In a prison on the outskirts of Paris, Rene Gallimard is serving a sentence for treason. It is 1988, and Gallimard introduces himself to his audience as a “celebrity” — a man who is known and laughed about all over the world. Though he embraces his status as an object of ridicule, Gallimard confesses that he has been searching desperately for a way to tell his story that will redeem its pathetic ending, reunite him with the woman he has lost, and teach those people who laugh at him to understand him. Gallimard tells his audience that he has loved “the Perfect Woman.”
Through a series of flashbacks and imagined conversations, Gallimard tells audience his story. The narrative begins in 1960, when he is thirty-nine years old. He is a junior diplomat living in Beijing, China — a tenuous situation, given the increasing extremism of the Chinese Communist Party. He is hapless, awkward, and unimpressive. Convinced no woman could ever love him, Gallimard has resigned himself to a passionless marriage of convenience with his wife, Helga.
Attending a performance at the German ambassador’s house one night, he meets a Chinese opera star named Song Liling. Song is performing the final scene from Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, playing the title heroine as she commits suicide after the white man she adores abandons her. Gallimard is moved by Song’s feminine grace, and after the performance showers her with compliments. Gallimard tells Song he finds the opera’s story “beautiful,” and Song tells him Madame Butterfly is an imperialist fantasy — a reflection of Westerners’ perverse desire to dominate Asian people. Coolly but flirtatiously, Song invites Gallimard to come and watch her at the Peking Opera. She leaves Gallimard stunned, but intrigued.
For several weeks, Song’s invitation tugs at Gallimard. Four weeks after meeting her, he finds the courage to attend one of her performances at the Peking Opera. After the show, he and Song walk along the streets of Beijing. She is sophisticated and confident, more like a liberated Western woman than the mild-mannered Asian woman he initially expected she would be.
For fifteen weeks after their initial meeting, Gallimard continues to attend Song’s performances every week. Finally, after months of these encounters, Song invites Gallimard to her apartment. She seems anxious and flustered; she admits that she has never invited a man into her home, and that Gallimard’s presence makes her nervous.
Intrigued by Song’s uncharacteristic vulnerability, and goaded by the memory of his womanizing friend Marc, Gallimard devises an “experiment” to test the limits of Song’s pride. For weeks, he refrains from going to the Peking Opera or calling on Song. Finally, after nine weeks of silence, she sends Gallimard a heartbroken letter that makes it clear she has lost all sense of dignity. Gallimard is ashamed at having treated Song so badly, and believes he will face divine punishment for his cruelty. That same day, however, the French ambassador to China —Manuel Toulon — informs Gallimard that he has been chosen for a major promotion. Stunned, it occurs to Gallimard that he is not being punished, but rewarded, for exercising his masculine power over a woman. Later that night, he declares his love for Song and the two begin an affair.
As the relationship between Gallimard and Song develops, Song seems to fit perfectly into Gallimard’s ideal of womanhood: she is modest, gentle, and adores Gallimard. He calls her “Butterfly,” a reference to the heroine of Puccini’s opera. At work, Gallimard begins advising American military leaders who are beginning to wage a war against Communists in Vietnam. He assures Toulon that American troops will be welcome in Vietnam, basing this prediction on impressions of the “Oriental” disposition he has gained from Song, who plays into all his assumptions about Asian people: their passivity, weakness, and admiration for the strength of Western nations.
Though Gallimard seems to be living a charmed life, disaster is brewing. Song is not who she claims to be; it is revealed that she has been acting as a spy for the Chinese government, subtly coaxing military secrets out of Gallimard and telling them to Comrade Chin — a leader in the Red Guard, a Communist paramilitary group. It is also revealed that, though she plays female roles in the Peking Opera, Song is actually a man. He has disguised himself as a woman to seduce Gallimard and extract information from him, and keeps his secret by making sure Gallimard never sees his naked body.
Song and Gallimard carry on their affair for twenty years, throughout periods of political and personal turmoil. They are separated for four years after the Vietnam War takes a disastrous turn and Gallimard is transferred back to Paris. During his absence, the Chinese Communist Party becomes increasingly violent and extreme, and Song is sent to a forced labor camp to atone for his “crimes” of being an artist and a homosexual man. Gallimard leaves Helga, too obsessed with longing for his lover to participate in the ruse of their marriage any longer. Gallimard and Song are finally reunited after the Communist Party sends Song to Paris to resume the affair and the accompanying espionage. The two live in harmony for fifteen years; Gallimard, understanding that Song is in trouble with the Communists, helps her access sensitive documents, which she passes on to the Chinese embassy. Eventually, though, Song and Gallimard are caught and charged with treason. Song’s gender is exposed, making Gallimard a laughingstock throughout France, and Song turns on Gallimard in court, testifying against him to guarantee a pardon for himself.
In his prison cell, Gallimard is visited by Song, dressed in men’s clothing. He torments Gallimard, insisting Gallimard adores him. This is true — Gallimard has said in previous conversations with his visions of Song that he would forgive everything, if Song would only agree to come back and resume their life together. Song strips off his clothes and exposes his naked body, telling Gallimard it is time for him to confront the truth. Though Song expects this will be a moment of surrender for Gallimard, it actually turns Gallimard against him. Seeing Song for what he really is, Gallimard says, destroys the fantasy of “Butterfly” that was all he ever really loved. Gallimard throws Song out of the prison cell, saying it is time for him to return to Butterfly. In the play’s final scene, Gallimard dresses in a woman’s kimono, wig, and makeup – Song’s costume as Butterfly. He introduces himself to the audience as “Rene Gallimard — also known as Madame Butterfly.” Then, just as the heroine of Puccini’s opera does, he commits suicide with a hara-kiri knife. As Gallimard lies dead, Song appears onstage smoking a cigarette and staring at Gallimard’s fallen body.