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The Curious Case of M. Butterfly

By Edited Nov 7, 2016 2 4

Denial & Imposture

Some hoaxes are accidental and may take on independent life if a misinterpreted act or prank roils out of control. 

In the curious case of the real-life M. Butterfly (a lurid tale of transgender love, intrigue, and espionage) the deception perhaps began artlessly but turned deliberately deceitful.  In the end a civil servant’s reputation (because of his own unwillingness to accept truths about himself and about someone close to him) lay ruined, and an elaborately malicious imposture went unpunished.

Autumn Fairy (1918)
“I Like People Like Me”
Homosexuality today (when compared with much of recorded history) is generally tolerated and does not carry the stigma it once did.

In the early 1960s, however, being known as a “Nancy boy” or “sissy” (in the vernacular of the day) could ruin one’s career; in some more extreme cases imprisonment was possible (up until the late 1970s many states in the US carried such “sodomy” laws, punishing with incarceration same-sex intimate relations). 

Closeted homosexuals felt compelled to hide their inclinations through “beards” (women whose mere presence in a homosexual’s life, either as wives or girlfriends, served to deflect public questions about a man’s sexual orientation).
 
The reluctance to “come out” was due to public slander and potential career loss if one’s homosexuality was made known.  The classic example of the closeted homosexual was actor Rock Hudson, the allegedly hyper-virile leading man in movies, always seen publicly with an ultra-feminine woman in tow. 

Some men, like the iconic Freddie Mercury (lead singer for the rock band, Queen) may acknowledge their homosexuality but cover it up for political gain, financial success, or for other external or superficial reasons.

There is another type who covers up, though, and that is the homosexual who refuses to accept his homosexuality, the one in denial

This latter was the particular issue with Bernard Boursicot, a French attaché assigned to Beijing (Peking) in 1964.

Bernie, Old Sock
Bernard Boursicot was born in 1944.  At the age of 20 he secured an accounting position in the French Embassy in Beijing, China.  The Embassy had opened that year, 1964; it was the first Western
Bernard Borsicot as a younger man
cultural and political foray into China since the Korean conflict. 

Boursicot, through his own writings, apparently recognized his early inclinations toward homosexuality.  He reported candidly he had only had sexual relations with his fellow male students while at school.  [This behavior, in England and elsewhere in Europe, has a historic precedent.  While not condoned, it seems to have been both expected and taken in stride.  The homo-erotic practice of “birching” is also a product of the British Public School system).

It is with this mental baggage Boursicot arrived to work in Beijing, and once there he made it abundantly clear he was ready to meet a woman and “fall in love” (since he knew that was what was expected of him even though he had no heterosexual desires).

He/She
Shi Pei Pu, a 26-year-old male opera singer in 1964, had been born in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan.  He was raised in an erudite household: his father was a college professor and his mother was a teacher.  Shi had two much older sisters.  He grew up in Kunming in Yunnan where he learned French and attended the university there.  He graduated with a degree in literature.

By the age of 17, he was an actor and a singer, and he had achieved a modicum of success on the stage.  While in his early twenties Shi wrote plays, mostly about workers (a common Communist motif). 

Shi had been teaching Chinese to the families of Embassy workers.  French foreigner Bernard Boursicot first met Shi at an Embassy Christmas party in December 1964.

Shi was dressed as a man at the time of

Shi Pei Pu
Boursicot’s introduction; he told Boursicot, however, that he was a female Beijing opera singer forced to live as a man (to satisfy his father's apparent wish for a son).

This, of course, was a lie.

Once Boursicot learned of Shi’s “female”-ness, he was smitten, and he pursued the other man.   The two developed a sexual relationship.  Boursicot later maintained that he and Shi “made love” rarely, and their sexual intimacies were “quick” and always conducted in darkness.

Boursicot believed Shi’s body shyness stemmed from a Chinese upbringing.  Shi insisted years later he never claimed to be female.  He said Boursicot leaped to that conclusion, and Shi did nothing to correct the impression.  It is at this point, considering Boursicot’s later protestations he did not know Shi was a man that one must suspend belief.

