(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

M. Butterfly David Henry Hwang

American playwright, screenwriter, and librettist.

The following entry provides criticism on Hwang's play M. Butterfly through 2003. See also David Henry Hwang Drama Criticism.

Hwang received the 1988 Antoinette Perry Award for M. Butterfly (1988), distinguishing him as the first Asian American to win a Tony. The play has been praised as a postmodern text that deconstructs preconceptions of race, gender, and sexuality in a postcolonial world. M. Butterfly focuses on the relationship between René Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, who is actually a man employed to pose as a woman in order to extract state secrets from Gallimard. During the course of the play, Gallimard does not realize that his lover is actually a man. In a 1993 interview with Marty Moss-Coane, Hwang commented, “Writing for me tends to be closely bound up in the exploration of my identity as an Asian American,” concluding, “To me to write well is to battle stereotypes. To write well is to create three-dimensional characters that seem human.” M. Butterfly was adapted as a film in 1993, directed by David Cronenberg. Like many of Hwang's works, the play seeks to examine connections between different groups in society and to explore issues of shifting identity.

Plot and Major Characters

M. Butterfly was inspired by an article Hwang read about the real-life 1986 scandal involving a French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, who for twenty years maintained a relationship with an international spy and Chinese opera singer, Shi Pei Pu, whom he believed to be a woman. Hwang recognized in this story basic elements of enduring Western stereotypes defining Asian men as feminized and disempowered. In his play, Hwang interweaves details from the Bouriscot story with plotlines from the Italian opera Madama Butterfly (1904), by Giacomo Puccini, in which a Japanese woman falls in love with an Englishman who eventually abandons her. In Hwang's play, a Chinese spy is ordered to present himself to Gallimard as a female opera diva, Song Liling. Gallimard first encounters Song on stage as she performs the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Gallimard is fooled into believing Liling is a woman, and develops a relationship with her, lasting several years. Subsequently, Gallimard abandons her and returns to his wife in France. Several years later, Liling is assigned to France to reestablish a relationship with Gallimard, who is now divorced from his wife. Liling is supplied with an Asian child to present to Gallimard as the result of their love affair. The ruse is successful, and Gallimard and Liling are reunited. After living with Liling as man and wife for over fifteen years, Gallimard is arrested and tried for espionage. He is accused of providing the Chinese government (via Liling) with French state secrets, such as American plans for increased troop strength in Vietnam, and other information that has passed through the French embassy. In a final scene, Gallimard, who is serving his sentence in a French prison, dresses in a wig and the garb of a traditional Chinese diva and stabs himself in the heart. This scene portrays a reversal of events as depicted in the Puccini opera, in which the Japanese woman kills herself in despair over her abandonment by her English lover.

Major Themes

M. Butterfly explores Western stereotypes concerning Asians and the preconceptions affecting national, racial, and East-West tensions and issues of gender and sexual identity. Hwang has described his play as a “deconstructivist” revision of Madama Butterfly, and critics have asserted that Hwang's dismantling of dominant Western notions of race and gender exposes these ideas to scathing critique. Hwang utilizes such postmodern theatrical techniques as nonlinear narrative, direct address to the audience, and unique staging to dramatize the intersecting discourses of race, gender, nation, and sexuality that infuse his play. On one level, the work functions as an examination of the phenomenon of “Orientalism,” which encompasses a broad spectrum of Western attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes regarding Asian people, cultures, and nations. In the play, Gallimard's willingness to accept Song as a woman is a natural extension of his perceptions of Asian men as feminized creatures. Further, Gallimard's stereotyping of Asian women as passive, subservient, and modest makes it possible for Song to live as his wife without being discovered as a man, despite the couple's intimate relationship. Gallimard's Western “colonial” attitudes concerning Asian culture are at the heart of his relationship with Song. Several critics have interpreted M. Butterfly as a condemnation of the East as well, stating that the work implies that the East played a complicit role in its own subjugation. The shifting of blame inherent in this interpretation has angered some Asian-American critics and activists, who denounce the suggestion of Eastern complicity as white-pleasing propaganda designed to conceal the real history of East-West relations. However, many commentators, and Hwang himself, have maintained that the play seeks to cut through layers of sexual and cultural misperception on both sides, and attempts to foster respectful relationships that are for the common good. In a different vein, M. Butterfly critiques traditional notions of gender by featuring a central character, Liling, who is biologically a man, but who succeeds in living as a woman for over twenty years. In the conclusion of the play, Gallimard dresses himself as a woman and commits suicide in a manner stereotypically associated with women—by stabbing his heart with a dagger. The ending has been interpreted by some critics as an assertion that gender is not necessarily an innate biological phenomenon, but a “socially constructed” identity which may be assumed by members of either sex.

