The death in Paris last week of Shi Pei Pu, an operatic soprano from Shandong, brings to an end one of the more unlikely stories of recent times. Even now it is a story that is difficult to comprehend.
In 1964, Shi met Bernard Boursicot, a clerk at the French embassy in Beijing, at a Christmas party.
Soon after, Shi told the young Frenchman of the Story of the Butterfly. It is about a beautiful girl unable to attend one of the imperial schools because of her gender. Her solution: she swaps clothes with her brother and goes in his place.
In a modern day twist, Shi claimed that he too was really a woman, as his own mother had passed him off as a boy, knowing that her husband wished for a son.
It seems incredible but Boursicot was taken in. In fact, a relationship developed, even if early intimacies were constrained by Shi’s sartorial style (a preference for a leather jacket over a Mao suit). The young diplomat thought his new love rather shy but put it down to a reserved upbringing.
Even as the relationship deepened, Boursicot still failed to grasp the obvious: that Shi really was a man. The Washington Post reports that moments of intimacy were rare, rapid and conducted only in darkness.
Boursicot then left China for several years, but Shi kept him on the hook with the unlikely news that “she” had borne him a son. The young boy, to be called Shi Du Du, had actually been purchased from a destitute Muslim Uighur woman. But Boursicot was none the wiser and delighted to learn of a son he would call “Bertrand”.
In the late 1960s, Boursicot returned to a posting in Mongolia and at some stage began passing information to the Chinese authorities, perhaps because he was fearful that Shi’s life would otherwise be at risk.
He even managed to bring Shi and Bertrand to Paris in 1982, and it was shortly afterwards that the two men were arrested by French counter-intelligence. It was also only then that Boursicot claims he discovered the truth about Shi’s gender from a radio news programme.
Both men received six-year prison sentences but were pardoned a year later. In point of fact Boursicot had little access to high-level information. One of his more bizarre treacheries was to leak news that the French mission was requesting a new cheese tray.
Shi himself stayed on in Paris following his release, enjoying his notoriety (by now the tale had inspired a Broadway play – M. Butterfly – and a film of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons). He spoke to Boursicot only occasionally and maintained publicly that he had done little wrong. “I thought France was a democratic country,” was one of his later pronouncements, “Is it important if I am a man or a woman?”
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