René Gallimard is in a prison cell in 1980’s Paris, listening to an audiocassette player. He recalls the skill with which his Chinese Communist lover, Liling Song, performed in traditional plays at the Peking Opera, as well as in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904; Madame Butterfly)—a thematically important juxtaposition of Eastern and Western cultures. Gallimard flashes back to his days in Beijing, reliving the events that led to his imprisonment.
In the 1960’s, Gallimard is a rather nondescript, low-level diplomat at the French Embassy in Beijing, China, at a time when France and the People’s Republic of China are establishing diplomatic relations. He has come to China harboring several stereotypes about “Oriental” women. Gallimard’s stereotype of Oriental women as beautiful, submissive, self-sacrificing, and hankering after white men was formed through his exposure to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In this opera, the American naval lieutenant Pinkerton lures a beautiful, loving Japanese woman, Butterfly (Cio-Cio San), into a fake marriage. They set up house, she becomes pregnant, and he sails off with vague promises to return. Butterfly gives birth to a son and loyally awaits Pinkerton’s return, rebuffing the courtship of a wealthy Japanese admirer. After some years, Pinkerton does return—accompanied by his new American wife, who is childless and wishes to take Butterfly’s son. Butterfly obligingly commits suicide. As Gallimard listens to Puccini’s music, he fantasizes himself as Pinkerton and constructs his stereotypical ideal of a selfless, loving Asian woman.
Gallimard’s susceptibility to this fantasy is partly due to his unsatisfactory sexual experiences with Western women. As a teenager, Gallimard’s pal Marc called him a wimp when he declined to go skinny dipping with some eager girls. Gallimard also seemed to be more voyeur than participant when he watched an exhibitionist girl undressing and remained flaccid. His deflowering was a joyless experience with an athletic girl who adopted the superior position and pounded his loins. His marriage was a dispassionate career move, his father-in-law being the French ambassador to Australia.
At a soirée in Beijing, Gallimard meets Liling Song, an opera singer who performs Madame Butterfly’s death scene. Gallimard is predictably entranced, unable to disentangle the performer from the role. In conversation, Song scoffs at the Butterfly character’s self-sacrificing pandering to Western male egotism, but Gallimard persists in admiring Song/Butterfly. Gallimard frequents the Peking Opera to see Song, and they regularly take tea in Song’s apartment, Song projecting the image of an Oriental maiden awed by white virility. The French ambassador promotes Gallimard, assuming that he has begun keeping a Chinese mistress and therefore possesses inside knowledge about the Chinese. After receiving this promotion, Gallimard hastens to Song’s apartment to realize his superior’s assumption, and the two consummate their affair accompanied by a duet from Madame Butterfly.
After their consummation, Gallimard and Song build a love nest for themselves. Meanwhile, the French embassy (and Gallimard) are asked by the Americans for advice about the Vietnam War. Gallimard, extrapolating from his conquest of Song, declares that “Orientals” submit to forcefulness, so the Americans should allow the dubiously elected president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, to be assassinated and allow a military junta to conduct the war. Gallimard also shares these views with Song, who is actually spying on him for the Chinese Communist government. Moreover, Song is not a woman but a nan dan, a man who plays women’s roles in Chinese theater.
Gallimard has a brief affair with a liberated Danish student named Renée, but he is soon put off by her aggressive sexuality. This experience convinces Gallimard that Song’s (apparently) submissive femininity is the ideal of womanhood. Later, when Gallimard’s wife, Helga, wishes to have a baby, the couple tries unsuccessfully to get pregnant. Helga consults a doctor, takes a fertility test, and passes. She wants Gallimard to do likewise. Gallimard balks at this calling of his virility into question. He complains to Song, demanding to see his lover nude, something Song had avoided up to that point, pleading Chinese modesty. Song then announces “her” pregnancy, thereby reassuring Gallimard’s sense of virility and distracting him from the need to see “her” naked. After a few months’ absence from the city, Song returns with a blond, blue-eyed Chinese “son.”
In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong unleashes the Cultural Revolution, turning Chinese society upside down for a decade. Intellectuals and artists such as Song are branded counterrevolutionaries and undergo forced “reeducation” by hard labor in the Chinese hinterland. Meanwhile, the aggressive, “masculine” military policy advocated by Gallimard of bombing the Vietnamese fails, and he is demoted and returned to Paris (which is also experiencing upheaval through student riots and workers’ strikes). Unhappy and nostalgic for the perfect woman he loved in China, Gallimard asks Helga for a divorce. Then, magically, Song shows up in Paris. Gallimard is elated, but, as the curtain descends on act 2, Song tells the audience in an aside that he will make a costume change during intermission.
Unlike the usual backstage costume change, however, Song’s occurs onstage, visible to the audience. As he sheds his wig, makeup, and kimono, the audience sees the transformation of a woman into a man. Song and his son arrive in Paris in 1970 and live with Gallimard for fifteen years, spying on the French. Eventually, however, the espionage is detected. The pair are tried and jailed by a judge who is incredulous that, throughout twenty years of intimacy, Gallimard believed that Song was a woman. Song ascribes this gullibility to Gallimard’s (and Western men’s) orientalizing romantic fantasies about Asian women. To shatter this fantasy for Gallimard, Song strips completely, showing his manhood. Gallimard, however, steadfastly rejects reality and preserves his fantasy by donning Song’s wig, kimono, and makeup and committing suicide, ironically in the same romantic manner as Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.