I realised I had the makings of a decent book the instant I stepped out of my hotel room and looked down the corridor towards the lift. Standing there, waiting to go down, was my Chinese teacher, but something about him was different. The teacher was standing there in a full set of women’s clothes. He was wearing make-up, high heels and a padded bra.

We all have moments in our lives when we come face to face with the unexpected. This was one of those times, and as we stepped out of our hotel into the glare of the street, I felt momentarily dazed. The teacher seemed to be enjoying himself. While I walked uncomfortably by his side, he kept stopping to admire himself in shop windows or to ask the way to the best restaurant.

I had known the teacher for about five years before he revealed himself to be a cross-dresser, in 2012. He taught me Chinese twice a week at a coffee shop in Beijing; I was working as a correspondent for the BBC and wanted to improve my language skills. Over the years we became friends. He was talkative and funny, and I looked forward to our lessons.

He never mentioned his love of women’s clothes but, looking back, it would be untrue to say that there were no signs.

The teacher would sometimes appear at our lessons with glowing lips. I dismissed the idea that it was lipstick, choosing instead to believe he wore colourful lip balm. Similarly, I ignored the tight T-shirts with spangly writing emblazoned on the front, and the jewellery that occasionally sparkled on his fingers or around his neck. I did not properly consider his facelift, or why a man of 60 would even want one.

Thinking about it now, I am reminded of Donald Rumsfeld, the former United States defence secretary, who once tried to explain the lack of evidence linking the government in Iraq to weapons of mass destruction. Rumsfeld said there were “known knowns” – things we know we know – and “known unknowns”, which is essentially information that we know we do not know. There are also, according to Rumsfeld, “unknown unknowns”, things we do not know we do not know.

I could not help linking these linguistic gymnastics to my relationship with the teacher. I realised that his cross-dressing fell into Rumsfeld’s “known unknown” category. It was perhaps too much to have expected me to guess the teacher’s secret, but I should have known he had one.

I had decided to write about the teacher long before I knew he was a cross-dresser. I was coming to the end of a five-year stint as a correspondent and wanted to write something that went a little deeper than the usual television, radio and online reports that I churned out every day for the BBC. They offered a picture of China, but only a small one. Characters, ideas and events would appear online or on the airwaves and then disappear. How could I say something more profound? What should I focus on?

As if by magic, the subject seemed to appear before my very eyes.

Uniformity is promoted as a way to underpin the collective nature of society. People who deviate from the norm are more difficult to accommodate and control

The teacher would usually turn up at our lessons with a newspaper tucked under an arm and an idea about what we were going to discuss that day, but the plan would often be pushed aside by gossip, anecdotes and jokes. Gradually, I realised that he was helping me understand China. He would explain concepts that are not always easy for Westerners to grasp, such as “face” and the importance of personal relationships.

I also started to learn about his life. He was born in 1951, two years after the Communist Party came to power. The ups and downs of his country have mirrored the victories and disappointments of his own life.

The teacher stopped going to school when the Cultural Revolution began, in 1966. He was sent to work in the coun­try­side with millions of other young people and struggled to establish himself when he returned to Beijing in the mid-1970s. He worked at a factory making monosodium glutamate, or MSG. This food flavouring is loved by Eastern chefs, but still treated with caution by many diners, who believe it is responsible for a range of ailments, from headaches to tiredness. Debate still rages about whether “Chinese restaurant syndrome” is real or just imagined.

39-year-old man arrested after pretending to be a woman for 20 years

The teacher went back to university, then got a job working in the propaganda department of a giant food company. He became a journalist and then an educator. Along the way, he got married and had a son. He turned the poverty of youth into comfortable retirement. For me, he was the embodiment of modern China.

My friend was also a natural storyteller. He had a way of turning the mundane details of his life into lyrical tales that brought into sharp focus the changes taking place in his country. He wrote dozens of articles about his experiences and handed them to me. They were about his childhood, incidents from when he had been sent to the countryside, even about everyday events such as having a telephone installed for the first time.

