Colonialism, Imperialism, and Orientalism in David Henry Hwang M. Butterfy

 

Boursicot and Shi

Boursicot and Shi

When Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat stationed in China, met opera singer Shi Pei Pu, he believed Shi to be a woman.  The two started a ‘relationship‘ which eventually led to some espionage (apparently even the French have spies, though the reason for this in unclear to me).  Boursicot thought that he was compelled to comply with the request for documents in order to secure Shi’s safety.  The two eventually moved to France where they were discovered, and where Boursicot finally discovered the truth that Shi was actually a man posing as a woman.  The truth is stranger than fiction.  Playwright David Henry Hwang read the story and was immediately inspired to write his now famous play M. Butterfly, which is an amalgamation with the Boursicot/Shi story and a deconstruction of the opera Madama Butterfly by Italian composer Giacomo Puccinni, mixed with some artistic license on the part of Hwang.  The resulting play is a textbook execution of post-colonial deconstruction that dissects the flaws of imperialism by drawing on Edward Said’s concepts of ‘Orientalism’ and shows that gender characteristics are not innate to their assigned sex, but a matter of socially constructed performances.

 

 

David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang

The concept of Orientalism and how it works in an imperialist system is perhaps the most important aspect of the play.  Western art portrays itself as superior, or at least it does in works like Madama Butterfly.  The Japanese protagonist, Cio-Cio San, is wooed by a Prince Yamadori after an American sailor has abandoned her.  She is appalled by this, saying: “But he’s Japanese?”  Her friend Suzuki (no relation to David or the motorcycle) responds: “What do you think you are?  You think you’ve been touched by the whitey god?” (15) This may seem unrealistic, but just as women can become complacent in their own oppression by learning to internalize it through the hegemonic institutions of patriarchal society, so too are colonized people often taught to internalize their oppression, often identifying with their oppressor in a warped, collective version of Stockholm Syndrome.  In his monograph Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon speaks to how some of the women of Algeria who have lighter skin often pursue white men, or at the very least light-skinned men of colour.  The behaviour of Cio-Cio is not unheard of, but it does speak to a fantasy of the Western world where Western ‘superiority’ is acknowledged and accepted by the colonized people.

 

A poster from the film adaptation of M. Butterfly.

A poster from the film adaptation of M. Butterfly.

This belief has obvious flaws and shows the limits of Western imperialism, something which Song demonstrates through her dialogue with Gallimard.  When Gallimard tells Song she is convincing as a Japanese woman, she replies: “Convincing?  As a Japanese woman?  The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war, you know.  But I gather such an irony is lost on you” (18).  This demonstrates a disconnect between the two immediately.  Song sees Gallimard’s ‘compliment’ as an insult, much as a Jewish person might find it insulting if somebody were to tell them they were convincing as a Nazi.  Gallimard tries to defend his perspective, saying that Madama Butterfly is “a very beautiful story.”  Song replies: “Well, yes, to a Westerner” (18).  Song goes on to explain how the Western equivalent would involve a Caucasian American girl turning down JFK for a Japanese, working-class sailor.  Rather than thinking the narrative beautiful, Song suggests the American woman would be viewed as crazy.  Gallimard seems to concede that he lacks an education, and so visits Song several weeks later, explaining that he “thought [his visit] would further my education.”  Song, though, asks why it “took [him] four weeks” to visit, noting that “education has always been undervalued in the West” (21).  This demonstrates how, even when he acknowledges the limits to his perspective, the need to do something to improve his understanding does not move him to immediate action, and even in this he still asserts that his values are commendable.  To this, Song asks: “How can you objectively judge your own values” (21)?  Gallimard has no answer, but does proceed to demonstrate how the fiction he believes warps his perception of Chinese, or as he calls it, ‘Oriental’ culture.  He asks Song what it was like not being allowed into clubs before the revolution, but Songs replies: “Your history serves you poorly”, and then informs him that Chinese women were allowed in clubs as the Western men preferred them to their own women (21).  This exchange serves to highlight how the Western views of the East are often based on false histories and fantasies propagated by art, and how imperialists like Gillamard feel no need to improve their understanding as they are more interested in upholding their own fantasies.

 

David Cronenberg, director of the film adaptation of Hwang's play.

David Cronenberg, director of the film adaptation of Hwang’s play.

