How did a MALE Chinese opera writer convince a French diplomat that he was a WOMAN, marry him for 20 YEARS, somehow have a CHILD with him, and have him leak government documents?

shi pei pu
Shi Pei Pu and Bernard Bouriscot :1964-1984: Read time - 6 minutes

The biggest bamboozle in history

Yeah that’s a mouthful of a title, but I wanted to make sure you know how batshit crazy of a situation this was. To highlight this absurdity, a male Chinese opera writer:

  • Convinced a French diplomat that he was actually a woman
  • Fell in love with each other
  • Had a sexually active marriage for 20 years
  • Had a child together
  • Had him pass along secret French documents to the Chinese government.

I promise you that everything you just heard is true and isn’t clickbait even in the slightest. It’s a literal fever dream and I want you to experience it for yourself.

Our story starts with a French official named Bernard Bouriscot. Born in 1944, Bernard attended boarding school where he took an interest in cinema, the developing world, and other boys. Yep, Bernard had many sexual encounters with other male students, but never a woman. 

Bernard Bouriscot: A French official who was stationed all around the world, especially in China. Most of the information in this story comes from him.

Bernard Bouriscot pictured. Credit to Olivier Boitet/The Associated Press

After a stint as a teacher in the newly independent Algeria, Bernard took a job as an accountant for the French embassy in the People’s Republic of China in October 1964. The 20 year old Bernard took to exploring the country. According to his diary, he also had something on his mind – he wanted a woman.

His life would change when he met a young man named Shi Pei Pu who was a talented opera writer and former singer who studied under the legendary Mei Lanfang. Bernard was a theater enthusiast himself and the two developed a close friendship over the next few months.

Mei Lanfang: A famous Peking opera artist who primarily played female roles (women were not allowed to perform in China).

Shi Pei Pu: An opera writer and former opera singer. He suffered from heart issues. Born in 1938.

A picture taken of Shi Pei Pu sometime before 1960

Then in May 1965, Shi had a confession to make – he was actually a woman. The story was that Shi’s mother feared that her husband would take a third wife if she did not have a son. Thus she raised Shi to be a man. Shi begged Bernard to keep his secret, to which he agreed. 

This story was completely untrue and to be clear, Shi was a DUDE. Somehow Bernard never realized this, even when he lost his virginity to him a few weeks later (which I’ll explain how the hell that even happened at the end).

*Will be using he/him pronouns for Shi Pei Pu

In December, 1965, the French government told Bernard that he would return to Europe. Then Shi had a second (false) confession. In tears he exclaimed “I’m pregnant.” Bernard was elated and said “It will be a boy, and we shall call him Bertrand. I’ll be back soon, I swear it.” 

*I’m getting most of these quotes from the books Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping and Liaison: the Gripping Real Story of the Diplomat Spy and the Chinese Opera Star in which the authors have interviewed Bernard and Shi. Not pulling a Herodotos here. Sources at the end as always.

What to do in a long distance relationship

Bernard worked in Saudi Arabia and Paris for four years where he got a few promotions and gained access to some semi-important documents that the French government wouldn’t be too thrilled with if they got leaked. Nonetheless, Bernard was trusted with this information and returned to Beijing in September 1969.

It wasn’t a fun time in China as the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Shi told Bernard that their child Bertrand or his Chinese name Shi Du Du, was being raised in the countryside in fear of the revolutionaries. Bernard and Shi had to be careful about their relationship as they were under the watchful gaze of the Chinese government. They used the guise of Shi teaching Bernard the wonders of Maoism to continue seeing each other.

Cultural Revolution: A political movement spearheaded by Mao Zedong that aimed to purge any capitalist or traditional elements from Chinese society. Death estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to several million, but it was most likely around 1.5 million. Lasted from 1966-1976.

Maoism: Mao Zedong’s version of communism. Placed more emphasis on the peasants.

Shi Pei Pu

Shi was working in conjunction with the Chinese secret service and it was time to extort some documents. One day a group of local people stormed in and took Shi away. Bernard pleaded with some local officials to save his wife, but of course Shi was safe all along. 

It’s unclear how involved Shi actually was with the Chinese government. It’s possible that he was forced to do this in order to see Bernard. From most things I’ve read, Shi was actually in love with Bernard and this seems to be supported by his actions.

Anyways, when Shi was “recovered” he told Bernard that two Chinese men would replace him as his Maoist teachers. These two men were of course part of the Chinese secret service and wasted no time extorting documents under the threat of taking Shi away.

Bernard passed secret documents to the Chinese from 1970-1972. He was then relocated to Dublin until returning to China again in 1979… and picked up right where he left off. Chinese officials were happy with this and allowed Bernard to see his beloved wife and child.

To Bernard’s credit, he never released documents about his home country, France. He passed along documents like American intentions in Vietnam, what the Soviets were up to, and other happenings around the world – in other words very low-level documents.

This spying came to an end when Bernard returned to France in 1981, with his wife and son following the next year. There they would live happily ever after… just kidding, Bernard and Shi were arrested by French officials in 1983.

The DST interrogated Bernard asking him why he passed along documents to which Bernard exclaimed it was out of love. What Bernard did wasn’t that big of a deal to most. The DST deemed most of the documents unimportant and wanted to sweep everything under the rug as Bernard’s intentions seemed to be pure.

DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire): The domestic intelligence agency of the French National Police. Dissolved in 2008.

