The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Four, Scene Two: The Heart of the Matter

Previously: As Shi Pei Pu’s People Magazine interview begins, veteran reporter Joyce Wadler gears up to ask the indelicate questions that sell magazines. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

In spite of our efforts to the contrary, it was obvious from the start where the People interview was headed: the magazine had preconceived an article that would center on the incredulity of Boursicot’s claim that he actually did not perceive that Shi Pei Pu was a man; Joyce Wadler was merely looking for quotes that would buttress that angle.

Sensing Wadler’s frustration with his efforts to sell a love story in lieu of a sex story, Shi Pei Pu struggled to convince her by launching into a long, step-by-step description of how the attraction between him and Boursicot had blossomed into love over many months. And since Shi Pei Pu was, after all, a performer, he took the time to describe the stage setting for each of their encounters in exquisite detail. Wadler, to my surprise, finally ceased trying to interrupt the narrative, and allowed herself to become swept up in the entrancing stories. Shi Pei Pu’s eyes glazed over, and I recognized what was happening: I had often seen witnesses become flooded with the actual sensations they had felt at the time of the experiences they were testifying about.

Shi Pei Pu’s voice softened as the story progressed, and he seemed unaware—even uncaring—about who else was in the room as he re-experienced what he and Boursicot had once shared and felt for one another. It was hard to imagine any two lovers—outside of an opera anyway—enduring the opposition he described.

After I translated Shi Pei Pu’s last lines, no one spoke for quite a while. It had been a mesmerizing performance with enchanting, transporting descriptions of the lovers’ moments together. Obviously, it would never see the light of day in the People Magazine article.

Wadler paused to take a drink of water, and to regroup. She took a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her visibly sweaty forehead. Then, she went in for the kill.

“What exactly went on sexually between the two of you?” she asked. “How could Bernard not have known that you were biologically male if you were making love with each other? Was your penis erect when you made love with Bernard?”

After I translated the first of these questions, I reminded Shi Pei Pu that this was not a police or court inquiry, and that he had every right to refuse to respond. But with a brief “No, no; ça va,” he sent me back to my translation duties.

I later learned that even the investigative magistrate of the French Supreme Court who had grilled Shi Pei Pu under oath on these same matters had, in the end, settled for vague responses that preserved much of the privacy of the couple’s sexuality. Shi Pei Pu responded in the same vein to Wadler, and at times he seemed as if he too were searching for an adequate understanding of his sexual identity; who knows, perhaps he was. Wadler, however, insisted on repeating her question: “Did your penis become erect, yes or no?”

And then, suddenly, Shi Pei Pu’s patience ended. Without any change in his tone of voice, he entirely reversed his strategy. These are the words he spoke, and they still reverberate in my mind:

“Please understand, Ms. Wadler, that Bernard and I dearly loved each other for many, many years. He has been the love of my life, and I the love of his life. Do you understand that?”

Shi Pei Pu let a good ten seconds lapse before starting up again. 

“During Bernard’s first tour of duty in Beijing, we did occasionally find time to be together without others around. We perceived our lovemaking to be between a man and a woman, and I was the woman, a woman who had been dressed as a boy by my family to please my grandmother, since there were no other grandsons.

“This was how I was dressed as a child and how I still dress as an adult, for it has always been my habit. To the world I am a man, and to some I am even an aberrant man who is confused about his sexuality. But to myself, and to Bernard, I was—and I am—a woman, always a woman. And as you know, when I sang opera, I was always cast and costumed as a woman, singing some of Chinese opera’s most beautiful arias as a soprano, and even as what you would call a coloratura soprano.

“You see, Ms. Wadler, this is why I have loved both Bernard and opera with all my being, all my force: only in their company was I taken to be the woman that I truly am. And only in their embrace could I fully be myself, could I fully open up and love—or sing—with all my being.

“So, yes, I took a man as my lover, but you see, that was only natural because I am a woman. I remained completely devoted to this man until recently, when we went our own ways, most certainly because of the extreme pressures put on Bernard by the trial and the press. He has moved from France to escape the cameras and the questions, and I miss him terribly.

“Ms. Wadler, this is all I am going to say about this topic, not because I am reluctant to speak about my private life, nor anxious to seem mysterious, but simply because there is nothing more to add. Nothing more to add at all. Do you understand that? There is nothing more to add.”

As I translated these passionate words for the journalist, I could sense that they were having a powerful effect on her. Later, I learned that they had torn her in two, separating her heart from her mind. Her heart determined at that very moment to take a year’s leave of absence from People Magazine in order to better comprehend what Shi Pei Pu was saying, and from this year of research she would produce a magnificent book on his life.2 But her well-disciplined mind knew full well that, for purposes of this interview anyway, she was being paid to break through Shi Pei Pu’s defenses. The slightest straightening of her spine followed, and Shi Pei Pu, master fox, sensed that she was recovering her sense of purpose. He turned his head ever so slightly and looked directly into my eyes. I nodded to signal that I understood: as his counsel, it was time for me to bring this line of inquiry to an end.

Wadler was about ten words into yet another question about Shi Pei Pu’s penis when it dawned on her that I had stopped translating and was staring at her over my glasses.

After a twenty-second pause and a somewhat frenzied shuffle through her notes, Wadler ended her interrogation with a series of benign questions about the opera arias Shi Pei Pu would be singing the following evening. He, of course, became exuberant in response—and the interview was concluded on an entirely positive note.

                                                                                       ***

In silence—in awe, really—Bertaux and I walked a visibly exhausted Shi Pei Pu down the hall to the elevator and, still without a word, went down with him to the front of the hotel where we signaled a passing cab. Just before a round of polite good-byes, Shi Pei Pu asked me to meet him in his dressing room one hour before the next evening’s performance. I nodded in agreement, without needing to say a word.

Up next: After the interview, I have more questions about the enigmatic Shi Pei Pu. Daniel and I debate the possible answers. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

[2] Joyce Wadler. Liason: The Gripping Real Story of the Diplomat Spy and the Chinese Opera Star Whose Affair Inspired “M. Butterfly,” Bantan Books, 1993.