On this day March 20: M. Butterfly: the true story

M. Butterfly

On March 20, 1988, the play M. Butterfly opened on Broadway. David Henry Hwang based his script on a newspaper report of the trial of a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer jailed for spying.

“Bernard Boursicot was accused of passing information to China after he fell in love with Shi Pei Pu, whom he believed for 20 years to be a woman.”

The playwright purposefully did not research the story further before writing the script.

“Frankly, I didn’t want the ‘truth’ to interfere with my own speculations.”

David Henry Hwang’s multi-award-winning M. Butterfly premiered in Washington in 1988. It then opened on Broadway where it ran for 777 performances with a further Broadway revival in 2017. David Cronenberg made a film adaptation of the play in 1993.

But what of the real people who inspired M. Butterfly?

Bernard Boursicot

In 1964, France became the first major western nation to establish an embassy in Communist China. 20-year-old high school dropout Bernard Boursicot somehow wangled a job as an accountant at the embassy.

According to his diary, Bernard already knew plenty about sex. He enjoyed numerous gay liaisons as a student in French boarding schools. But he regarded that as simply a response to the all-male environment. Thinking of himself as heterosexual, he wanted to move on to sex with women.

At the embassy’s 1964 Christmas party, Bernard met 26-year-old Shi Pei Pu. Shi learned French as a child and supplemented his earnings at the Beijing Opera by teaching Chinese to family members of the embassy staff.

It is unlikely the Chinese government left it to chance who of their citizens obtained work at the embassy. Photos reveal Shi as a very good-looking young man. Chinese intelligence possibly contrived his employment. Their Soviet allies had previously deployed male honeytraps with great success.

Somehow Bernard and Shi’s conversation turned to sex during the Christmas party. Shi told Bernard he was actually a woman: “forced to live as a man to satisfy his father’s wish to have a son.”

Back in the sixties, foreign cultures remained mysterious and exotic to most people. International travel was not yet commonplace. Modern information technology did not exist. So, Bernard Boursicot accepted what Shi Pei Pu told him as a cultural difference.

But something very curious was never followed up in the subsequent trial. A good-looking gay or bisexual Chinese man talks to a young Frenchman with previous gay experience. That Frenchman, we know, now wants to have sex with a woman — and the Chinese man suddenly confesses he really is a woman. It would seem, Shi, either out of a personal desire for sex with Bernard — or because of an instruction to seduce him — responded to something Bernard said with what the Frenchman would want to hear.

Fast and furtive, and always in the dark

The pair began a sexual relationship which the Frenchman later described as “fast and furtive, and always in the dark.” Bernard continued to believe his Chinese f_ckbuddy was a woman pretending to be a man.

In 1965, Shi announced some happy news — a pregnancy. Sometime later, Shi presented Bernard with a baby boy — his son.

Bernard later said the Chinese authorities discovered the relationship in 1969. (Some western intelligence officers believed the Chinese knew about it all along and in fact, engineered the initial meeting.) It was the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There has never been a good time for most ordinary citizens to live under the Communist Chinese regime. However, the Cultural Revolution was a particularly dangerous period. Up to 20 million people died and people with academic qualifications, such as Shi, were especially at risk.

Bernard Boursicot agreed to provide the Chinese with documents from the embassy in return for safety for Shi Pei Pu and his son. However, as a low-level accountant, he never had access to anything of any consequence.

When the French transferred him to a posting in Mongolia, he continued to pilfer documents for the Chinese.

His relationship with Shi endured ups and downs. The embassy worker began having sex with women during his travels. He also commenced a long-term gay relationship with another Frenchman. After his return home in 1979, Bernard and that man moved in together. But in 1982, Shi contacted him and Bernard arranged for Shi and their now 16-year-old son to join him in Paris.

However, French authorities became suspicious when their former embassy worker began cohabiting with a Chinese citizen who had also worked at the embassy.

M. Butterfly

After police arrested the pair, Shi first insisted he was a woman. However, he later admitted he was male. Newspapers reported breathlessly that Shi used some mysterious technique that made his penis and testicles resemble female genitalia. Readers would probably know that as a ‘tuck job’. Shi also admitted his and Bernard’s son was a Uighur boy he bought from an impoverished mother. (More probably, provided by Chinese intelligence.}

Bernard Boursicot refused to accept that Shi Pei Pu was male until police brought him in and had him strip. Bernard consequently slashed his throat in his prison cell but survived.

The pair received six-year sentences for spying but the French president pardoned them a year later. They did not renew their relationship after leaving jail. Shi remained in France, lived as a male and worked sometimes in opera. Bernard brought up their son with the help of his family.

Shi Pei Pu died in 2009. In a 1988 interview, he said, “I used to fascinate both men and women. What I was and what they were didn’t matter.”

In the play, M. Butterfly, the character based on Bernard Boursicot died by suicide. But in real life, Bernard lived a long and happy life putting aside any bitterness over what happened as a result of his 20-year relationship with Shi.

Following a stroke around the turn of the century, he moved into a nursing home. In 2017, Vincent Lancisi, the director due to direct a Broadway revival of M. Butterfly met with Bernard during a French holiday.

He described Bernard as a contented man with a great sense of humour. Bernard told him about attending a performance of M. Butterfly in London starring Anthony Hopkins as the French diplomat who suicides at the end of the play.

“People were crying beside me. I told them, ‘Don’t cry so much. I am still alive.’ ”

Read More:

‘Moms’ Mabley, March 19 <— On this day —> March 21, Steen Fenrich

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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