Shi was interrogated separately from Bernard where he finally confessed that he was actually a dude. The worst part is that Bernard first heard the news on the radio, upon which he immediately fainted – then he tried to unsuccessfully kill himself by slitting his throat. From this, we can assume that Bernard actually thought Shi was a woman for 20 years.

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The big reveal

Alright, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. How the hell did Shi deceive Bernard? Why not hear it straight from Shi himself.

As concerns our sexual relations, these always took place in the dark as Boursicot always showed the greatest délicatesse (delicacy) toward me. I want to stress that this was my first sexual experience, and according to Boursicot, the same was true for him. Since I did not have a female sexual organ Boursicot could not penetrate me. When we made love, I kept my legs lightly pressed together, so that Boursicot may have had the impression that he was penetrating me

Shi’s statement made to the judge during the trial

Shi’s examiner also saw that Shi could hide his penis inside his scrotum, and hide it under his pubic hair. Looks like someone didn’t pay attention in sex-ed. 

As for their son, Shi Du Du, Shi literally bought him from an orphanage while Bernard was away. Shi Du Du was of Uyghur descent and had slightly more European features.

Uyghur: An ethnic group originating from and culturally associated with East and Central Asia.

shi pei pu reaction

To everyone’s surprise, Shi and Bernard were sentenced to six years in prison, but were eventually pardoned within a year. Safe to say that their marriage did not continue, but they still talked from time to time.

It’s unclear as to how involved Shi was with the Chinese government. Like I said above, it seems that Shi did actually love Bernard. If he was only in the relationship for spying purposes, then why did Shi move to France with Bernard? I also feel like that if this was a ploy from the start, the Chinese government could come up with a better plan than sending a guy disguised as a woman to seduce another guy. Like, just hire a woman?

You also may be thinking, “didn’t Bernard already have homosexual encounters when he was young? They probably used this as a disguise to hide their actual relationship.” 

While this could be true, I believe it’s unlikely since A) even for the time it would be more embarrassing to admit that you thought your wife was a woman when he was actually a dude than to come out as gay and B) if they were in this together, why did this incident ruin their marriage?

Unfortunately, there are a bunch of holes in this story and it’s difficult to determine what was actually going on.

Shi died at the age of 70 in 2009. Months before his death, he said he still loved Bernard. After learning of Shi’s death, Bernard would say “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.”

Bernard Boursicot, 41, left and Shi Pei Pu, 47, on trial on May 5, 1986. Credit Olivier Boitet/The Associated Press

I kind of feel bad for Bernard, but also like MY BROTHER IN CHRIST, HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW?!?! You are so lucky that this happened before social media was a thing. You could never go out in public again. I also have this image in my head where the judge is explaining the case and everyone is like “um, excuse me?”

And to Shi – wtf bro. Convincing a man that you’re a woman, marrying him for 20 years, adopting some random kid and saying it’s his, and setting him up to leak secret documents is not a bro move.

I also wonder what poor Shi Du Du was thinking. I’m pretty sure he’s all good though, he went on to have three kids of his own and probably made sure his wife didn’t have a penis.

Yeah that’s about it. Moral of the story – I don’t know chief. This whole thing was kind of weird. I guess make sure to vet your spouse’s genitals?

*For any theater fans, the play M. Butterfly was based on this relationship.

Timeline - Terms - Sources

October 1964: Bernard Bouriscot is sent to the French embassy in China as an accountant

December 1964: Bernard Bernard meets Shi Pei Pu

May 1965: Shi Pei Pu reveals that he is actually a woman

December 1965: Bernard returns to Europe. Shi says he is pregnant

September 1969: Bernard returns to Beijing

1970-72: Bernard leaks classified documents to Chinese officials until being relocated to Dublin

1979: Bernard returns to China and is stationed in Outer Mongolia. Continues to pass documents to the Chinese government.

1981: Bernard  moves back to France

October 1982: Shi Pei Pu and Shi Du Du move to France with Bernard.

June 1983: Bernard and Shi Pei Pu are arrested

June 19, 1984: Michael Jordan is drafted to the Chicago Bulls

May 5th, 1986: Bernard and Shi Pei Pu go on trial

June 2009: Shi Pei Pu passes away at the age of 70

Bernard Bouriscot: A French official who was stationed all around the world, especially in China. Most of the information in this story comes from him.

Cultural Revolution: A political movement spearheaded by Mao Zedong that aimed to purge any capitalist or traditional elements from Chinese society. Death estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to several million, but it was most likely around 1.5 million. Lasted from 1966-1976.

DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire): The domestic intelligence agency of the French National Police. Dissolved in 2008. Responsible for busting this case and interrogating Shi and Bernard. 

Maoism: Mao ZeDong’s version of communism. Placed more emphasis on the peasants.

Shi Pei Pu: An opera writer and former opera singer. He suffered from heart issues. Born in 1938.

Uyghur: An ethnic group originating from and culturally associated with East and Central Asia.

Sources: 

Liaison: the Gripping Real Story of the Diplomat Spy and the Chinese Opera Star. Joyce Walder. 1993

Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping, Roger Faligot. 2019.

At 83, the embassy worker at the center of the ‘M. Butterfly’ story is still an enigma. Jake Cigainero, 2017. https://theworld.org/stories/2017-09-21/83-embassy-worker-center-m-butterfly-story-still-enigma 

China’s Cultural Revolution was a power grab from within the government, not from without, Stanford sociologist finds. Melissa de Witte. 2019. https://news.stanford.edu/2019/10/29/violence-unfolded-chinas-cultural-revolution/

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