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Love, Sex and Espionage: From Madam Chrysanthème to M. Butterfly and so much more

"I used to fascinate both men and women. What I was and what they were didn't matter." — Shi Pei Pu (1938 - 2009)

  • Madame Chrysanthème (1887), a novel by Pierre Loti (1850 - 1923)

  • Madame Butterfly (1898), a short story by John Luther Long (1861 - 1927)

  • M. Butterfly (1988), a play by David Henry Hwang

  • Miss Saigon (1989), a stage musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil

The foundation of each of the works listed above is the same: A Western man of influence comes to the Far East and begins a relationship with a local woman that ends with some sort of catastrophe. The specifics, of course, vary considerably — in part, because one of them was inspired by a fascinating true story — but the general plot, involving a doomed love affair coupled with scandal, is a mainstay.

It started with Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème. The immensely popular book was presented as the fictional, but semi-autobiographical journal of a French naval officer, kept during the summer of 1885, while he was stationed in Nagasaki and temporarily married to a Japanese geisha named Kiku (Chrysanthemum). It was a marriage of convenience that was never intended to last, and so the couple parted ways when it was time for him to leave Japan.

While the plot may sound rather bland compared to today’s standards, the novel “helped define the terms in which Occidentals perceived Japan as delicate, feminine, and, to use one of Loti’s favorite words, ‘preposterous’ — in short, ripe for exploitation.” In 1893, “to avenge Japan for the adjectives that Pierre Loti has inflicted on it,” artist and illustrator Félix Régamey (1844 - 1907) rewrote the story from Kiku’s perspective as The Pink Notebook of Madame Chrysanthème.

Cover of the 1903 edition of Madame Butterfly
Cover of the 1903 edition of Madame Butterfly

Eleven years later, in 1898, John Luther Long published Madame Butterfly. In this version, the Westerner is Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an American naval officer who, too, arrives in Nagasaki and marries a geisha. The relationship is strained due to Pinkerton's refusal to allow his wife, Cho-Cho-San, to remain in contact with her family. As a result she is alienated from them, with Pinkerton becoming her only means of support.

Only, he doesn’t support her. When it’s time for him to leave, he does so, and marries another woman shortly thereafter, while his Japanese bride gives birth to their child. Alone with a newborn, she waits for him, until she finally gets word of his arrival, only to be stood up by her husband as he never makes an appearance before departing once again. An attempted-suicide, however, makes her realize that she needs to move on with her life and focus on raising her kid.

Allegedly, Long’s story was inspired by both Madame Chrysantheme and the stories he was told by his sister, Jennie Correll, who had traveled to Japan with her missionary husband. Still, each of these works had inspired famous productions, such as André Messager's 1893 opera Madame Chrysantheme, as well as David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan (1900) and Giacomo Puccini’s three-act opera Madama Butterfly.

For a while, it seemed like the renditions would end with Puccini (1858 - 1924), who wrote five versions of the opera. But, 85 years later, a new version was written by David Henry Hwang, and while it does have a lot in common with Madame Butterfly, it wasn’t inspired by Madame Chrysanthème, but by two very real people, and a personal as well as political scandal that rocked the world in ways that were both hard to predict and harder still to believe.

Hwang’s play is based on the events that unfolded between Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu (1938 - 2009), who are introduced as René Gallimard and Song Liling in the work. Gallimard, a civil servant formally attached to the French embassy in China, is a prisoner serving out a sentence for treason. Through a series of flashbacks and imagined conversations, he shares the story of how he fell in love with an opera singer, and how that love landed him in jail.

Indeed, Boursicot was a 20-year-old French diplomat who, in 1964, was posted to the French Embassy in Peking as an accountant. While there, he attended an office party where he met a beautiful 26-year-old opera singer by the name of Shi Pei Pu, who was dressed as a man but claimed to be a woman in drag, explaining that her father had always wanted a son and this was her way of pleasing him.

Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, taken before 1960
Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, taken before 1960

Unbeknown to Boursicot, all female roles in traditional Beijing opera were actually played by men, as women were banned from the stage. But much like Gallimard, Boursicot was more than happy to accept Shi Pei Pu as he wanted to see “her,” while Shi Pei Pu was happy to upkeep the facade. And so, a romantic relationship began shortly thereafter. This, of course, brings up a lot of questions about the nature of their sexual relationship.

While it may seem rather unbelievable that a lie of this magnitude can be sustained for a prolonged period of time, there does appear to be an explanation. According to journalist Joyce Wadler, who wrote a book about the affair, Boursicot's belief that Pu was a woman was partially due to Pu's unusual ability to retract his testicles, which, combined with the manipulation of his penis, created the illusion of labial lips and a clitoris, and allowed for shallow penetration.


This appears to have been sufficient to do the trick. When Pu claimed to be with child just a year later, Boursicot was none the wiser. In fact, the baby boy, named Shi Du Du, had been bought from a doctor in a nearby region. Boursicot accepted the boy as his son, who he affectionately started to refer to as Bertrand later in life. And so, for the next ten+ years, the couple maintained an on-and-off relationship that now included a growing dependent.

Throughout this time, Boursicot was moved from posting to posting in Southeast Asia. Having been to an all-boys boarding school, where he engaged in several same-sex affairs, Boursicot enjoyed intermittent relationships with both men and women throughout this period. He even had hopes of bringing Shi Pei Pu into one of his longest relationships with a Frenchman named Thierry. Together, he thought, they could be a family.

These plans, however, wouldn’t work out. When the Chinese Cultural Revolution began and the government discovered their affair, espionage would bring the couple closer together before tearing them apart for good. The play suggests that Song Liling was a spy who intentionally targeted René Gallimard to obtain secrets through deception by employing the honeypot trap, which lasted for the next two decades. But in life, things unfolded differently.

Top Secret stamp
Top Secret

After being discovered by the Chinese government, Boursicot was approached by Kang Sheng, a member of the Chinese secret service who offered him access to Pu, which was made difficult by the revolution, in exchange for his cooperation. Believing that Pu’s safety was at risk if he failed to participate, Boursicot reluctantly agreed. From 1969 to 1972, and then again from 1977 to 1979, he passed anywhere between 150 to 500 documents to the Chinese government.

Boursicot returned to France in 1979, and was able to relocate both Pu and the then 16-year old boy to Paris three years later. But, in the summer of 1983, both he and Pu were arrested for espionage. Although Boursicot initially refused to believe that the woman he had a relationship with for over a decade was a man, he finally accepted the fact after he was permitted to see Shi Pei Pu’s body. The revelation was painful and Boursicot unsuccessfully attempted suicide.

Theatre Curtain
Theatre Curtain

Both Boursicot and Pu were convicted of spying against the French government in 1986, with each receiving a six-year sentence for their crime, yet both were pardoned and released within the year. The nature of the trial created a massive rift between the former couple, and they didn’t maintain contact after being released from jail. Boursicot continued his relationship with Thierry, while Pu continued his theater career in Paris.

Survived by Shi Du D, Shi Pei Pu passed away in 2009, at the age of 70. While he had virtually no contact with Boursicot for years, Pu revealed that he still loved Boursicot several months before he died. However, when Boursicot was notified of Pu’s passing at his French nursing home, he responded with: "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."

M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway in 1988, winning the Tony Award for Best Play the same year. A film adaptation directed by David Cronenberg premiered in 1993. And while most of the interest in the story revolves around the details pertaining to the espionage, at the end of the day, it’s really a story about two people who fell in love under the most extraordinary circumstances. "When I believed it, it was a beautiful story,” stated Boursicot about the affair.

Interestingly, in 1989, a year after the release of M. Butterfly, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil followed up the success of Les Miserables with their new stage musical, Miss Saigon. And while the plot is yet another version of Madame Butterfly, it’s plausible that the interest in the story was, in many ways, sparked by the media sensation as well as the unbelievable nature of the story that came out just one year prior.


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