Though Gillamard seems apologetic to Song when his biases are revealed to him, the sincerity of these sentiments disappear once he returns home to his Caucasian wife.  He bemoans that “all [he] hear[s] every day… is how old [Chinese] culture is.  That the ‘old’ may be synonymous with ‘senile doesn’t occur to them” (19).  Whatever respect he feigned for Chinese culture before Song disappears.  He then suggests the reason the Chinese don’t like Madama Butterfly is out of jealousy, or rather, a case of ‘sour grape’.  His wife Helga reinforces this: “Politics again?  Why can’t they just hear it as a piece of beautiful music” (20)?  Helga fails to see why the ‘Orientals’ can’t simply appreciate the music of Madama Butterfly.  She fails to realize that for an Asian person, admiring the music of Madama Butterfly is likely akin to an American of African descent whistling songs from the Confederate Army or a Jewish person listening to song written for the Nazi party.  This shift shows the insincerity on the part of Gillmard demonstrates that even when faced with dissenting views on imperialism, the imperialist mindset does not allow for the recognition of the autonomy of the colonized people.  To hold onto imperialist mentalities even in the face of such dissent requires an arrogance few possess, but there seem to be an abundance of such Westerners in China.  Gillamard, for instances, speaks of a scholar who is to write a six-volume treatise on the Chinese revolution.  He thought that the scholar “meant… to live [in China] long enough to actually write six volumes” (22), but this is not the case.  This speaks to Said’s concept of Orientalism where a person from the West takes a position of authority on matter in the East, so much so that they write a six-volume work, but doesn’t actually live in China.  Understanding the revolution, though, might be difficult since this scholar is not from the East and would be filtering the event through his Western perspective.  It seems a Chinese person who lives there might be better suited for the task.  Such an approach is reminiscent of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, where he felt the need to write about the ‘Black’ experience (though his intent was perhaps more commendable than the likes of Gillamard).  Gillamard, Helga, and Toulon (Gillamard’s supervisor) are all examples of the Westerners Said speaks of, who project Western ideas onto Eastern life and fail to grasp a true understanding because they refuse to recognize the flaws of their own biases.

 

BD Wong, who played Song in the original stage production of M. Butterfly.

BD Wong, who played Song in the original stage production of M. Butterfly.

This Western bias is present in the language as well, most notably when Song and Gillamard argue about what to name ‘their’ baby.  Song declares: “I’m going to call him ‘Peepee.’”  Gallimard is shocked at this and replies: “You can’t be serious.  Can you imagine the time this child will have in school?”  Song answers: “In the West, yes” (51).  The name, ‘Peepee’ would be associated either with slang terms for urine, or the male phallus, and therefore would be the inspiration for much teasing in the West.  In the East, though, the name ‘Peepee’ wouldn’t carry the same implications.  Gallimard, though, does not consider the Eastern context, only his own.  His idea, in place of Songs, is one that would be equally offensive, as he suggests the names Michael, Stephan, and Adolph (51).  Though the names Michael and Stephan might be relatively inoffensive, the name Adolph would carry a strong association with Adolph Hitler, whose policy on eugenics and ‘racial purity’, would have seen the extension, or at the very least the subjugation of Asian peoples had they been successful.  Again, Gallimard is concerned strictly with his own Western perspective and not the Eastern perspective.

 

John Lithgow, who played Gallimard in the original stage production of M. Butterfly.

John Lithgow, who played Gallimard in the original stage production of M. Butterfly.

