The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Two, Scene Two: How Could He Not Have Known? Meeting Shi Pei Pu

After Bertaux shares with more details about Shi Pei Pu and his lover’s story, I have to wonder: 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? In this installment, I finally meet the man who inspires so many questions. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The outside café in the Fontainebleau woods consisted of twenty or so forest-green metal tables. At each one, resting hikers sat and debated all sorts of topics in the animated and earnest tones emblematic of French discussions. My conversation with Daniel was no different.

Like anyone who first hears the story of Shi Pei Pu and Boursicot, I protested that it didn’t add up. It isn’t difficult, I argued, to discover your lover’s biological gender. Bertaux took the opposite position: he found Boursicot’s explanation adequately, if not entirely, credible.

Boursicot, Bertaux explained, had testified during his espionage trial that the lovers’ trysts were invariably in dark rooms, that Shi Pei Pu had remained covered, and that he had “guided him.” On top of this, Bertaux contended, Shi Pei Pu’s successful manipulation of Boursicot fit their personalities as he knew them: one was a dominant, manipulative person, he said, while the other was quite the opposite.

But what was particularly fascinating to Bertaux was the depth and certitude of Boursicot’s belief that Shi Pei Pu was a woman. According to Bertaux, Boursicot had always spoken with complete assurance that he was the biological father of Shi Pei Pu’s son. So the key to the mystery, Bertaux proposed, was to discover the foundation of Boursicot’s certainty. How could he be so sure, and yet so dead wrong. How would that work? Was it simply Shi Pei Pu’s skills at manipulation? Was he, in effect, a hypnotist? Or did Shi Pei Pu actually and fully believe that he was a woman to the extent that this overwhelmed Boursicot’s perceptions? Or was there something innate to Boursicot’s character that compelled or inspired him to accept his lover’s asserted gender?  What was at work here?

Bertaux thought that a significant contributor to Boursicot’s solid conviction came from the fact that the “son” Boursicot came to know and love during his second tour of duty in Beijing was visibly a Eurasian child. I reponded that while the Eurasian child might indeed have seemed convincing evidence to Boursicot, Shi Pei Pu certainly knew he was not the biological mother of the boy. Moreover, however Shi Pei Pu obtained the baby boy (which I never learned), the fact that he had chosen a Eurasian child seemed concrete evidence of his conscious and purposive manipulation of Boursicot.

But Bertaux disagreed, and sidestepped my point.  He proposed that there was something more profound underlying both Boursicot’s certainty of his paternity of the child and Shi Pei Pu’s insistence on being a woman. Bertaux theorized that the two men were caught up in a type of folie à deux. In other words, he saw the two lovers as participants in a mutually reinforcing psychological interdependence. And this interdependence allowed both men to make the leap of faith required to actually experience Shi Pei Pu as a woman and the child as their biological son. The psychological motivation for each man to enter into this shared fantasy was clear, at least to Bertaux: Shi Pei Pu’s conviction that he was biologically female was greatly reinforced by his having “given birth,” and Boursicot’s definition of himself as heterosexual was markedly buttressed by the same fiction. 

The more psychological abnormality Bertaux ascribed to his friends’ relationship, the more I began to wonder about the bona fides of their “love story.” Is it love if you con or manipulate someone into loving you? To form my own opinion on this issue, I clearly would need to meet the master—and that introduction was scheduled for the following midmorning.

                                                                                      ***

The next day, a taxi brought me to a modest neighborhood on the periphery of Paris, although it took the advice and counsel of a half dozen different pedestrians before the driver finally located the small street where Shi Pei Pu lived. I climbed the stairs to his fifth-floor apartment, where a handsome and very pleasant young man in his early twenties opened the door and greeted me with a winning smile. He was, I realized, the famous son. He said his “parent,” (that’s the word he used) would join us soon and asked me whether I would like to join him in the kitchen while he prepared the dim sum meal he would be serving us?

While we were in the kitchen, suddenly, almost abruptly, Shi Pei Pu made his entrance into the room with all the flair of an opera diva coming onstage. I am embarrassed to admit that I was completely and utterly taken aback. The only photographs I had seen of him depicted a trim, delicate, handsome young opera star dressed in robes of flowing silk. Naively, and inexcusably, I was unprepared to meet a puffy-faced, overweight, middle-aged man. There was nothing even remotely feminine or effeminate about him.

Shi Pei Pu, whose accented but excellent French derived from his upbringing near the Vietnamese border, was positively effervescent with excitement about the upcoming, fully costumed performance he was to give in two days’ time. People Magazine had rented the ballroom above the bar adjacent to the famous Maxim’s restaurant on the Champs-Élysées. My new client positively gushed about the prestigious venue.  This was followed by a long conversation about what he would be wearing, and he told me how he had personally supervised a local tailor with the letting-out of his costume. The gown, he explained to me, was an exact copy of the bejeweled robes worn by an imperial princess of some ancient dynasty. At one moment he did express some slight trepidation about his long-unused operatic voice, but overall he was thrilled to have the opportunity to appear once again in front of a live audience—and ecstatic about performing in front of television cameras that would carry the recital to millions of viewers.

During our discussion, Shi Pei Pu brought out several poster-size pictures of himself in complex and ornate traditional gowns, and the striking, feminine delicacy of his once stunningly handsome face made Boursicot’s fantasy seem almost plausible. But the stark contrast between Shi Pei Pu’s past and present appearance also began to give me concerns about what the upcoming television coverage would actually bring: fame, or ridicule?

After this conversation, and a few polite inquiries about my flight and his old friend Daniel Bertaux, we sat down to eat our meal.  The delicate steamed dumplings came one after the next, each with its own shape, and each concealing a different, delicious filling. There was also Chinese broccoli as green as imperial jade, and a half dozen other culinary treats. The meal in itself was an adventure.

Only after we had finished eating did my client begin discussing the next morning’s interview. We reviewed how he intended to answer questions about various sensitive topics, and I must say it was the one and only time I have ever heard a parent speak about the complexities of their sexuality in front of their own child. The young man was stoic and essentially silent throughout the meal, devoting his attention to serving the stream of delicacies he had prepared. At all times he treated Shi Pei Pu with warmth and respect.

After we had planned our strategy, the unrealistic goal of which was that I was to do what I could to increase discussion of Chinese opera at the expense of inquiry about prurient details, I took my leave, thanking father and son for the remarkable feast. And with respect to the gender of whom I met that day, I had to agree with Bertaux: I met a man.  I think. 

Up next: Shi Pei Pu sits down for an interview with People Magazine. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.