M. Butterfly

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M. Butterfly Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang was born in Los Angeles, California in 1957. He was the oldest of three children, and the only boy in his family. Hwang received his undergraduate degree at Stanford University, where he majored in English and produced his first-ever play. Hwang attended, but did not graduate from, the Yale School of Drama. His first play, FOB, premiered in 1980. He went on to write many other plays, including The Dance and the Railroad (1981), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly (1988). Hwang has also built a career writing for opera and musical theater, and worked on adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, among other projects. His most recent plays, Kung-Fu and Cain and Abel, premiered in 2014, the same year Hwang began working as director of the playwriting concentration at Columbia University School of the Arts.
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Historical Context of M. Butterfly
In 1949, a civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, also known as Kuomintang, led to the installation of a Communist government led by Chairman Mao Zedong. The frequent references to “the Revolution” that characters like Song make throughout the play refer to that period of political upheaval. The events of M. Butterfly, which begins in 1960, take place shortly after the Indochina War, in which France fought unsuccessfully to maintain control of its colonies in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Vietnamese forces that led the resistance against France were aided by the Communist government in neighboring China, who supplied modern weapons from the Soviet Union that helped the Vietnamese to match and eventually defeat what might otherwise have been overwhelming French forces. Other Western nations, including the United States, refused to intervene to help France hold onto their colonies, and so the war was lost. The Indochina War ended in 1954, and in 1960, when the action of the play begins, American military forces are preparing to send thousands of troops into Vietnam and seize control of the country in France’s place — this invasion is an early initiative in what Americans will come to know as the Vietnam War. The Cultural Revolution, a violent, decade-long effort by the Communist government under Mao to purge remnants of Western capitalist influence from Chinese culture and enforce Communist ideology across the nation, also provides a backdrop from the events of the play. As an opera singer — a profession that caters to bourgeois values — Song is considered criminal by the Communist government, and is consequently sent to work on a commune in rural China to be “reeducated” in the political ideology of his country.
Other Books Related to M. Butterfly
Though not a work of literature, Edward Said’s Orientalism is an academic exploration of many of the same political and cultural questions Hwang examines through drama in M. Butterfly. Other extremely popular works of Asian-American literature, such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, are often grouped with M. Butterfly as texts that formed a foundation for an Asian-American literary tradition. As a work of post-colonial literature, M. Butterfly has elements in common with the novels of Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, and Amitav Ghosh, among many others. As a dramatic work based on true events, which deals with political issues as well as interpersonal relationships, M. Butterfly bears some resemblance to Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, though these plays differ from Hwang’s in many significant regards.
Key Facts about M. Butterfly
  • Full Title: M. Butterfly
  • When Written: 1988
  • When Published: Debuted on Broadway March 20, 1988
  • Literary Period: Post-Modernism, Post-Colonialism
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: Beijing, 1960-1966 and Paris, 1968-70 and 1986-1988
  • Climax: Song strips naked in front of Gallimard for the first time, and Gallimard rejects Song in favor of the fantasy of Butterfly.
  • Antagonist: The question of antagonists is a complex one in M. Butterfly. In some ways, Song is the antagonist, since he is responsible for Gallimard's imprisonment and spends much of the play tormenting Gallimard. In some important ways, Gallimard himself is the villain — he embodies the destructive ignorance and prejudice the play condemns. Both characters are victims of the racist and sexist social context in which they live, and of the legacy of Western imperialism that precedes them: Gallimard inherits his terrible ideas from other Westerners eager to justify the exploitation of Asia, and Song becomes entangled with a political movement that arises in response to that exploitation.
Extra Credit for M. Butterfly

The Real “M. Butterfly”. David Henry Hwang was inspired to write M. Butterfly after reading about the real case of Bernard Bouriscot, a French diplomat who, while stationed in China in his early twenties, fell in love with the male opera singer Shi Pei Pu, whom he believed throughout their twenty-year relationship (which, like the affair between Song and Gallimard, included the “birth” of a son) to be a woman. Shi was imprisoned during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Bouriscot collaborated with the Chinese Secret Service to guarantee his lover’s safety, passing classified information from the French embassy. Hwang refrained from researching Bouriscot’s case in depth while writing M. Butterfly because, according to his Author’s Notes, he “didn’t want the ‘truth’ to interfere with my own speculations.” However, journalist Joyce Wadler published an account of the affair between Shi and Bouriscot, and of their ensuing court trials, in her book Liaison.

Butterfly Up Close. In 1993, direct David Cronenberg adapted M. Butterfly into a film starring Jeremy Irons as Rene Gallimard and John Lone as Song Liling. While Hwang’s play received tremendous acclaim after its 1988 debut, reactions to the film were lukewarm. In his review, Roger Ebert suggested that film was too “cruelly realistic” a medium for the story; while actors playing Song onstage can create a convincing illusion of femininity and so make Song’s disguise seem plausible, the close-up shots used in the film betrayed Lone as looking undeniably masculine even when dressed in elaborate feminine costumes. Ebert even suggested that he could see Lone’s five o’clock shadow in some shots.