What Is That Thing?
Even in the relatively provincial times of the early 1960s (when US priggishness was greater than in Europe) it is certain almost any European schoolboy, through casual exposure to “street talk” or even to the ubiquitous “French” postcard, would be roughly acquainted with female anatomy, if not well-versed. 
 
How Boursicot was able to kid himself Shi was female is beyond comprehension.  One can make the case he was hopelessly naïve about women but this seems impossible.  Shi himself said that when having sex with Boursicot he would tug and tuck his penis and testicles back between his legs, creating a shallow concavity in his pubic area for Boursicot to have sex with.  Boursicot also used Shi anally most of the time. 

The absurdity of Boursicot’s later denials makes one marvel at the human mind’s capacity for self-delusion.  Boursicot was a homosexual.  He did not want to openly admit this.  By engaging sexually with an extremely femme man, simulating a “normal” copulation through artifice, he deluded himself into believing he was not gay. 

In the blackest night in the darkest room by touch alone any man (even a blind or homosexual man) can determine whether his partner is female.  Without bothering to denote in great detail how women differ from men it is enough to say even “flat-chested” women have breast buds.   Arguments about whether upper garments were left on when Boursicot and Shi had sex (thus, not exposing breasts) make no difference because the single, critical feature that cannot be faked is a vagina. 

A vagina is unique.  It cannot be satisfactorily replicated in any way (and certainly in 1964, although “marital aids” were available, such technological marvels as today’s hyper-realistic sex toys did not exist).  No amount of self-delusion can mentally or physically convert a “shallow concavity” in the pubis (basically, tautly drawn external skin) into a fully functioning vagina

There is at least one plausible reason to believe Boursicot lied when he said he did not know Shi was a man; Boursicot lied to save himself much embarrassment.

Baby Daddy Drama
In 1965, Shi’s simple sexual ruse took on a more serious and permanent tone.  He claimed to be pregnant with Boursicot’s child!  Obviously, this presented a problem, so Shi managed to procure a baby boy (of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, purchased from the mother, brokered by a doctor).
 
The boy was named Shi Du Du (although Boursicot would later call him “Bernard”).  [In partial defense of Boursicot on this issue, he was posted to several different places within China's borders during the relevant period and would not have been on hand for a “pregnancy”.  However, since he had to know Shi was a man, this “defense” is moot].
 
In 1969,  Shi presented the four-year-old Shi Du Du to Boursicot as his son. 

Fraternization was aggressively discouraged at that time; the relationship between the Frenchman and the Chinese citizen was discovered by the Chinese government and was declared verboten though the two continued to see each other clandestinely. 

Spies Like Us
Boursicot got his start in some low-level espionage during the same year his and Shi’s intimacy was found out.  With goading from Shi (who was actively engaged in espionage himself by then) Bouriscot took up the activity. 

Boursicot said the Chinese Cultural Revolution made it difficult for him to see Shi.  Because of the turmoil in China at the time he was also fearful (probably rightfully so) for Shi’s safety.  Boursicot claims he was recruited by a Chinese Secret Service man (Kang Sheng, Shi’s handler) who promised him free access to Shi if Boursicot would begin passing documents for the Chinese Government.  The implication for his refusal was Shi’s life might be endangered. 

Boursicot provided secret documents, using his place in Beijing as cover from 1969 to 1972.  He continued his document scattering in Ulan Bator, Mongolia (1977-1979), when he was assigned there.

In all, Boursicot handled over 500 documents, about a third of which were transacted through Shi. 

Homecoming
Boursicot was recalled to France in 1979.  He lost contact with Shi for a period, but in 1982 he managed to get Shi and his “son”, Shi Du Du (now 16 years old) to Paris.  They set up housekeeping.  However, Boursicot’s public persona (as a former diplomat) left him exposed with respect to Shi and French authorities.  Shi’s presence (a Chinese citizen in the home of a former Beijing-posted French diplomat) drew undue suspicion. 
 
The French counter-espionage service contacted Boursicot and questioned him about his relationship with Shi and his activities with respect to the Chinese Government.  Under interrogation he eventually confessed to passing about 150 (of 500) classified documents to Shi.

Boursicot was arrested on June 30, 1983, for espionage.

Shi was quick to follow into custody.  Once in police hands, he explained his ruse about Boursicot to doctors.  He also told of Shi Du Du’s adopted origins.

