Shi Pei Pu

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Shi Pei Pu (Chinese: 时佩璞), a 20th century Chinese opera singer and dancer specializing in female roles, is better known now for his unusual espionage saga than for his art. His fluent French was put to use when he met a diplomat at a party, igniting a nearly twenty year (sometimes long-distance) romantic and sexual relationship built on his requests for confidential French documents. Both he and the other man were later caught, and he served several years of prison time before being pardoned. After his release Shi remained in Paris as an opera performer; his death warranted a mention in Time. His story was loosely adapted into the play M. Butterfly.

Shi’s espionage case achieved notoriety due to the gender dynamics involved. Although reports on how it started vary between outright lying and insinuation, one way or another Shi’s lover was convinced that he was a woman for the duration of their relationship, including through a faked pregnancy. Although Shi was reluctant to speak on the details to the press, he did explain that he “used to fascinate both men and women” and that “what [he] was and what they were didn’t matter”.

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