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.Credit: public domain
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).
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.