M. Butterfly

updated 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Is love blind or merely impressionable? And has there ever been a more extraordinary love affair than the one that Shi Peipu, a one-time singer in the Peking Opera, carried on for 20 years with French diplomat Bernard Boursicot (inset) without the Frenchman ever guessing that his mercurial mistress was a man? In Paris, when the story broke in 1983, there was a scandal, and both men were convicted of espionage. And in New York this year, M. Butterfly, the David Hwang play inspired by their affair, became a sensation, winning a Tony as Broadway's best play of the season.

Last July, when they spoke of their relationship for the first time, Peipu and Boursicot told a story that raised more questions than it answered. When they first met in Peking in 1964, Boursicot says, he was a sexually inexperienced man of 19. Peipu, 26, was expert at impersonating women, having played female roles in the Peking Opera. The two men were lovers in the physical sense for only a short time, Boursicot says, and he never saw Peipu nude. In his mind, there was no reason to doubt that his lover was a woman or to suspect that the baby boy she presented to him—purchased in Central Asia, where the population looks somewhat European—was anything other than the product of their love. When the Cultural Revolution threatened to keep them apart, Boursicot allowed Peipu to draw him into a web of espionage against France.

But such facts addressed only practical questions, the kind that can be answered as neatly as diagrams on a page. The deeper intrigue lay in matters of the heart and mind. Though it appeared that Peipu might have been a spy sent out to entrap the Frenchman, he claims otherwise. "He was the love of my life," says the singer, now living in Paris. At the time, homosexuality was shameful to both men. Perhaps Boursicot did not know his mistress was a man because he did not want to know. "When I believed it," he says "it was a beautiful story." Is it possible, when love is threatened, simply not to see?

And if that was the case, is the story of Boursicot and Peipu—despite its exotic background—so different from the deceits practiced by other lovers, from the woman who denies the evidence of a husband's infidelities or the man who ignores his lover's involuntary flinch? In defense of love, we often choose shadows over light. And if illusion is required to keep a lover, we can become masters of deception. Shi Peipu turned that common impulse into a life's work.

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