Boursicot & Shi Pei Pu (not in drag) at trial

Boursicot excused himself for his Chinese covert operations, saying he did what was needed to protect Shi.  He claimed Shi was in danger for the affair with him and for being the mother of his son.

In a highly dramatic development Boursicot was forced to finally admit Shi was a man when the prosecution team publicly revealed Shi’s real sex.  Boursicot still denied the truth until he was personally allowed to inspect Shi’s body for himself. 

Boursicot (unknown whether through genuine shock at “learning” Shi was male or outré for the public ridicule the revelation would bring), in a fit of histrionics, attempted suicide while in custody by slitting his throat.  He recovered, and in 1986 after a two-day trial the two mismatched lovers were convicted of spying against the French government and received six-year prison sentences.

As he feared, the public disclosure of his relationship with Shi made Boursicot the subject of pervasive derision.  He was truly a laughing-stock.  The media splattered details of this scandal all over the globe. 

Shi, for his part in the espionage, was pardoned by the president of France, François Mitterrand, in April 1987.  This pardon was purely political in nature: it was meant to cut sociopolitical tensions between China and France.  The whole incident was dismissed by the Chinese government as “very silly” and unimportant.

Boursicot received his pardon in August 1987.

Afterglow
Shi remained in Paris after his release.  He thrived on his notoriety, and he also managed to perform in opera

Boursicot was last reported living happily with a male partner of long acquaintance.  He apparently had reconciled his feelings about himself and his relationship with Shi.  He had sporadic contact with Shi.  Shi spoke infrequently with Boursicot over the later years (as recently as a few months before Shi’s death), telling Boursicot that he still loved him.

Shi died in 2009, aged 70.

Shi Du Du, who grew up and had three sons of his own, should be remembered as an innocent in this gender-bending sham.

The Boursicot/Shi charade spanned roughly twenty years (off and on) with Shi pretending to be a woman, and with Boursicot pretending to believe him.  In extremis, Shi managed to secure an adopted Chinese baby boy and convince Boursicot it was his son.  Boursicot, it is beyond any doubt, was motivated by fear of his homosexuality.  But, likely, he probably truly loved Shi, and thus would willingly continue the pretext. 

Shi’s motives, however, are inscrutable, this delicate flower of Chinese womanhood that really was a man in drag.

In traditional Chinese opera female characters are portrayed by men.  It isn’t certain but it is possible

Shi Pei Pu
that Shi took this aspect of his stage life and extended it into his public and private lives as well.  If involved in espionage before meeting Boursicot (and ostensibly using his “feminine” wiles to lure Boursicot into spying) this wouldn't matter much as Shi already had the female impersonator character drawn before he met Boursicot.  

Rather, it seems Shi exhibited the narcissism of the self-involved.  His disregard for others’ feelings when perpetrating the female charade, and the cruelty associated with procuring a child and convincing an obviously psychically fragile man it was his son, are bellwether behaviors of a sociopath.

Feigning coyness, at times with a genuine reluctance to share details, once pardoned from prison Shi reputedly said of himself, “I used to fascinate both men and women.”  Shi also stated obliquely, “What I was, and what they were, didn’t matter.”

The sensationalism of this scandal led to a play in 1988, M. Butterfly, which ran for almost 800 performances before closing in 1990.  A movie of the same title was made in 1993, with Jeremy Irons in the Boursicot role.

***

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Comments

Jun 9, 2011 2:16pm
Venetia
Very well researched and presented article. I totally enjoyed it. M.Butterfly has always fascinated me and today I learned many finer truths I had never bothered to uncover.
Jun 10, 2011 1:01am
vicdillinger
Thanks. I try.
Jan 4, 2012 11:37am
Lynsuz
There you go you've done it again. Thanks for sharing M. Butterfly, I truly enjoyed it.
Jan 4, 2012 11:47am
vicdillinger
Thanks for checking him/her out!
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Bibliography

  1. "Bernard Bouriscot." en.wikipedia.org. 7/06/2011 <Web >
  2. "Shi Pei Pu." en.wikipedia.org. 7/06/2011 <Web >
  3. "M. Butterfly." en.wikipedia.org. 7/06/2011 <Web >

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