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The Story of Shi Pei Pu: The Cross-Dressing Spy who is the real-life Madame Butterfly

It’s safe to assume that most of you are already familiar with the story of Mulan; the brave girl who dressed up as a man to take her father’s place in the war, but did you know that Mulan had a male counterpart? 


Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009) was a moderately successful opera singer and actor from Beijing. He later became a spy when he started a relationship with a French Embassy employee named Bernard Boursicot and funnelled all of his secrets to the Chinese government. During their 20-year sexual relationship, Shi somehow managed to convince Boursicot that he was a woman. This might sound like a silly premise to a badly-written James Bond movie, but Shi Pei Pu was a real person who pulled an Uno reverse Mulan card on Boursicot, although unlike Mulan, his intentions were more romantic than noble. 


As mentioned before, Shi was an opera singer, so crossdressing was a norm in his profession. This might come as a surprise, since Chinese culture is known to adhere to gender norms, but crossdressing actually dates back to the Ming and Qing Dynasty, when it was deemed improper for a man and a woman to appear on stage together. For this reason, male actors occasionally had to play female roles and were referred to as nandan (男旦).


 It’s easy to assume that this was how Shi kept up the ruse of being a woman, but when he first met Boursicot at a diplomatic party in 1964, he was dressed as a man. Shi was 26 at that time, and he invented an elaborate tale about how he was born as a girl but was forced to dress up as a man to please his father’s desire for a son, and Boursicot, who was only 20, was completely enthralled by the story. He kept meeting up with Shi after the party, and they eventually became lovers. This is where you’d think Shi’s ruse would finally be revealed, but apparently he and Boursicot always had intercourse in the dark because Shi insisted it was part of Chinese etiquette. 


Just when you think this story can’t get any more ridiculous, Boursicot was stationed in Mongolia for a few years, and when he returned to Beijing, he found that Shi had acquired a baby, whom he claimed was Boursicot’s 4-year-old son. And Boursicot believed him. However, instead of living their lives as a new family, their story took a sad turn from this point.


Many sources always label Shi as a spy, but it doesn’t seem like that was his intention when he entered the relationship with Boursicot. It was the Chinese government who pressured Boursicot to steal documents from the French Embassy when they found out about his affair with Shi. After Shi and Boursicot moved to France with their supposed son in 1983, they were arrested shortly after and were charged for espionage.


The prison was where Shi finally admitted that he was a man, and upon knowing the truth, Boursicot attempted to slice his own throat with a razor but survived. Shi and Boursicot were pardoned by French President François Mitterrand in 1987, and they remained estranged with each other for the rest of their lives. 


Before Shi died in 2009, he told Boursicot that he still loved him, but Boursicot did not reciprocate. Instead, he said that he wasn’t saddened by Shi’s death and was relieved that he was finally free. 


Shi Pei Pu might not be Mulan, but his story was equal parts fascinating, absurd, and tragic. He was actually the inspiration behind the 1988 play M. Butterfly and the 1993 film of the same name, but there are surprisingly no other adaptations based on this bittersweet love story.

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