When the scene opens, the year is 1960. Gallimard is in Beijing, sitting with several other diplomats in the home of the German ambassador to China. Chairs are gathered around a stage where Song, still dressed in the wedding costume from the previous scene, sings the death scene from Madame Butterfly — rather than playing the character, she now plays herself, an actress performing for Western diplomats. Song holds a hara-kiri knife, a traditional instrument of Japanese ritual suicide. Gallimard, still facing his audience and speaking to them while the show goes on behind him, explains the end of Puccini’s opera: Pinkerton, too cowardly to face Butterfly, sends his new American wife to Japan to collect Butterfly’s child. Devastated, Butterfly commits suicide. Song sings in Italian while Gallimard translates the lines: “Death with honor / Is better than life / Life with dishonor.”
The reenactment of Puccini’s opera blends seamlessly into the reenactment of the events of Gallimard’s life, emphasizing once again how Gallimard has connected the two narratives in his memory. The crowd of Westerners who watch Song as she performs — acting out a European man’s melodramatic, unrealistic idea of Asian womanhood — show the West’s fascination with the kinds of Orientalist stereotypes that artists like Puccini use in their representations of Asian people and cultures. The lines Gallimard translates, about death and honor, illustrate how mistreatment at the hands of a lover may rob a woman, not only of her happiness, but of her self-respect.
Song finishes the death scene. The diplomats applaud and flock to her with congratulations. Gallimard tells his audience that he never enjoyed opera before that night, but that Song’s grace and delicacy — more than her voice, which is unconventional for a classical singer — transformed Butterfly into a believable character. Gallimard claims Song’s fragile appearance made him want to take her in his arms and protect her.
Gallimard is attracted to those elements of Song which seem most conventionally feminine: her delicate features, slender body, and graceful movement. His desire to “protect” her is an expression of masculinity. Though Gallimard is not very masculine, Song’s femininity makes him feel more manly.
Song breaks away from the diplomats and introduces herself to Gallimard. He is shocked to find himself the object of such a woman’s attention. Gallimard praises Song’s performance, and tells her she was “utterly convincing.” Song expresses rueful surprise that she could be “convincing” as a Japanese woman, given the history of animosity between China and Japan — she points out that the Japanese military once used hundreds of Chinese people for medical experiments —but she suggests this irony must be lost on Gallimard.
Song’s reply to Gallimard’s compliment highlights the way Westerners tend to view Asian people as being homogenous, without national histories and cultural memories separate from the Western nations that colonized them. She asserts a rich, distinct Chinese identity over Gallimard’s vague appreciation of an abstract Asian-ness, and immediately reveals herself as a bold, intelligent woman.
Gallimard rushes to justify his comment, saying Song has helped him see the beauty of Butterfly’s death: that, though Pinkerton is not worthy of her, she loves him enough to make a “pure sacrifice” in his honor. Song sneers at this, telling Gallimard the story is only beautiful to Westerners, who delight in the fantasy of “the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.”
Gallimard is clearly surprised by Song’s sharp answer to his compliment, and his nervous, clumsy attempt to explain himself shows that he is eager to impress Song, or at least to save face in their conversation. Song is dismissive when she lumps Gallimard together with all other Westerners, reducing him to a stereotype as so many Westerners reduce Asians.
While Gallimard stumbles over himself trying to answer Song’s accusatory comment, Song asks him to imagine his reaction if Madame Butterfly were about a “blonde homecoming queen” who falls in love with a “short Japanese businessman.” If such a girl were to throw her life away the way Puccini’s Butterfly does — rejecting a marriage proposal from a young Kennedy, praying to her lover’s picture after he returns home to Japan, and finally killing herself when she learns he has married someone else — Song says Gallimard would call her a “deranged idiot.” It is only because Madame Butterfly is an the story of an Asian woman who kills herself for love of a Western man that men like Gallimard find the story beautiful, Song says.
Song’s alternative imagination of Madame Butterfly highlights the absurdities in the original story by drawing comparisons that a Western audience can understand intuitively. In addition to pointing out the strange, implausible elements of the story, her counterfactual also serves as a reminder of the fact that, despite the many ways in which Orientalist depictions like Puccini’s reduce their complexity, Asian women have aspirations, needs, and self-respect just as much as Western women—and Western men, for that matter—do.
Song tells Gallimard she will never perform Madame Butterfly again. She suggests that if he wants to see “real theatre,” he should attend a performance at the Peking Opera. She ends the conversation and walks away, leaving Gallimard stunned. He admits to his audience that his fantasy of “protecting [Song] in my big Western arms” has been totally upended.
Though Gallimard has made it abundantly clear that he is not typically successful with women, his surprise at Song’s behavior suggests he expected her to be receptive to him. It may be that, because she is an Asian woman, he assumed she would be more modest and ingratiating than other women.