Bernard Boursicot and the Spy Named Madame Butterfly

Bernard Boursicot is a former French diplomatic employee who became the centre of international media attention after being charged with espionage in the 1980s. His charges were shared by a Chinese citizen named Shi Pei Pu, Boursicot’s former lover.

This is their story.

1. Bernard Boursicot 

Bernard Boursicot was born on the 12th of August 1944 and spent his youth in the rural farmlands of Brittany, France. As a young man, Boursicot expressed an array of traits that signalled a taste for wanderlust and adventure, including an appreciation for the arts. [source]

Those traits continued to refine themselves throughout Boursicot’s time in boarding school, along with a burgeoning sexual drive. As he experimented with intimacy, Boursicot found himself having intercourse with other boys during his time in school, only to desire a heterosexual partner in adulthood.

In the mind of Boursicot, his prior instances of intercourse with boys were merely a boarding school “rite of passage”. [source] He would later accept his bi-sexuality, but as he matured, the idea of a female romantic partner embedded itself in his deepest desires.

It may seem a bit odd to include specific details of Boursicot’s sexuality, but it is not without purpose. By and large, it is quite relevant to the turn of events that is now his infamous legacy.

1.1 Beginnings as a French Diplomat

Boursicot moved to Paris sometime in the 1960s. In concordance with a fixation on the arts, the Parisian lifestyle is better in contrast to Brittany’s rural nature. He befriended Henri Langlois, the famous French cinephile. Langlois, aware of Bouriscot’s desire for adventure, suggested he applied for an opening at the French Embassy in Beijing, China (then Peking). [source]

The position itself was far from glamorous or of the calibre of espionage or anything akin to it. Moreover, it was a clerking role with minimal responsibility, which suited Bouriscot’s lack of technical expertise or even a high school degree.

He arrived in China in 1964 at the age of 20. For France as a nation, this was a pivotal moment in Oriental diplomacy. In January of that year, French President Charles de Gaulle announced official recognition of Chairman Mao’s communist regime. In accordance, France then opened the first Western embassy in Peking following the Korean War. [source]

Despite this diplomatic relationship, China imposed tight restrictions on the interactions between its citizens and the French diplomatic community. Government permission needed approval for social mingling. The eyes and ears of the Chinese authority looked and listened everywhere.

For Boursicot, the reality of this social climate contrasted with pre-expectations. Nevertheless, he found himself attending dinner parties and social gatherings between embassy staff and the Chinese elite. This entry into the higher echelons of diplomatic socialisation played into his ego and helped him craft a more illustrious persona, however, fabricated it may have been.

Not only that, but it became his hunting ground for a female romantic companion and the forfeiture of his heterosexual purity.  

2. Shi Pei Pu

Shi Pei Pu was born on the 21st of December 1938, in the Yunnan Province of China. He learned the French language in his youth, and graduated from the University of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, with a degree in literature.

As a young adult, Shi moved to Peking and immersed in the arts. He became an actor and then a singer with the Beijing opera. This lifestyle coupled with a slight rise into local fame resulted in Shi mingling with elite members of Chinese society.

Beyond speculation, there is not much concrete information about the finer details of Shi’s life before meeting Bernard Boursicot. However, after their paths crossed, he became known on an international scale.  

Shi Pei Pu in costume during the 1960s
Shi Pei Pu in costume during the 1960s [wikicommons]

3. Holiday Party in Beijing

Fast forward to late December 1964. The second-in-command of the French embassy, Claude Chayet, threw a holiday party. Boursicot attended, with a British secretary as his date. Shi Pei Pu was also in attendance. His position as a Chinese language instructor for one of the Chayet family’s tutors became his ticket to the otherwise private affair.

Despite showing up with a female companion, Boursicot became aware and intrigued by Shi Pei Pu’s presence. Shi was a bit of a wallflower amongst the other diplomats. He struck up a conversation, and the two began engaging in a friendly dialogue.

 It is worth mentioning at this point, that at the time, Chinese nationals were under strict restrictions regarding interactions with foreign citizens. However, because of Shi’s social status, the Chinese government granted him permission to circumnavigate the restrictions. [source]

This is where the story gets strange.

3.1 Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu Meet

Both men hit it off from their first interaction and agreed to get dinner in the days following the party. The first time was dinner at a fine restaurant in Beijing, at the suggestion of Shi.

Boursicot was beyond fascinated with Shi. His status as an artist, opera singer, and playwright intrigued the Parisians’ appreciation for the arts. They began seeing each other frequently, going on walks and learning about the fine details of each other’s lives and interests.