I learnt about the tree that once stood in the middle of his courtyard house in Beijing. The home has long since been demolished, to make way for the capital’s financial district, but the tree is still there. It now stands outside a nondescript office block. The teacher visits his tree at least once a year, to be reminded of what life once was. He proudly took me there.

The teacher also has a touch of comedy about him. On another trip, we visited the site of a business that he had started and then failed to get going. He had opened a restaurant and karaoke bar in the countryside outside Beijing to accommodate weary urban dwellers who wanted to escape the city on the weekend. The failure of the business seemed in part due to the fact that the teacher had opened it next to a coffin maker. For those who are still superstitious, it was not the most auspicious venue for entertainment.

I realised the teacher’s story would also allow me to explain some of my own thoughts about China. His life would provide a neat jumping-off point to talk about my time as a correspondent in Beijing.

Cross-dressing Chinese tourist gets women’s day discount after dispute

To collect information for the book, we decided to travel across China to some of the places that had played a part in the teacher’s story.

We had already embarked on the book project when I found out about his cross-dressing, in a hotel, in Changsha, Hunan province. We had just visited the village where Mao Zedong was born and brought up.

As soon as the teacher showed me his semi-secret existence I feared he would want to keep it that way. I was right.

On the night I found out, I asked the teacher if I could refer to his clothing in the book. He said he would think about my request. Later, he told me he did not want his cross-dressing mentioned because he did not want his story to become public in a way that could cause embar­rass­ment for his family. I was a little angry; why had he not told me about his secret before we started researching the book?

I told him I would have to abandon the project to write his life story because it would simply not be honest enough. That seemed to spur him into second thoughts. Eventually, he told me I could talk about his love of women’s clothes as long as I did not identify him. I agreed and did not mention the issue again in case he changed his mind.

When I thought properly about this sequence of events, I was annoyed with myself for underestimating the teacher’s predicament. He was a Chinese man in his 60s who loved to dress as a woman; the situation was bound to raise difficulties.

A survey sponsored by the United Nations last year looked at attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities in China, and came to a series of sobering conclusions. Only one in 20 people belonging to these two groups is willing to reveal their true selves to friends and colleagues. Speaking openly and honestly to family members is only slightly easier.

How cross-dressing wrestler Ladybeard was born in Hong Kong

These statistics are not surprising considering that China under the Communists has traditionally been a socially conservative place. Uniformity is promoted as a way to underpin the collective nature of society. People who deviate from the norm are more difficult to accommodate and control. China’s rulers know that it is far easier to manage their huge population if everyone conforms.

Things have changed since the country began opening up to the outside world, in the 80s, and tolerance is on the rise. But China’s leaders still see many social changes as unwelcome imports from the West. In these circumstances, is it any wonder that the teacher was nervous about his cross-dressing appearing in print?

While we were travelling, the teacher would carefully choose the times and occasions when he wore women’s clothes. I realised that he felt increasingly comfortable the further he was from Beijing and his established life.

One instance, when we were visiting Heng Mountain, in Hunan, particularly sticks out in my mind. I had agreed to meet the teacher at the top of the mountain because he wanted to take a bus up and I wanted to walk. As I app­roached the summit, I saw the teacher sitting on a rock. He was dressed as a woman. I could see a pink umbrella and a yellow flower peeping out of the top of his handbag. He was listening to traditional music on a portable radio and singing along. He seemed oblivious to the hundreds of people milling around. He looked like he did not have a care in the world, and I realised that this was because he was surrounded by people who he did not know and who did not know him.

Closer to Beijing he was more cautious. In the capital itself he would give only glimpses of his other self; that is why I had seen the signs at our twice-weekly lessons but had not understood them. Whenever I saw the teacher with his wife, he was always dressed as a man, and our conversations about what she knew and approved of were not always easy.

