Chinese soprano’s affair was inspiration for M. Butterfly

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Shi Pei Pu, a Chinese operatic soprano who along with his French lover was convicted of espionage and whose complicated affair inspired the Tony Award-winning Broadway play “M. Butterfly” and the movie of the same title, has died. He was 70.

Shi died Tuesday in Paris. An aide confirmed Shi’s death to Agence France-Presse.

Shi had been working as a librettist and soprano for the Beijing Opera and taught Chinese to diplomats’ families when he met Bernard Boursicot in 1964 during a Christmas party at the home of a mutual associate. Boursicot, then a 20-year-old clerk working for the French Embassy in Beijing, later said the relationship started platonically, out of interest in forging “a good friendship with a Chinese person.”

It turned romantic, with Shi going to extraordinary lengths to hide his sex. Shi told Boursicot that he was a woman and only pretending to be a man. Boursicot, who was not experienced in such things, took Shi at his word.


Boursicot soon left China for assignments that kept him away several years, but Shi reinforced their relationship by claiming to have given birth in Boursicot’s absence to their child.

The child, a boy named Shi Du Du, was later revealed to be a Muslim minority Uighur sold by his mother to Shi.

After Boursicot returned to China in the late 1960s, secret police discovered his relationship with Shi. The police were alarmed that Shi was involved with a Westerner at a time when China was closed to much of the outside world.

Afraid for Shi’s life, Boursicot said, he began passing French Embassy documents through Shi to a Chinese agent. Boursicot continued to spy for China while posted in Mongolia in the late 1970s and used Shi as an intermediary.

The stress of spying and the strained long-distance relationship led Boursicot to return to Paris, where he lived with another male lover. In 1982, he arranged for Shi and their “son,” known as Bertrand, to emigrate on diplomatic visas. For a time, they and the other man lived together.

The arrangement attracted the attention of French counterespionage authorities, mostly because Shi was a foreign national living in the apartment of a foreign service employee. After an investigation, French police arrested Shi and Boursicot in 1983 on charges of espionage.


In 1986, they were convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Boursicot later told the New York Times that only during the trial did he learn Shi’s true sex. In tes- timony, Shi described how for years he had kept Boursicot literally in the dark -- in large part by having sex rarely, quickly and with the lights off.

Boursicot said he felt betrayed and attributed Shi’s romantic modesty to Chinese tradition. Shi testified that he had never explicitly told Boursicot he had been female but never corrected the assumption either.

French President Francois Mitterrand pardoned Shi in 1987, after 11 months in prison.

Shi was born in 1938 in China’s eastern Shandong province. After his conviction, he remained in Paris singing in minor opera productions. Survivors include his son and three grandchildren. Boursicot, now 64, kept in sporadic touch with Shi since their conviction and is recovering from a stroke at a nursing home in France, according to the New York Times.

The Broadway production “M. Butterfly,” written by David Henry Hwang and the 1988 Tony Award winner for best play, re-creates the romantic tribulations of Shi and Boursicot. John Lithgow and later Anthony Hopkins portrayed a fictionalized Boursicot on stage, with actor B.D. Wong in the Shi role. The 1993 film, directed by David Cronenberg, starred Jeremy Irons and John Lone.


Shapiro writes for the Washington Post.


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