The Man Who Would be a Woman Act One, Scene One: An Evening Under the Summer Stars

In this inaugural installment of “The Man Who Would be a Woman,” I’ll introduce you to the real-life figures behind the saga of love and deceit immortalized in the Broadway play and the film, M. Butterfly.

In my recent book, Four Seasons of Loneliness: A Lawyer’s Case Stories, I explore how a failure to successfully connect and remain connected to others can spiral into chronic loneliness, which in turn can overwhelm individuals who live their lives adrift in a sea of strangers. Given that my law practice was at the intersection of law and social psychology, over the years I consulted with scores of individuals who exhibited the telltale signs of chronic loneliness. These clients varied in every way imaginable: some were children, others were aged; some were homeless, others were obscenely wealthy; some were physically isolated, while others were surrounded by people but still failed to create or maintain meaningful connections to others.

Four Seasons presents four such cases from my law practice, one for each phase of life. But here I’ll share with you a fifth case, which revealed one of the most fascinating personal histories I have ever encountered.

The story involves a Chinese opera star who emigrates to France to rejoin his French lover, a former low-level diplomat whom he had met a decade earlier at the French embassy in Beijing. The life of this client and his progressive decoupling from everything and everyone he knew and loved reads more like a Broadway play or an Italian opera than it does like everyday life. And I’m not the first to recognize this: in 1988 this very story was crafted into the Broadway hit M. Butterfly, which ran away with that year’s Tony Award for best play. It was subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and later Jeremy Irons leapt at the opportunity to play my client in a brilliant 1993 film of the same name.

The story begins in 1964 at the French embassy in Beijing, which had just reopened after twelve long years of cold-war estrangement. The stately building was in the old Legation Quarter of the city, which in earlier centuries had been entirely walled off, creating a city within a city. While the walls were long gone, the approach to the embassy was unchanged: one entered through neoclassical gates that were guarded by a pair of massive carved stone lions—and a dozen well-armed police officers. Past the gates and the security formalities, one came upon a long driveway that curved through formal gardens and century-old trees up to the striking, Italianate embassy.

The embassy and its gardens are the setting for scene one of our drama: a formal celebratory soirée, the inaugural event at the freshly refurbished embassy. It was a black-tie dinner-dance replete with fine French champagne served in crystal glasses, passed hors d’oeuvres, and refined diplomatic chatter. A great number of French and Chinese government officials and dignitaries of grand stature were present to honor the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but for our purposes, only the three youngest and humblest guests are of interest. Being the only people their age at the event, the young men soon found and befriended one another, and by the time the gala affair came to a close in the wee hours of the morning, they had made plans to visit the sites of historic Beijing together. But it went much deeper than that, far deeper, for their destinies had become inextricably intertwined, as two of them had begun a love affair that would last for nearly thirty years.

One of these young men, the star of our drama, is a strikingly good-looking, delicately built, rising celebrity of Chinese classical opera. His name is Shi Pei Pu (Shi being the family name, pronounced, ironically, like “she”). He was well-known in the world of Chinese opera for the clarity of his soprano voice which—coupled with his boyish stature—allowed him to perform female roles with ease and grace. But it was not his operatic prowess that garnered the young singer an invitation to that night’s elegant event: it was the fact that he spoke fluent French at a time when few Chinese did so.

Our co-star is a young French diplomat named Bernard Boursicot who had arrived from Paris on assignment just days before. Boursicot sported classical French good looks: he was tall and robust, with dark hair, flawless fair skin, and eyes as blue as Caribbean waters.

The third and final player in the evening’s drama is a French college student, Daniel Bertaux, who was touring in China. Bertaux had sparkling hazel eyes and a radiant sense of humor; he had used both to charm an invitation to the event out of an embassy secretary. Bertaux’s last-minute access was clear in his attire if not in his manner: the pant cuffs of his rental tuxedo ended well before his ankles began. 

Theater, as we know, is all about deception, or at the very least, suspension of disbelief, and so it was that evening. Unseen by Bertaux, Shi Pei Pu whispered a secret to Boursicot that night: he preferred to sing women’s operatic roles because he was, in fact, a woman. Based on this revelation—and no doubt also on the influence of the sparkling champagne and twinkling stars—the two initiated a clandestine love affair that, in the fullness of time, would involve parenting a child, being convicted of international espionage, enduring imprisonment, and suffering relentless public humiliation.

Next up in the continuing story of “The Man Who Would be a Woman,” two decades after Daniel Bertaux first met Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, he receives some shocking news, and a request: to help Shi Pei Pu find a lawyer. So, he calls an old friend: me.