Shi Pei Pu: The opera singer who faked being a woman to spy for China

Shi Pei Pu: The opera singer who faked being a woman to spy for ChinaShi Pei Pu: The opera singer who faked being a woman to spy for China
Shi Pei Pu
Carl Samson
April 11, 2024
A Chinese opera singer who masqueraded as a woman captivated and deceived a French diplomat in a complex tale of espionage and romance that stretched across decades.
Key points:
  • The relationship between Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu and French diplomat Bernard Boursicot intertwined deep personal deception with international spying.
  • Their affair was significantly shaped by the Cultural Revolution in China, reflecting how political climates can impact personal relationships.
  • Their story has brought attention to issues of gender identity and sexuality, questioning societal norms and inspiring cultural discussions through its adaptation into both a play and a film.
How it started:
  • Shi Pei Pu was a Chinese opera singer known for his role as a dan (a female role) in “The Story of a Butterfly.” Born in Shandong province, he became a spy and lived a huge part of his life under the guise of a woman, deceiving Boursicot and others.
  • Shi and Boursicot’s relationship began in 1964 at a diplomatic cocktail party in Beijing. Boursicot, then a 20-year-old French embassy accountant, was entranced by Shi, who was 26 and had established some fame in opera.
  • Shi, presenting himself as a woman, claimed to have been forced to live as a man due to familial pressure, a story Boursicot believed. Romance blossomed between them.
  • Their relationship endured through the Cultural Revolution and Boursicot’s various postings abroad. Shi manipulated Boursicot further during this period, presenting him with a 4-year-old “son,” Shi Dudu, claiming he was theirs.
  • Boursicot accepted Shi Dudu. Driven by love and the belief that he was helping the mother of his child, Boursicot began passing sensitive documents to Shi, convinced that Shi was giving them to the Chinese government in exchange for protection.
An image of Bernard Boursicot’s passport
How it all fell apart:
  • Tensions arose when French authorities discovered Shi and Boursicot’s cohabitation. They were accused of espionage and arrested in 1983.
  • Shi and Boursicot were tried and convicted of espionage in 1986, each receiving a six-year sentence. The trial exposed the true nature of their relationship, including Shi’s admission of his true sex and the revelation that their “son” was adopted.
  • After being pardoned in 1987, Shi lived in Paris, continuing his opera performances. Boursicot, on the other hand, struggled with the public humiliation of their affair. They became estranged, though they reportedly communicated occasionally.

Shi’s final years:
  • Shi lived in a Parisian nursing home until his death at 70 on June 30, 2009. Months before his demise, he reportedly told Boursicot that he still loved him.
  • Commenting on Shi’s death, Boursicot, who had also been living at a French nursing home, expressed no sympathy but a sense of freedom. He told The New York Times’ Joyce Wadler, author of “Liaison: The True Story of the M. Butterfly Affair”:

“He did so many things against me that he had no pity for, I think it is stupid to play another game now and say I am sad. The plate is clean now. I am free.”

  • The couple’s story inspired David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Tony Award-winning play “M. Butterfly,” starring BD Wong, and David Cronenberg’s 1993 film of the same title.
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