Dubbing transsexuals

Danwei.org did a post on the “transsexual blogfest” almost two years ago. Why, then, does it still feel like transsexuals are all the rage here in China?

Last week I caught Korean transsexual superstar Harisu in China on TV doing some kind of Chinese gameshow. They just kept showering her with comments the whole time, going on and on about how pretty, sexy, and feminine she is. I wanted to hear her voice. I was curious what it would sound like. Unfortunately, they were doing this simultaneous interpretation thing, and Harisu’s voice was dubbed over in a female Chinese voice for the broadcast. (Harisu’s voice was just barely audible in the background, too soft to hear clearly.)

Then on Saturday a Western documentary on transsexuals was aired on Chinese TV. It was dubbed in Chinese, and a good source of vocabulary. The words 变性人 (transsexual) and 生殖器 (reproductive organs) got drilled into familiarity.

What I found most interesting were the voices used to dub the transsexuals featured in the documentary. In every case, the “transmen” were dubbed by women affecting a deep voice, and the “transwomen” were dubbed by men affecting high, feminine voices. One of the transwomen looked like a completely normal woman, and one of the transmen looked very masculine — you would never have pegged him for someone who had had a sex change. And yet they still got stuck with these voices in the Chinese dub. I couldn’t hear how their real voices sounded, so I don’t know how well the dubbing reflected the original voices.

I wouldn’t have expected the transsexuals in the documentary to be dubbed that way because Harisu was dubbed in a female voice, and the Chinese media in general seems very accepting/supportive of transsexuals. To me, using the feminine voice to dub Harisu sent a subtle “she is completely feminine” message, while the voices used in the documentary sent a subtle “they can never be the gender they’re trying so hard to be” message.

I’m always surprised by how many Chinese guys admit that they find Harisu beautiful/hot on these TV shows. I think homophobia would prevent the majority of American men from making any such public admission.

So, transsexuals in China… still hot!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Da Xiangchang Says: October 11, 2005 at 10:29 am

    If you have XY chromosomes, I don’t care if you look like Halle Berry or Zhang Ziyi, you’re a DUDE. I can’t imagine being with a transsexual. I’ll think those are a MAN’S HANDS touching me!!! I can’t even get massaged by a masseur, not even a blind one.

    You know, homosexuals generally say they’re born gay, but how do you explain the prevalence of transsexuals in, say, Thailand? Is it that Thailand has the same amount of homosexuals versus heterosexuals, but somehow, a large percentage of their homosexuals use to become transsexuals? Or does Thai society somehow make some men want to become transsexuals more than, say, American society? If the latter case was true, then homosexuality is social and not genetic. I always wonder about this . . . If homosexuality is genetic, then I’m 100% for gay rights, including marriage. But if it’s social, then I’m for no gay rights at all.

  2. If a person’s favorite color is determined by genetics, I’m 100% for the rights of those people who prefer blue. Otherwise, anyone who likes blue should be treated as a second class citizen.

  3. You smurf-lovers make me sick! Wavelengths in the 475nm range are an abomination to God!

  4. Hey! This is not a post about homosexuality. That has been debated enough elsewhere. I’m going to start liberally deleting off-topic comments because the homosexuality debate has already been done to death elsewhere and it’s not appropriate here.

    I place the blame squarely on DXC for going off topic (as he does all too often), but other commenters don’t have to follow him.

  5. Sorry…I got carried away too. What happened to the “this is not your soapbox” warning?

    Were the transsexuals in the documentary accurate (for lack of a better word) looking? Harisu is undeniably hot, and I can see how she would get a more feminine voice than a not-so-feminine-looking transwoman. I wonder if you can really read that much into the dubbing choices of the Chinese media, though — I regularly see American action movies where the “tough” guys have really wimpy, whiny Chinese voices.

  6. Speaking of transsexuals, I just went to Thailand with my Chinese girlfriend, and she told me that the Thai “ladyboys” are often innocently referred to as 人妖 (renyao) in oral Chinese in Beijing. This does not sound so flattering to me, as the word also can mean monster or monstrosity. But in any case, if my girlfriend’s acquaintances are any indication, many of the recent loads of Chinese tourists to Thailand in fact are very eager to catch a 人妖 cabaret show while they visit. By the way, I wonder if Harisu is also referred to as a 人妖 and I would like to know if this is really a common term and also who (transexuals, transvestites, etc.) it is commonly used for.

