Bernard Boursicot (born on 12 August 1944) is a French diplomat who was caught in a honeypot trap (seducing him to participate in Chinese espionage), by Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer who performed female roles, whom Boursicot believed to be female. This espionage case became something of a cause célèbre in France in 1986, as Boursicot and Shi were brought to trial, due to the nature of the unusual sexual subterfuge alleged.
The case was again back under a public spotlight when a play loosely based on this affair, M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, premiered in 1988 and yet again as the film adaptation of the play directed by David Cronenberg was released in 1993. Periodic re-stagings of the play and television airings of the film based on it continue to spark interest in the espionage case at the heart of the fictional works of art.
Boursicot was born in 1944. He attended boarding schools as a youth, where he engaged in multiple homosexual affairs with other students; upon graduation, Boursicot became determined to lose his virginity to a woman, believing that institutionalized homosexuality among boarding students was a rite of passage. He first met Shi Pei Pu in China while posted to the French Embassy in Peking as an accountant in 1964. He was 20 years old and Shi was 26. They met at an embassy reception and shortly began a relationship. Reporter Joyce Wadler, who wrote the book Liaison about the affair, would later attribute Boursicot's belief that Shi was a woman to Shi's unique ability to retract his own testicles, which, combined with the manipulation of his own penis, created the illusion of labial lips and a clitoris and allowed for shallow penetration.
In 1965, Shi claimed to be pregnant and was able to use a baby boy called Shi Du Du (later called Bertrand by Boursicot and his family) who had been bought from a doctor in the Xinjiang province of China. Over the next decade, they continued their on-again off-again affair as Boursicot moved from posting to posting in Southeast Asia. During this period Boursicot embraced his own bisexuality, having multiple liaisons with women while also engaged in a long term relationship with a Frenchman named Thierry, with whom he one day hoped to form a family including Shi and Bertrand. Boursicot has stated that he began passing documents to Shi when the Chinese Cultural Revolution made it difficult for him to see her. He was approached by Kang Sheng, a member of the Chinese secret service who offered him access to Shi in exchange for his passing documents. He believed Shi's safety was at risk if he failed to participate.
Return to France, trial and aftermath
Boursicot returned to France in 1979 and lost contact with Shi. In 1982, Boursicot was able to get the now 16-year-old Shi Du Du out of China and to Paris, where they lived as a family. Boursicot was questioned by authorities and confessed to having passed at least 150 classified documents to Shi. In 1983, Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu were arrested for spying for China. The prosecution then dramatically revealed Shi's real sex to Boursicot. He refused to believe it until he was permitted to see proof in the form of Shi's body. Not long after, he attempted suicide while in prison but was unsuccessful. In 1986, after a two-day trial, Boursicot and Shi were convicted of spying against the French government. Each received a sentence of six years in prison.
Shi was pardoned in 1987. After his release, Shi remained in Paris, where he enjoyed his notoriety and performed as an opera singer. Boursicot, released four months after Shi, was last reported to be living contentedly with Thierry and has apparently made peace with the nature of his relationship with Shi. Shi Pei Pu and Shi Du Du had no contact with Boursicot until Shi's death in 2009. In Shi's obituary, it was reported that Shi Du Du was living in Paris and believed by Boursicot to have a family with three sons.
Boursicot cooperated fully with reporter Joyce Wadler, who was seeking information for her book on the espionage case and affair, Liaison, granting her lengthy interviews about deeply personal subjects as well as access to all records and his closest family members. He is frequently quoted in the book.
In a separate but lengthy article published in The New York Times Magazine in 1993, titled "The True Story of M. Butterfly; The Spy Who Fell in Love with a Shadow," Wadler reveals in intimate detail how Boursicot came to believe the fiction that Shi Pei Pu was a woman despite having first come to know him socially and in a close friendship as a man.
Boursicot related through Wadler that Shi first told him the story of an opera about a Chinese girl who swaps clothing with her brother so she may be educated. She falls in love with another student but is called home to participate in an arranged marriage. The male student is driven to suicide and eventually the girl does the same at the grave of her true love. The opera is called the Story of the Butterfly.
Boursicot reported that it is only when he had the opportunity to leave his dull job that Shi Pei Pu told him the Story of the Butterfly again with an added twist that he, Shi Pei Pu, had been a woman masquerading as a man all his life to prevent her father from taking a second wife and shaming her mother who had two older daughters. Upon Shi's birth, this fiction was created. Boursicot accepted the lie, their affair began, and all that came after ensued.
Boursicot's and Shi Pei Pu's public comments regarding their affair
In his obituary, it was reported that Shi Pei Pu disliked answering questions about the sexual specifics of the affair; in 1988 he was quoted in an interview as having said, "I used to fascinate both men and women. What I was and what they were didn’t matter."
About the affair, Boursicot is quoted as saying, "When I believed it, it was a beautiful story."
Legacy of the affair and espionage case
- The play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang is based on this affair. This became the basis of the film of the same name directed by David Cronenberg.
- Kang Sheng, Shi Pei Pu's control agent in the TEWU, the Chinese Secret Service, has had his career covered in a book The Chinese Secret Service.
- The contemporary Chinese Music Theatre Mr. Shi and His Lover by Njo Kong Kie and Wong Teng Chi is also based on this affair.
- Hawthorne, Melanie C. "Du Du That Voodoo": M. Venus and M. Butterfly. Published in L'Esprit Créateur Volume 37, Number 4, Winter 1997 E-ISSN 1931-0234 Print ISSN 0014-0767 pp. 58-66 (Article) Specifically pages 58 through 60 discuss the sexual titillation the case caused in the French media at the time. Accessed via PDF download on 14 November 2011
- Wadler, Joyce (15 August 1993). "The True Story of M. Butterfly; The Spy Who Fell in Love with a Shadow". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 14 November 2011.
- KPBS On Air Magazine (August 1993), "M. Butterfly” at North Coast Repertory Theatre (October 2006)
- The True Story of M. Butterfly; The Spy Who Fell in Love with a Shadow ny Joyce Wadler Published: 15 August 1993 NEW YORK TIMES Magazine. Accessed online 14 November 2011
- Time.com, World Notes Spies - Why Not Sort of Pregnant?, (October 2006)
- Bernstein, Richard (11 May 1986). "France Jails 2 in Odd Case of Espionage". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 13 March 2007.
- Kak, Subhash (4 May 2005). "Asia's two butterfly syndromes". Asia Times Online. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
- "France Pardons Chinese Spy Who Pretended to Be Woman". The New York Times. 10 April 1987. Retrieved 1 October 2006.
- "Obituaries: Shi Pei Pu". The Telegraph. 3 July 2009. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
- Gross, John (10 April 1988). "A 'Butterfly' That Hovers Over The Issues of Racism, Sexism". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
- Walder, Joyce (1 July 2009). "Shi Pei Pu, Singer, Spy and 'M. Butterfly,' Dies at 70". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 November 2011.
- Shi Pei Pu, Singer, Spy and ‘M. Butterfly,’ Dies at 70 By JOYCE WADLER Published: 1 July 2009 New York Times. Accessed online 14 November 2011.
- Faligot Roger, Kauffer Remi (1990), The Chinese Secret Service, William Morrow & Co., ISBN 0-688-09722-7