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Shi Pei Pu, at 70; Chinese singer, spy, 'M. Butterfly'

Shi Pei Pu in costume for the Beijing Opera in the mid-1960s. Shi Pei Pu in costume for the Beijing Opera in the mid-1960s. (Associated Press)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post / July 4, 2009
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WASHINGTON - 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, died June 30 in Paris. An aide confirmed Mr. Shi’s death to Agence France-Presse and said he was 70.

Mr. Shi had been working as a librettist and soprano for the Beijing Opera and taught Chinese to diplomat 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 Mr. Shi going to extraordinary lengths to hide his sex. Mr. Shi told Boursicot that he was a woman and only pretending to be a man.

Boursicot, who was not experienced in such things, took Mr. Shi at his word.

Boursicot soon left China for assignments that kept him away several years, but Mr. 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 Uighar sold by his mother to Mr. Shi.

After Boursicot returned to China in the late 1960s, secret police discovered his relationship with Mr. Shi.

The police were alarmed that Mr. Shi was involved with a Westerner at a time when China was closed to much of the outside world.

Afraid for Mr. Shi’s life, Boursicot said he began passing French Embassy documents through Mr. Shi to a Chinese agent. Boursicot continued to spy for China while posted in Mongolia in the late 1970s and used Mr. 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 Mr. Shi and their “son,’’ also 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 Mr. Shi was a foreign national living in the apartment of a foreign service employee. After an investigation, the French police arrested Mr. 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 Mr. Shi’s true sex. In testimony, Mr. 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 Mr. Shi’s romantic modesty to Chinese tradition. Mr. Shi testified that he had never explicitly told Boursicot he had been female but never corrected the assumption either.

President Francois Mitterand of France pardoned Mr. Shi in 1987, after 11 months in prison.

Mr. 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, who is 64, has been living in a nursing home in France while recovering from a stroke.

“I’m not surprised,’’ he told The New York Times when contacted about Mr. Shi’s death. “It is a long time he has been sick. Now it’s over 40 years.’’

Asked whether he had any sadness at all, Boursicot said: “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.’’

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 Mr. Shi and Boursicot. John Lithgow and later Anthony Hopkins portrayed a fictionalized Boursicot on stage, with actor B.D. Wong in the role of Mr. Shi. The 1993 film, directed by David Cronenberg, starred Jeremy Irons and John Lone.

According to a long story in the New York Times magazine, Mr. Shi once shared with Boursicot a story about two fated lovers whose souls, in death, meet as butterflies.

“Look at my hands, look at my face,’’ Mr. Shi told him. “That story of the Butterfly - it is my story, too.’’