  7. Brad,

    Maybe I thought certain commenters had matured a little? Hmf.

    There was one transman and one transwoman that showed no trace of their former genders (except for the transman’s scars where he had his breasts removed). Some of the other people were a little less convincing. They all got the same voice treatment.

    You’re right… how one show does its dubbing should not be attributed undue importance. It was just something I found interesting, and there are some implications (even if they’re not at all far-reaching).

  8. Ed,

    Yeah, the Chinese really love Thai 人妖! In my epxerience 人妖 is only used for Thai transvestites. Well, I thought they were transvestites… maybe they’re transsexuals? Hopefully someone else can shed some light on how the Chinese use the term.

  9. I wanted to say something about dubbing westerners too. What the heck is that accent they use? My ear is not too good, but I think they lengthen some syllables or something like that. In any case, it does not sound like ordinary Chinese (and I really hope I don’t sound like that when I speak Chinese). Actually, I seem to recall that Indian Malika Sherawat in “The Myth” got the same treatment, so I guess it’s not limited to westerners. I’d like to do a bit of research into this — what are the dubbing practices in other countries? Do they aim for “accentless” language, or a “foreign” accent.

    Brad, could this be related to the “whiny” quality which you mention?

    Regarding transsexual dubbing, I personally think that what John reads into these choices is valid. However, I also think that whoever made these choices was in a difficult position — after all, they probably didn’t have any transsexual voice-over talents among their staff, so they could only choose between non-transexual male or female. But taking all things into account, including the fact that maybe John was not the only viewer interested in hearing Harisu’s voice, perhaps subtitling is a third option that could be considered, even if it breaks convention.

  10. John,

    In Thailand (and in the cabaret shows), they have both transvestites and transexuals – so it’s confusing for me too. But you’ve got me thinking, maybe 人妖 is more like a “drag queen”- someone who is really dressed or made up over-the-top – such as in a cabaret show. But I still would like some light to be shed on the subject.

  11. I assume you don’t have control over the google ads that populate the sidebar, so it is interesting that of the 5, 3 of them are dating sites, 2 of which are related to transexual dating. Google must index their ads by keyword from the article (probably the title).

  12. Ok, I followed the link to check out Harisu, and DAMN – she IS hot! No wonder she decided to make the switch! What is she a “superstar” for? Just being the poster child for transsexualism?

  13. Notice that there are no pictures of Harisu facing the camera. She must still have a somewhat noticeably angular (ie. masculine) face.

  14. Todd:

    You’re right about the dubbing in general – you can listen to a few random sentences off the TV and know immediately that it’s a foreign movie, without even seeing the visuals. All the voices sound like what you’d imagine those people who do dramatic readings would sound like if they talked like that all the time.

    Rather than trying to be “foreign,” though, I think the recognizable accent is merely the last area where “professional dubbers” can use their skills – if you watch older domestic films and TV shows, you’ll find the parts dubbed over by voice-artists who don’t appear on-screen, but now actors actually speak their own lines.

    Though whether this is the case in this situation, someone else will have to answer. I will mention that in several of Brigitte Lin’s movies, where she plays men or transmen, her voice was dubbed over as a man, and it was incredibly disconcerting.

  15. Da Xiangchang Says: October 13, 2005 at 8:04 am

    Speaking of Thai transsexuals, a friend of mine and I went to Bangkok a year ago, and as male Americans are wont to do, we went to some go-go bars. My friend, however, warned me ahead of time that if we come across a transsexual bar, he would give the signal “This is not what we’re looking for.” So we went to this place called Nana Plaza, which looked like some of the levels of Dante’s Inferno, and we went to some bars. Then we stopped by this with all these hot dancers, and the place was completely empty. I was like, “Let’s go there.” Then he says, “This is not what we’re looking for.” I didn’t get it, and he kept on repeating it. Finally, I realized the dancers were dudes! It was unbelievable! I thought I could tell the difference between a guy and a girl, but now, I know I can’t. And I remember another signal of his for transsexuals: “AC/DC.” Haha.