Snapshot: how imperial China coped with gender bending

The legal status of cross-dressing in the mainland is perhaps another reason the teacher was cautious. It is a grey area that is best summed up by the phrase: don’t encourage, don’t discourage, don’t promote. While cross-dressing is not illegal, it does not seem to be protected, either.

The mainland’s legal system is struggling to cope with the complicated issues presented by the disintegration of the old idea of conformity and the emergence of individualism. In July, a court ordered a mental hospital in Henan province to compensate a gay man who had been forced to undergo “conversion therapy”, in an attempt to make him hetero­sexual. Considering that homosexuality was deemed a mental illness in the mainland as recently as 2001, this was an important ruling.

But in a case last year, a court in Changsha refused to allow a gay couple to register their marriage.

Under President Xi Jinping, the room allowed to lobby for change has been gradually restricted. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, and others, complain that they have to be careful about promoting themselves.

By placing greater restrictions on civil society, mainland leaders are not necessarily expressing their conservative outlook; they seem more worried about the ability of a group – any group – to organise.

It is not the ideas of these groups that these leaders fear; they worry about the ability of organisations beyond their control to bring together people to achieve a political goal. They fear this might eventually result in the emergence of groups calling for more radical change.

Outside politics, I found the people whom the teacher and I encountered on our travels to be tolerant and non-judgmental. No one ever reacted with anger to what my travelling companion was wearing.

How transgender dancer Jin Xing conquered Chinese TV

That should not have come as a surprise; ancient Chinese traditions – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism – have little to say about sexual morality when compared with the West’s Christian heritage. And the idea of men dressing as women is not an entirely alien concept in China. It has existed in Chinese opera for centuries.

That is not to say that travelling around China with a pensioner dressed as a woman did not create an incident or two, such as the one on a train journey from Qiqihar, in Heilongjiang province, to Beijing. We were returning from the rural area he had been sent to during the Cultural Revolution. While the teacher was telling me a humorous story, I noticed a piece of skin-coloured plastic working its way out of the top of his T-shirt. At one parti­cularly funny point in the story, as his whole body shook, the object jumped out of his clothing and dropped onto the head of a passenger eating a bowl of noodles below. The teacher quickly swooped down and scooped up what I could now see was a plastic breast, complete with a tiny nipple, before tucking it back into his padded bra.

Earlier, in Qiqihar, we had had a couple of hours to spare before we were due to catch our train, and the teacher said he wanted to get changed and go to a park to have some photo­graphs taken. He slipped into a floral dress and put on a long black wig. When we got to the park, he jumped on a swing and gave me his camera. As he went backwards and forwards, giving me unasked-for glimpses of what lay beneath his dress, I struggled to focus. He just laughed. Parents with children and workers on their lunch break watched on.

I would have found these moments awkward if by then I had not come to terms with who the teacher was. I admit I had been a little embarrassed at first, but that feeling was quickly replaced by pride. Pride that the teacher had finally confided in me and that in at least some places in China he could be himself.

Dressing as a woman allowed the teacher to express a side of his personality that would otherwise have remained hidden. He had been forced to conceal that aspect of his life when he was young, but now, within limits, he could do as he pleased.

I began to realise that the title of the book, China in Drag, was a more accurate description of the Chinese government than of the teacher. He does not dress to disguise himself, but to show off who he really is. My experiences as a foreign correspondent in China led me to the conclusion that govern­ment officials often try to dress up their country as something it is not, in order to stay in power.

Court cases, particularly sensitive political ones, are most­ly a sham – as is, I would argue, the annual parliamentary session in Beijing. Decisions are taken elsewhere by people who rarely reveal themselves and who employ unseen pro­cesses. The rest is just theatre put on for the citizenry and the rest of the world.

The teacher is one of the most honest people I have ever met. He is a model for all those who have had to make sense of the huge upheaval that has shaken China since the Communist Party came to power. He is an ordinary man who has lived through an extraordinary time.

China in Drag: Travels with a Cross-dresser (Sandstone Press) will be published on September 21.