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At a Christmas party given by the British, things begin to look up.

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He meets a stunning blond secretary who looks like Julie Christie. He is delighted when she gives him her telephone number. Boursicot himself is a good-looking young man. Five feet 9 inches tall, he has the muscular body of a swimmer, with broad shoulders and a small waist. He doesn't consider himself handsome, though. He considers himself short. Just before Christmas, he is invited to a party that Claude Chayet, the second-ranking man at the French Embassy, is giving for French students at his home. Boursicot takes the British secretary. He feels good arriving with a beautiful girl on his arm.

It is a terrific party. Boursicot takes his date's coat when they arrive and he goes off to fetch her a drink. If he has learned anything in diplomatic life, it is to make sure the lady has a drink. When he returns, the lady is happily amusing herself on the dance floor. Boursicot is not that eager to dance. But then he sees someone who interests him: a Chinese man, the only one he has seen at a private party.

The man is slightly built, in his mid's, wearing a Mao suit and quite short, really no taller than a girl.

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  4. His French is fluent and he is the center of attention. Yet something about him seems tentative and shy. Boursicot sees, among his colleagues, a solicitousness that is markedly out of character. Boursicot goes to the dance floor.

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    His date is chatting with some young men. She has perhaps the same utilitarian view of Boursicot that he has of her. He doesn't really care. His mind is still on the Chinese man. Fifteen minutes later, he returns.

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    They introduce themselves. The young man is Shi Pei Pu. He is a member of the Beijing Writers' Association and writes operas and plays. He also teaches Chinese to Francois, the tutor of the Chayet children, who has invited him to this party. Boursicot already has a Chinese teacher, but this doesn't stop him from making a suggestion. The party is breaking up. Boursicot sees Shi writing down his address and phone number for one of the French students.

    He walks over and snatches it out of the student's hands. It is love. He has never been in love, but he knows what it entails: agony, longing, desperation and barriers. The truth is, he has never even made love to a woman. In high school, he had taken out a girl once or twice just to show that he could, but nothing ever came of it. At boarding school in Brittany, he had participated in schoolboy sex.

    He enjoyed it, but it made him feel guilty. He felt so badly about it that when he turned 18 he made a promise to himself: he will stop sleeping with boys -- it's a schoolboy's game.

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    In China, Boursicot keeps that promise. He is desperate to lose his virginity and he wants very much to have a steady girl. But he finds it difficult to even get a date. He may tell the French exchange students he tries to pick up after church that he is a diplomat, but he is merely a contract worker with a 10th-grade education, hired for a month period, and the girls can recognize a clerk. It is a lonely time for Boursicot, which is why he is so delighted when he hits it off with Shi Pei Pu.

    They go to dinner a few days after the party and Boursicot is impressed. The restaurant Shi has chosen is lovely and he is treated with great respect. He came here years ago with his teacher, Mei Lanfang, Shi says. Mei was the greatest actor in Chinese opera, known particularly for his female roles; in Beijing opera, men often portray women. Before he became a playwright, Shi adds, he himself was an actor and singer. At 17, he even enjoyed some fame. Now, at 26, he says he writes plays about workers.

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    His tone suggests he is not very interested in workers. Given his background, that is perhaps to be expected.

    The wise man, a short story by Donal Ryan

    Shi's father, who is dead, was a university professor; his mother, who lives with him in Beijing, was a teacher. He has two older sisters: one was a table-tennis champion; another is married to a famous painter. Shi learned French as a boy in Kunming, the capital of the southern province of Yunnan, and he later received a degree in literature from the University of Kunming.

    Shi and Boursicot become close friends. Shi takes Boursicot to parks and shops unknown to other foreigners. He tells him stories of the emperors and palace intrigues of old China.

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    He recalls the roles he played on the stage. If there is a sexual undercurrent between them, Boursicot is not conscious of it. It is Shi Pei Pu's exquisite storytelling that makes him so intriguing. And when he speaks of his lonely childhood for his two sisters were much older than he , it sounds like a poem.

    It seems to Boursicot that he and Shi tell each other things they reveal to no one else. And yet sometimes Shi turns abruptly silent.

    Subterranean fiction

    He tells Boursicot that when he was a famous young actor women pursued him but that he had nothing to do with them. When Boursicot asks why, Shi is irritated. One evening, at a friend's house, Shi tells "The Story of the Butterfly," the opera in which he had performed one of his most famous roles.

    Long ago in China, there lived a beautiful girl named Zhu Yingtai. The daughter of a learned man, she dearly wished to attend one of the imperial schools, but being a girl she wasn't permitted to do so. It troubled her, particularly because her brother did badly in school.