  16. AC/DC? LOL. I also thought i could tell the diference between both sexes when i saw Harisu… LMAO. When i saw her/he (whatever ffs) i was frozeen. When i read that she/he ffs… she used to be a he i couldn’t believe it really.

    What a dilemma.

    I also think that homosexuality is psychological and not gentical, transexualism is also psychological… then why there are heterosexual (in trans case lesbian) and bisexual transexuals if its a genetic problem? its sounds me very stupid when some of them claim to be genetic.

  17. transgendered person Says: January 23, 2006 at 1:23 pm

    Current theory about transsexualism suggests that gender identity in the brain can sometimes not match the physical genetalia and chromosomal sex. This can occur for a variety of reasons, including abnormal release of hormones in the mother during the three days of the pregnancy where gender identity is formed in the brain, or presence of endocrine blocking substances in the environment during the same period.

    When considering the transgendered, always consider that brain sex and body sex can be different. Furthermore, brain sex is not a bi-polar thing… it can be male, female, or anywhere inbetween. Everyone is different, and it could be argued that there are as many different genders as there are human beings.

    It is also not related to sexuality. Not all transgendered people identify as homosexual, or even as bisexual. Of course, it is difficult to quantify exactly what is “gay” or “straight” when people have a wide spectrum of genders and sexual characteristics. Really, the words become meaningless.

    Finally, gender characteristics are generated throughout a person’s lifetime due to the influence of hormones. A lot of this happens at puberty, but it runs throughout one’s lifetime. If hormone replacement therapy is started before puberty, it is entirely possible for a transsexual to lack most characteristics of their birth sex and be completely unidentifiable as being transgendered. For those that start later, remarkable advances in cosmetic surgery can also yield indistinguishable results.

    The truth is that there are a lot more transgendered people around you than you know… you probably know several and haven’t even considered the possibility that they might be such. We walk among you!

    It is a great disrespect that they would dub the voices of transgendered people in anything but their chosen gender.

  18. I am really glad that transgendered person chose to post this.

    Some of us need to have more open minds.

    Solid research shows that up to 6% of people are born with ambiguous genitalia. In the U.S. and many places, usually the doctor goes snip snip and no one is the wiser.

    If you add in the people that transgendered person is talking about, you start getting into significant numbers.

    Gender is a social construct. Biology is quite a bit more complex than the two-gender model accepted in places like the U.S. and China.

    Many cultures in places like Iran and India, among I’m sure many others, construct a third gender.

    Well, all of us are limited to some degree by our native culture and the prejudice and ignorance it can breed. We are the frogs in the well: 井底之蛙. It’s a human condition. So I think humility is called for. Through humble child-eyes we can see more of the big wide sky. So much of what you know is just bricks in the well that shield your view…

  19. Izhamael Says: March 16, 2006 at 5:57 am

    Meh, dude so you mean there are billions of you all out there? i dont really think so, theres something i must say that brain is asexual, nor female nor male, its asexual, you cant say that the brain has gender because it doesnt, its a lie. Transgendered person im not trying to offend any one here, but i dont really understand why is changing sex so necesary. Yes, im asexual, i mean, in sexual orientation, and i see the life pretty diferent than you all out there but id like that someone could explain me more deep.

  20. as im in the same boat as harisu i should really defend her.but i met her recently,we were both on a american talk show on fox,there was me her and 2other transexual girls,discussing transexual issues,on screen she was very polite and nice [evan with her bad english] she seemed to be very nice to the other girls who were in there late fortys,but she had no time for me,i was the yungest being 20.evan the host made a remark of her jelousy backstage.she must be praised consatly for her buety in thailand/korea and never met a transexual who was prettyer than her?i think she really has issues.i was nothing but nice to her but it was hard to evan get a hello from her?its ok im actualy used to it by now jelous woman and transexual woman.as far as dubbing go’s,harisu is a let down she sounds more like a asain gay guy trying to hard.so dubbing would be better for her.peace out.jessica

