Mr. Shi and His Lover is inspired by the real-life story of Shi Pei Pu, a Chinese opera singer, and Bernard Boursicott, a French Diplomat. The two established romantic relations while Boursicott held a diplomatic post in China and, early on in their relationship, Shi announced she was pregnant and that Bouriscott had fathered the child. In 1983, Boursicott was accused of passing classified information to the Chinese through Shi, and they were arrested by the French government on charges of espionage. The trial that followed produced international headlines for this singular twist: during the proceedings, it was revealed that Shi was a man and Boursicott believed Shi was a woman throughout their twenty year relationship.
Through seven non-linear scenes and monologues, Mr. Shi and His Lover focuses on imagining the lives and thoughts of its protagonists, rather than creating a literal narrative of their affair. The work questions how the characters’ relationship flourished, floundered, and ultimately fell apart. To reflect the lives and times of Shi and Boursicott, the work references a variety of musical styles from East and West. Audience members may find it amusing to discover direct quotes and allusions to other works and influences from the past, whether overt or subtle.
The Beijing Opera, also known as Peking Opera, originated in the late 18th century. Moments of Mr. Shi and His Lover reference Beijing Opera’s musicality and performance style. There is a tradition of male performers performing female roles in the Beijing opera. The character Mr. Shi specializes in this art form. The dance from Scene 5 of our production, although performed out of context and in a contemporary setting, references the choreography of the classical Beijing opera The Drunken Concubine.
The idea of disguising one’s gender permeates Chinese cultural myths and stories. The popular tale of Hua Mulan, a woman who disguises her gender in order to fight for her country, has been widely adapted into films, plays, and novels. The Butterfly Lovers – referenced in Mr. Shi and His Lover – is a romantic tragedy and one of China’s Four Great Folktales. It in turn has also been adapted into plays, films, TV series, concert music, operas and musicals. It tells the story of Zhu Ying Tai and Liang Shan Bo. Zhu Ying Tai, born a woman, disguises herself as a man to pursue her education. While at school she falls in love with the scholar Liang Shan Bo, who believes she is a man. Liang later discovers that Zhu is a woman and realizes his romantic feelings toward her. When Ying Tai’s father arranges for her to marry another man, Shan Bo falls ill and dies. In order to be together for eternity, the pair transform into butterflies.
Scene 1 – The Butterfly effect
Set in an imagined space, Shi and Boursicott accuse, ridicule and comfort each other. Are they at all in love, or are they simply using one another? Are their actions an act of selfishness or self sacrifice?
Scene 2 – Becoming someone else
Filled with ennui, Shi contemplates the meaning of life. He decides that through performance he can escape the boredom of life and give meaning to his otherwise unbearable existence.
Scene 3 - The way we were
Boursicott reminisces about his first encounter with Shi. When recounting the Chinese folklore story, The Butterfly Lovers, Shi compares his own circumstance to that of the heroine. To Boursicott, Shi’s beauty is one of a kind. He compares his object of desire to the architectural wonder, the Old Summer Palace of Yuan Ming Yuan.
Scene 4 – Free Will and the king’s sceptre
The pair analyzes the reasons they’ve fallen in love with each other. Their relationship is neither “love at first sight” nor “death do us part”. They exert power over one another through performance and fantasy. This power is symbolized through the imagery of a king’s sceptre.
Scene 5 – Performance and existence
Shi contemplates the art of performance and how it relates to his own existence. Demonstrating his obsession towards art, Shi interprets love through the only way he knows how: by performing, without reservation, for the audience.
Scene 6 – Change and permanency
Speaking as a diplomat, Boursicott critiques and analyzes his efforts to balance his interests. He knows he is destined for failure.
Scene 7 – Destined for disappointment
After all is said and done, their countries and the stage still remain. Shi and Boursicott cannot abandon the parts of themselves that fell in love with the other. They are incomplete without that part of their being. This encounter is an appropriate and opportune instance: a moment of appositeness.