On one particular day, they were on a walk near the Forbidden City in Beijing. The setting: whimsical, including a courtyard with a flowing stream, whose waters ran beneath a series of marble bridges. At this location, Shi told Bernard Boursicot a story with an uncanny twist. [source]

The Story of the Butterfly.

3.2 Madama Butterfly

The Story of the Butterfly told by Shi was a synopsis of Madama Butterfly, a famous opera performed all across the world, including in Beijing with Shi as an actor in it. Not only that, but Shi performed the role of Madama Butterfly herself. In China, a male performing a female role on stage was far from taboo or uncommon. Nevertheless, upon telling that story, Shi then told one that was less fiction and more claimed reality.

Using Madama Butterfly as a backdrop, Shi revealed a deep truth about his, or as it turned out her life. In essence, Shi was born a female along with a sister, although their mother did not bear a son. In China, giving birth to a son is the best outcome. The absence of one created a rift in the family.

Shi’s mother decided to raise them as a male early on, in an attempt at giving them a chance at success in life, which was something rather unattainable for women. And so, Shi took the likeness and appearance of a male and managed to conceal her true biological sex to that point in time.

Boursicot, already enamoured by Shi, was in complete belief. In fact, at that point, he welcomed the revelation with open arms. As mentioned, Boursicot desired a female companion and found himself quickly falling in love with Shi. He promises to conceal the story, and they continued to see each other in a frequent rhythm.

Costume design sketches for an opera presentation of Madame Butterfly
Costume design sketches for an opera presentation of Madame Butterfly [wikicommons]

3.3 The Second Revelation

The relationship between Boursicot and Shi turned sexual not long after the discovery of the latter’s secret revelation. It was always in the dark, and Shi would never let Boursicot see her fully naked body under the light. 

In December of 1965, Boursicot was preparing to transfer out of China. He earned a slot to join an expedition in Brazil, with no real timeframe on when or if he would return to China. As the moment of his departure soon approached, Shi released a life-altering piece of information. She was pregnant, with his child. 

Surprisingly, Boursicot was not confrontational or in denial about the news, despite it being the day before his flight. He even had names to suggest based on the sex (Michele for a girl, Bertrand for a boy). 

His last words to Shi were “I will be back. For sure. I don’t know how. Just remember I will be back…” [source]

4. The Return to China

For four years after his departure, Bernard Boursicot continued to live the life of adventure he desired since childhood. He crossed the Atlantic and traversed the Amazon jungles, and then returned to Paris, where he entered into a relationship with a female medical student. 

At a surface level, his life seemed to be on an upward trajectory. However, a sense of longing still remained. A longing for his lost love in China, Shi Pei Pu, and to meet his child for the first time. That longing drove Boursicot to return back to the foreign diplomatic service, and travel back to the Orient. 

And so, Boursicot arrived in China as an archivist at the embassy. Soon after his arrival, he began the process of tracking down Shi, who no longer lived in her former apartment. Through much determination and searching, he was able to find Shi’s new place of residence. 

The two lovers finally reunited. However, no child resided in the home. Shi told Boursicot that she he has a son, but the political turmoil in China at the time was too dangerous for her to keep him there. Because of that danger, their son was away in another part of the country until the tensions lessened. 

Nevertheless, Boursicot’s love for Shi rekindled, and he began to try and see her frequently, despite the revolutionary atmosphere that succumbed to China through the reign of Mao.  

The eyes and ears of Mao were everywhere. Boursicot learned this after being confronted by a mob of citizens and Chinese officials, who stormed Shi’s home during his first visit. 

5. Relational Leverage

Boursicot felt the ramifications of the Cultural Revolution and the functioning surveillance state. Upon confrontation, he had to come up with a reason for his presence amongst the Chinese population, who had an ever-increasing feeling of unease with foreign citizens. 

In return, he crafted an excuse to suit the climate. He was studying Mao and trying to engage with the culture and people. He wanted to assist the communist cause. In order to do this, Shi claimed to be in the role of a teacher. Boursicot’s reasoning was enough for the pressure to release, but not for the surveillance to end. In fact, it had only just begun.

Boursicot and Shi kept seeing each other, albeit with the former being constantly under the watch of Chinese officers. Eventually, they told him Shi would be replaced by two Chinese men on behalf of the state. He continued to study with the hopes of pleasing them, thereby continuing to give him access to Shi. 

As the studies continued, Boursicot had a bit of an intellectual tide shift. Maoism, communism, and the plight of the people moved away from a study point and became a heartfelt cause for him to be engaged with. So much so, that he asked what could be done on his end to help the Chinese people. 