Hwang’s work is not just a creative work that puts a narrative around Said’s concept of Orientalism, but also deals as much with constructs of gender, presenting gender as a performance.  One of the biggest questions surround both the actual case and the protagonist in Hwang’s play, is ‘How did he not know his lover was a man for twenty years?’  The answer is problematic.  There is, of course, the possibility that he did know, but assuming that he didn’t, the only answer could be that Song was an excellent performer and that gender, ultimately, is a performance.  When Chin, Song’s superior, asks Song how Gallimard didn’t know, Song replies with a question: “Why, in the Peking Opera, are women’s roles player by men?”  The question is rhetorical of course, and Song provides the answer: “Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (49).  Because a man, in this instance Gallimard, has a certain conception of what a woman is supposed to be, one which may be utterly foreign to a woman, it is then only a man who shares the same constructs of womanhood that can accurately perform femininity.  As Song notes later, gender is “all in the way we dress, and make up our faces, and bat our eyelashes” (67).  There is more to this than simply the social performance, and Song goes into further detail about this, offering two reasons as to why his performance was convincing: “First, when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted… to believe that she was, in fact, a woman.  And second, I am an Oriental.  And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (62).  The idea of the ‘Oriental’ being feminine relates to the Said’s Orientalism again.  As Song notes, the “West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East… Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.  The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can’t think for herself” (62).  This view aligns ‘Orientals’ with women in the mind of the imperialist, so Song, as an ‘Oriental’ is in fact a woman in terms of his gendered role with his imperialist counterpart.  The ‘mouth says no but the eyes say yes’ mentality is ironic because later it is Gallimard whose eyes do in fact say yes.  When he asks Song not to undress because he doesn’t want to see, his eyes remain on Song, situating Gallimard as the person who wishes to be oppressed.  As far as the performance goes, Gallimard is not the only one taken in by performance: his wife Helga is as well.  When Gallimard confesses his affair and tells Helga that he wishes to leave her, she replies: “I knew you were not everything you pretended to be.  But the pretense… was very good indeed” (57).  Helga seems to be aware of his philandering ways, but was content with enjoying the performance.  For her, the performance was more important than reality, demonstrating how the performance of gender roles is the end in and of itself, and not the means to an end.

 

Jeremony Irons, who played Gallimard in the film adaptation of M. Butterfly.

Jeremony Irons, who played Gallimard in the film adaptation of M. Butterfly.

Just as femininity is socially constructed  in the play, so too is masculinity.  Gallimard passes up an orgy in one scene and is called a wimp as a result (12-13). He is emasculated for not partaking in the sexual objectification of women.  Gallimard notes that he endures similar emasculation from women who call him a ‘friend’, because, according to Gallimard, when “a woman calls a man her ‘friend,’ she’s calling him an eunuch or a homosexual” (30).  Once Gallimard takes on a mistress, though, his stock amongst his male peers seems to go up and he is awarded a promotion: “I was learning the benefits of being a man.  We form our own clubs, sit behind thick doors, smoke—and celebrate the fact that we’re still boys” (38).  This scenario demonstrates how infidelity and the sexual objectification of women serves to bolster the masculine identity and instills men with confidence, which in turn leads to professional success.  Gallimard initially feels guilty for being rewarded for what he considers to be immoral behaviour, but he eventually rationalizes this, and just as Hitler believed that he escaped the 20 July Plot due to divine intervention, Gallimard believe that this reward is a divine affirmation of his behaviour: “God… understands.  Of course!  God who created Eve to serve Adam, who blesses Solomon with his harem but ties Jezebel to a burning bed—that God is a man” (32).  This passage serves well to demonstrate how the religious arm of patriarchal hegemony serves to affirm male superiority, and since Gallinard has already been established as an imperialist, is also serves to link the two forms of oppression.  This affirmation of his behaviour makes Gallinard even more sadistic.  When he has a third affair and ignores Song for several weeks, he reminisces afterwards that it “was [Song’s] tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee” (44), the tears being those of pain for his infidelity, and the silence representing her submission to him even as he was being unfaithful to her. This cruelty highlights an increase in Gallinard’s depravity, and because it is linked with his sexual objectification of women, this depravity can be seen as being interlinked with patriarchal oppression.

 

Edward Said, whose book 'Orientalism' was clearly a huge influence on Hwang's work.

Edward Said, whose book ‘Orientalism’ was clearly a huge influence on Hwang’s work.

Though the play is loaded with commentary on ‘Orientalism’ and feminist critiques of patriarchal gender prescriptions, it works as an entertaining and at times humorous narrative.  When Song is being told that she “represent[s] Chairman Mao in every position [she] take[s]”, Hwang employs a double-entendre as Song replies: “I’ll try to imagine the Chairman taking my positions” (39).  This kind of dialogue helps to humanize the characters and ensure that the play doesn’t simply turn into an esoteric academic discourse.  With his effective end succinct criticism of Western society, Hwang creates a play that is evocative, engaging and entertaining, but also challenges the viewer to evaluate where they are in the world in relation to the people around them.

 

The get updates on my latest posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.  And check out my reviews on other plays, like those by Sarah Kane, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, and Gunter Grass.

 

Favorite Line:

Song: “Even the softest skin becomes like leather to a man who’s touched it too often” (46).

 

Works Cited: Hwang, David Henry.  M. Butterfly.  New York.  Dramatics Play Service Inc.  1986.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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