a tight white T-shirt that clearly showed a bra underneath. It had glitzy silver writing on the front. He was also wearing matching white trousers. They were three-quarter length, which allowed me to glimpse the tights he’d pulled on … He wore pink lipstick and light-blue eyeshadow, and had used a thick black pencil to trace the line of his eyebrows.
When cross-dressing he moved his body differently and spoke in another voice, ‘far softer’ and less cynical than when dressed as a man.
Although Bristow contends that cross-dressing is no longer generally frowned on in China (he claims the same for gay sex), he also cites a 2016 UN report revealing that very few gay or cross-dressing Chinese were willing to come out to friends, colleagues or families. The teacher was very careful about where he cross-dressed: never at work and never in front of certain relatives. He often cross-dressed in the street, however, where he attracted little attention. On a train, Bristow saw one of his teacher’s plastic fake breasts fall from his upper bunk onto the head of a passenger below, who was busy with a bowl of noodles and seemed unaware as the teacher jumped down to rapidly pick up his breast and stuff it back into his bra.
The teacher was first attracted to wearing his mother’s clothes when he was a child. But he didn’t fully come out until he was fifty, having survived the persecutions of the Mao decades. His wife knows but disapproves; it is unclear if his young son is aware of his habit, and the teacher hopes he doesn’t adopt it. I found all this fascinating, but limited. Is there a sexual aspect to his cross-dressing? Is there a cross-dressing community in the country? And can it really be true that the teacher was ‘the embodiment of modern China’?
Bristow’s book takes in the subject of Mao’s cruelty. During the early 1960s, when China was suffering a famine in which millions died, a gigantic villa was built in the town where the teacher was born. Guides showed it proudly to Bristow. The Chairman stayed there for just twelve days. Bristow also writes that ‘it is almost impossible to overstate the material benefits that have flowed from China’s economic transformation’. ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ is the title of one chapter, but he says little of the vast numbers of poor. He refers to Deng Xiaoping only as a reformer, not as Mao’s murderous ally, as revealed in Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine’s definitive biography, or as the person who ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Early on in his book, Bristow asserts that China has shaken off ‘its communist shackles’. After reading this I paused to look at recent bulletins from the People’s Republic. There I read not about the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who recently died in the eighth year of an eleven-year prison sentence for ‘subversion of state authority’, but about the four-year sentence handed down to Lu Yuyu, who had written about nationwide protests and was charged with ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’. Mass persecution is no longer necessary. A Liu Xiaobo here, a Lu Yuyu there are enough to remind the Chinese people, as Bristow observes, that the Communist Party once killed millions and made millions more endure humiliation, exile, detention and fear.
Bristow left China with his wife and child because ‘I was beginning to dislike myself. When government officials would say “black”, we’d say “white”’. Indeed. That’s because China hasn’t shaken off its communist shackles.