5.1 Bernard Boursicot: Chinese Agent

At the French Embassy, Boursicot had a rather vanilla job. He wasn’t a diplomat or power player. However, he worked around and handled sensitive documents. An abundance of them at that. He volunteered to steal and deliver the Chinese any documents he could get from the embassy. The offer was graciously accepted. 

And so, it began. Boursicot, through the strangest of circumstances, became an agent of the Chinese state. In his eyes, he was not only serving a higher cause but most importantly setting conditions to move his love and child away from China. 

Over the course of a decade, he stole and delivered an untold amount of information to the Chinese. His espionage continued in the midst of a few replacements, both in the United States and Mongolia. 

Through this time, the relationship between Boursicot began to simmer in terms of romance. However, the child at the centre of it remained a constant motivator for him. He had a chance to meet his son once, and the idea of bringing him to France continued to shape his actions. 

In October of 1982, by coordination of Boursicot, Shi and his Son, Bertrand, arrive in Paris. Shi began to work as an opera performer and actor, catching the attention of the French public after landing a few roles on television. [source]

5.2 Charges of Espionage

A few months after the arrival in Paris, the French government embarked on an audit of Chinese influence in Paris. Through this audit, they somehow caught wind of Shi and her relationship with Boursicot. 

Later that summer, the French security services apprehended Boursicot and began a series of questioning sessions. Almost simultaneously, Shi was investigated and later arrested. Both of them were kept detained at the same prison. A men’s prison at that. 

One may ask at this point, why government authorities would detain a female in a men’s prison. The reality is, they suspected Shi was actually a biological male. This suspicion, along with the entire story made its way to the news and trickled downwards all the way to Boursicot in his cellblock. Denial was the initial reaction, but then came the trial.

5.3 The Third Revelation

After six months of separate interrogation by a judge, the two were brought into the same room. It was then the truth came out, straight from the source and not through rumour. Shi told Boursicot, that she was indeed a man. A biological male, with a male reproductive organ. This was later proven after Shi revealed his unclothed front to Boursicot in a holding cell.

It turns out that Shi had a skill in tucking the organ inwards during sexual intercourse, thereby providing the illusion that it was a female vagina, which was further concealed by maintaining a dark room.

That was not the only piece of shocking news. There was still the young boy, who this whole time was thought to be the legitimate son of Boursicot.

It turns out, that the boy wasn’t. He wasn’t related to either of the men. The child had been purchased and was of Uyguhr ethnicity which gave him a more convincing look while he pretended to be a boy of half-French composure.

In the hallmark piece on this story from the New York Times, Joyce Wadler, whose words are the heavy basis for this article, gave a direct quote from Shi regarding the revelation [source]:

“I never told Bernard I was a woman. I only let it be understood that I could be a woman. At the time I thought I was a woman, since I did not have any male genital organs. I had a hole — although I must say it did not resemble or was not exactly like one I had seen on an actress once when I was taking off my makeup at the Beijing theater.”

Boursicot was devastated. The entire weight of the past decade and all that he learned was unbearable. While in custody, he attempted suicide, trying to cut his throat with a small knife given to prisoners for dining. Thankfully, he was not successful.

5.4 The Trial of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu

The trial of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu took place in May 1986. Boursicot’s defence tried to portray both subjects as psychologically unstable. Also, he tried to paint Boursicot as more of a victim than an anti-state defector, who in reality did not pass any damaging information to the Chinese.

In an hour of deliberation, the jury found both men guilty of espionage. The sentence was six years in jail.

In the end, for both men, the best possible outcome played out. Shi was given a presidential less than a year into his sentence. The French president did not want to endanger ties between France and China. Since the latter is a state that requires good optics, the entire trial was a major embarrassment.

For Boursicot, a pardon came four months after Shi.

6. The Aftermath

In the end, although both men were pardoned and released from prison, the public nature of the scandal was unavoidable. It became a highly mocked affair on an international scale.

Furthermore, it became an inspiration for a play titled “M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hang, which later became a film in 1993.

Shi Pei Pu passed away in 2009, while Bernard Boursicot continues to live in France, in a nursing home not far from where he grew up.

There is certainly a level of absurdity about the entire story, with many questions remaining unanswered. A honeypot trap is generally set with intentionality, which begs the question if it is the proper label for the event.

As far as it can be proven, Shi was far from being a professional spy, much less a pawn used to construct and execute an elaborate scheme as the affair was. The more likely scenario is that both men brought their own psyche and story into the relationship, which although had some strange turns, was not inherently malevolent or calculated with espionage in mind.

Nevertheless, the story lives on through the arts, just as they would have each likely wanted it to.

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