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The bizarre story of the Chinese spy Shi Pei Pu

Shi Pei Pu, an opera singer, and spy masqueraded as a woman and had a 20-year sexual relationship with a French employee to gather secrets.

Shi Pei Pu (时 佩 璞, 1938-2009) who was born in Shandong province, was a Chinese opera singer and spy who went down in history for having duped Bernard Boursicot, an employee of the French embassy in Beijing, having a relationship with him that lasted 20 years to obtain secret documents.

Shi convinced the man that he was a woman and that he had a child from the relationship. In 1986, the story attracted the attention of the public and the media. Boursicot and Shi were tried and later sentenced to six years in prison.

Shi’s father was a university professor and his mother a teacher. The young man had two older sisters. Shi grew up in Kunming, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where he learned French while attending Yunnan University, majoring in literature. At 17, Shi became an actor and singer while also garnering some accolades. Still young, Shi wrote some plays about workers.

Bernard Boursicot, born in 1944, had attended various boarding schools as a young man, where he had had several homosexual relationships with other students; upon graduation, Boursicot became determined to have sex with a woman for the first time, believing that institutionalized homosexuality among college students was just a rite of passage. He arrived in Beijing at the age of 20, and there he found a job as an accountant at the French embassy. In January, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that the government recognized the Communist regime. The embassy had opened in 1964 and was the first Western mission to China since the Korean War that took place a few years earlier. Shortly before Christmas, he was invited to a reception by Claude Chayet, the second-highest-ranking officer of the French diplomatic headquarters. Boursicot went to the party accompanied by a secretary from the British embassy. At the reception he met Shi, then 26, and they soon started a relationship. During the party, Shi, at that moment dressed as a man, told Boursicot that she was actually a woman but to dress and behave like a man to satisfy the desire of her father, who always wanted a son.

Boursicot and Shi Dudu, Shi Peipu’s “son”

Journalist Joyce Wadler, the author of the book Liaison on this relationship, attributed Boursicot’s belief that Shi was a woman to the man’s unique ability to retract his testicles, which, combined with the manipulation of his own penis, created the illusion of labial lips and a clitoris allowing a superficial penetration.

In 1965, Shi claimed to be pregnant and used a baby named Shi Du Du (later named Bertrand by Boursicot and his family) that had been purchased by a doctor in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. Over the next decade, the two continued their relationship.

Around this time Boursicot embraced his own bisexuality, having multiple connections with women while at the same time being engaged in a long-term relationship with a Frenchman named Thierry, with whom he hoped one day to form a family that would also include Shi Pei Pu and Bertrand.

Boursicot later claimed that they began passing documents to Shi when the Chinese Cultural Revolution complicated their relationship. He was approached by Kang Sheng, a Chinese secret service member who offered him access to Shi in exchange for documents. Boursicot worked for the secret services at the French embassy in Beijing from ’69 to ’72 and in Mongolia from ’77 to ’79.

In 1979 Boursicot returned to France and lost contact with Shi. In 1982 he managed to get Shi and his son, now sixteen, to arrive in Paris, where they began to live as a family. Boursicot was arrested on June 30, 1983 by agents of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. When he was questioned by the authorities, he confessed that he had passed Shi at least 150 confidential documents.

Boursicot and Shi during the trial in France

In 1986 the two were sentenced to six years in prison for espionage. Upon learning the truth about their relationship, Boursicot attempted suicide in prison by slitting his throat but survived. The following year, French President François Mitterrand pardoned Shi in an attempt to dissolve diplomatic tensions between China and France. Boursicot also obtained a pardon in August of the same year. Public disclosure of the affair made Boursicot an object of laughter in France.

Released from prison, Shi returned to devote himself to Chinese opera. He remained in contact with Boursicot, declaring himself still in love a month before he died, in Paris, at the age of seventy.

Shi Peipu died in a French nursing home in Paris, aged 70, on June 30, 2009

“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” Bernanrd Boursicot on his relation with Shi Pei Pu, Joyce Wadler in The True Story of the M. Butterfly Affair, published in 1994

The film M. Butterfly shot by David Cronenberg in 1993 and based on a work by David Henry Hwang, nominated for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for dramaturgy, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone is inspired by this story.

A still from the movie M Butterfly (1993) directed by David Cronenberg

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Last Updated on 2022/07/17

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