The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Two, Scene One: Paris and the Full Story of Shi Pei Pu

After reading through the press coverage that chronicled the arrests and espionage trial of Shi Pei Pu and his French-diplomat lover, I fly to Paris, ready to meet my enigmatic new client. But first, my old friend Daniel Bertaux shares with me a more detailed account of Shi Pei Pu’s extraordinary tale of love, sacrifice, and deception. New to this story? Catch up from the beginning here.

I finally flew to Paris on Bastille Day, 1987. Bertaux had insisted on meeting with me tout de suit for a strategy session, which I was actually thrilled about, given that there were still vast gaps in my knowledge of Shi Pei Pu’s life. He wanted to discuss what we might do to modulate the sensationalist coverage that could be expected from People Magazine. As it was a stunning midsummer day, he proposed that we talk during an extended walk through the gardens and surrounding woods of Fontainebleau to the south of Paris. There I was treated to an uninterrupted, nearly two-hour monologue, which can be summarized as follows.

For years after they first met in Beijing, Bertaux had not had any contact with Boursicot and was completely unaware that the diplomat had been posted back to Beijing for a second tour of duty in the Chinese capital, and then subsequently reassigned to Paris. Bertaux first learned this when Boursicot surprised him with a phone call, asking Bertaux to help him find an immigration attorney. But what was really surprising about the call was Boursicot’s news: Shi Pei Pu was in fact a woman. Boursicot explained that after Bertaux had left China, he and Shi Pei Pu had fallen deeply in love.

Boursicot also described to a stunned Bertaux the extreme measures the couple had taken to preserve the privacy of their encounters. This concealment had been necessary, Boursicot explained to Bertraux, because personal relationships between a Chinese citizen and a foreign diplomat were strictly illegal under Chinese law. On top of this, Boursicot added, the French Foreign Service had its own strict rules expressly forbidding personal liaisons of any kind between diplomats and local citizens.  It was these diplomatic complexities that required the services of a highly experienced and well connected immigration attorney.

Boursicot provided more detail to Bertaux.  He explained that after he had returned to Paris following his first tour of duty, he had learned by letter that his lover had given birth to a son. The letter had contained a photograph of a handsome, Eurasian baby. Boursicot almost immediately applied to his superiors to be granted a second diplomatic posting to the Chinese capital. But his efforts were hopeless: there was an explicit foreign service policy disallowing such reassignments. He might never have seen Shi Pei Pu again— nor have met the young son whom he knew only from the photographs that continued to arrive— but for an historical accident: the outbreak of the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Suddenly, a diplomatic posting to Beijing had lost all allure in the French Foreign Service and there were no applicants—save for his. So against policy, and quite by chance, Boursicot was eventually able to rejoin his lover and meet their son- then a six-year-old.

Boursicot explained to Bertaux that China during the Cultural Revolution was a very different city from the one they had known in 1964. The Red Guard, the police, and neighborhood informants were everywhere. The streets of Beijing were filled on nearly a daily basis with tens of thousands of marching students, each with a red armband and a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. Their youthful fervor could mutate into violence in a heartbeat, and everything that was traditional was under attack. Teachers, intellectuals, and traditional artists, very much including classical opera singers, were at great risk for “rectification” and “self-criticism” sessions held in the street, or for imprisonment and torture in “reeducation” camps. But oh, the power of love: none of this prevented Shi Pei Pu and Boursicot from seeking each other out and spending clandestine moments together. Of course, Boursicot stressed, they increased their efforts to keep their meetings concealed, but secrecy was far harder to achieve than it had been during Boursicot’s initial tour of duty.

As we strolled through the centuries old trees of Fontainebleau woods, Bertaux shared with me some extraordinary stories Boursicot had told him about the lovers’ efforts to find moments alone together.  Some of these moments seemed more taken from literature than from everyday life. At times nothing more was possible than for the two lovers to sit on benches on opposite sides of one of Beijing’s massive boulevards, simply staring across the traffic at one another, not daring to make the slightest signal. They also made use of a secret drop-off spot in the knothole of a tree, where they deposited unsigned love notes to be retrieved later. But there was one story that Bertaux remembered and retold that really caught my mind’s eye.  It belongs in an opera.  On one gray, rainy Beijing late fall day, both lovers had attended the funeral services of a perfect stranger, simply to be near one another among the mourners.

There were other, exquisitely detailed stories describing clandestine rendezvous that allowed the two parents to spend time with their beautiful little boy, but these opportunities to visit as a family were very risky, so they were rare and brief.

At this point in his monologue, however, Bertaux, fell silent, in part because he’d shared with me about everything Boursicot had told him, and in part because we had come into a clearing in the woods where there was a little outdoor café.  There he was, my old friend, busily charming a waitress into giving us the last available table.  And somehow he pulled it off—just like he had charmed the receptionist at the French embassy in Beijing, now so many years ago.  Some things never change.

Up next: Did Boursicot actually know all along that Shi Pei Pu was man? And, if not, how could Shi Pei Pu have orchestrated such a deception for so long? New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.