  21. I agree with laska! I was born male, i married, I have a wonderful son, he has just turned 18, and i just turned 38. I was pressured into being a man my whole life, when i have never felt as a man. I NEVER WANTED TO BE A FREAK! and it hurts when i know there is stupid people that think i wanted to be different. I know its a genetic thing, not a choice or enviroment.(my x wife raised my son, until he was 14, i never told him about me, i have never even told my parents)then when he turned 15, he was planning sucide, and ready to die. I talked to him, and let him know i loved him, unconditionally, then he told me he was a woman….it has nothing to do with choice, except, you can hide it and be unhappy, or be who you feel you are inside, and live your life.. Either way its not easy..and the loss of family and friends is very painful. So just imagine , if some day your son, or daughter comes up too you and says hey mom and dad…..i feel im trapped in the wrong body…….what are you going to do? what are you going to say? your going to feel like hell because you spent a life time making fun of others, and now your own kid is just like me and my son!

  22. hi dew just a comment on one of your sentances and i quote = [I NEVER WANTED TO BE A FREAK] well if you feel that you are a freak then you need serious counceling transexualism,dosent make you a freak.and if your teaching your child that your freaks its wrong.transexualism is much more common than you might think,its evan regarded as a third sex.the best thing you can do is help educate your child be a support system for each other.and hey if you both are convincing and passable as females life shouldnt really be that bad.peace out.

  23. hi jessica…im not teaching my sone that we are freaks…and i agree we are the third sex….i was referring to the way society , or should i say a large number of society views us….im cool with it….so is my son..but i try to let him know to be himself and if someone does find out , dont let it get him down….just keep on being who he is, like i have had to do…..and i will always believe it is genetic…peace..dew

  24. very tru dew,but heres some friendly advice [STOP SAYING HIM] shes your duaghter.dew i really think you need to educate yourself on being transexual,before you try educate anyone else.peace out jessica…..

  25. I think there’s a big cultural difference at work here. Westerners tend to divide everything up into black and white and in China the difference between traditionally “male” and “female” gender roles is not nearly as stark. For example, I’ve noticed that it’s ok for 2 adult Chinese males to sleep in the same bed (as friends), hold hands on the street, slap each other around in a way like girls do, obsess over designer clothing, wear makeup, etc. and none of it’s considered to be “gay” behavior like it would in the West.

    Really it makes sense though. What relationship does personal style have to do with your sexual behavior? Western culture is just oriented in such a way as to permit little leeway in terms of gender roles. When a male of female steps outside his/her zone of propriety, we immediately shun it without thinking about it.

  26. Casandra Says: April 12, 2008 at 2:42 am

    I suspect that at least 20% or are born with out a clear cut idea on gender ID. Like women but want to be a female. Like men and women but like to be a woman etc. Gays are in another class since the want to stay men but like men.

    Yes there are more than you know. Because most do nothing about it, they just suffer in silence, frustrated with their body but stuck because of family and jobs.
    Open minds people. XXY, XXXY, intersexed androgynous does exist and is not always physically appearent.
    Transexuals have had underdeveloped ovarys when the had the operation, but homophobic still insisted that sexchange is a mental illness. the only mental illness I see it those people.

  27. TO OBERVER=the thai people are very open minded ”yes” but they never really concider transexual’s as females they just see life as watever it happens to be. there roles in the house for mother and father and kids are completely differant to the west like everything they do there is differant.but the thing is were not in asia.

    TO CASANDRA=if only things were as simple as that!

    peace out ya numba one gurl ”jessica”

  28. Da Xiangchang: you sound like transwomen may secretly turn you on. Just let yourself go man. You might really enjoy the loving touch of a woman. It’s not what was between the legs, but what has always been between the ears. Your statement suggests that you might benefit from a little transgendered studies. Would you reject a cisgendered woman because she was born with a birth defect? So why reject a woman who was given a “late start”? That is quite an immature attitude to take toward life and toward romance. I hope that you find peace.

    Lennox, California

  29. Geez… I’d just like to say to Dr. Xiangchang:

    Learn the difference between sex and gender. Learn the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Read up on Gender Dysphoria. The only way people learn anything is through education, even if that means educating oneself. If you’re not educated on a particular topic, it just means that you’re ignorant of the topic.

    And yes, I’m a trans woman as well. But even if trans women secretly turn you on DXC, I must state for the record: I’m also a lesbian. So no. I won’t go out with you.


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