Critical Reception

M. Butterfly remains Hwang's greatest popular and critical success, and has sparked ongoing debate over its socio-political implications in regard to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationhood, and imperialism. Academics have embraced M. Butterfly as a postmodern text that aims to deconstruct received notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Critics of the play have typically fallen into two camps: those who applaud Hwang's deconstructive gender-bending text and his examination of East-West tensions, and those who argue that the play, while ostensibly critiquing Western stereotypes of Asians, ultimately reinforces those stereotypes. Robert Cooperman has stated that M. Butterfly is “[a]rguably the most important play in terms of challenging the political/social/cultural identities of the West over the last decade,” further saying that the work “very plainly forces its Western audience to contend with Eastern stereotypes involving sexual orientation, gender, and culture, especially those stereotypes promulgated by the myth of Orientalism.” Many commentators have lauded Hwang's identification of Western stereotypes regarding Asians—both male and female—but other scholars have objected to Hwang's attempt at subversive discourse in M. Butterfly. For example, James S. Moy has argued that the play “is not an articulation of Asian desire; rather, it affirms a nefarious complicity with Anglo-American desire in its representation of otherness, both sexual and racial.” Other reviewers have agreed, asserting that by describing and reaffirming typical masculine Western notions, Hwang unintentionally reinvigorates the systems he intends to break down. Nevertheless, M. Butterfly has been celebrated and praised as a powerful metaphor for East-West political relations and as an astute examination of the assimilation of the Asian American into American culture.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

*FOB (play) 1979

The Dance and the Railroad (play) 1981; adapted as a teleplay, 1982

Family Devotions (play) 1981

The House of Sleeping Beauties [adaptor; from Yasunari Kawabata's novella] (play) 1983

The Sound of a Voice (play) 1983

As the Crow Flies (play) 1986

Rich Relations (play) 1986

M. Butterfly (play) 1988; adapted as a screenplay, 1993

1000 Airplanes on the Roof [librettist; with Philip Glass and Jerome Sirlin] (musical) 1988

Bondage (play) 1992

The Voyage [librettist; with Philip Glass] (opera) 1992

Face Value (play) 1993

Golden Gate (screenplay) 1994

Golden Child (play) 1996

Trying to Find Chinatown (play) 1996

The Silver River [librettist; with Bright Sheng] (opera) 1997

Peer Gynt [adaptor; from Henrik Ibsen's play] (play) 1998

Aïda [adaptor, from Giuseppe Verdi's opera; with Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, Elton John, and Tim Rice] (opera) 1999

The Flower Drum Song [adaptor, from Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers' musical and C. Y. Lee's novel] (musical) 2001

Possession [adaptor; from Peter Sís' autobiographical children's book] (screenplay) 2002

Ainadamar [librettist; with Osvaldo Golijov] (opera) 2003

The Sound of a Voice [librettist; with Philip Glass] (opera) 2003

Tibet through the Red Box [adaptor; from Peter Sís' autobiographical children's book] (children's play) 2004

*This work was republished in 1990, along with several others, in FOB and Other Plays; the acronym refers to the phrase “fresh-off-the-boat.”

†These works were performed together as Sound and Beauty in 1983.

James S. Moy (essay date March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moy, James S. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theater Journal 42, no. 1 (March 1990): 48-56.

[In the following essay, Moy compares representations of Asian characters in M. Butterfly to those in Yankee Dawg You Die, by Philip Kan Gotanda, arguing that while both playwrights attack stereotypical Anglo-American representations of Asians, their plays ultimately reinforce these stereotypes.]

One thinks one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing...

(The entire section is 3541 words.)

Douglas Kerr (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kerr, Douglas. “David Henry Hwang and the Revenge of Madame Butterfly.” In Asian Voices in English, edited by Mimi Chan and Roy Harris, pp. 119-30. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Kerr compares the representation of Asian characters in M. Butterfly and Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. Kerr argues that the opera aligns the audience's sympathy with the pathos of the central Asian character, while Hwang's play aligns the audience with the plight of the central Western character.]

One of the best-known of all Asian voices sings in Italian. I dare say that Madame Butterfly is the most recognisable image...

(The entire section is 5607 words.)

Robert K. Martin (essay date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, Robert K. “Gender, Race, and the Colonial Body: Carson McCullers's Filipino Boy, and David Henry Hwang's Chinese Woman.” Canadian Review of American Studies 23, no. 1 (fall 1992): 95-106.

[In the following essay, Martin compares the discourses of gender, nationality, and colonialism within Hwang's M. Butterfly with the novel and film adaptation Reflections in a Golden Eye, by Carson McCullers.]

Almost twenty years after its first production, Michel Tremblay's two-person play about a drag queen and her motorcyclist lover, Hosanna, was staged again in Montreal, this time by a woman director, Lorraine Pintal. In the interval, the...

(The entire section is 4583 words.)

Marjorie Garber (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garber, Marjorie. “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism.” In Nationalisms and Sexualities, edited by Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, pp. 121-46. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[In the following essay, Garber examines the role of cross-dressing in Hwang's M. Butterfly as a deconstruction of dominant categories of gender.]

A former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer have been sentenced to six years in jail for spying for China after a two-day trial that traced a story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity. … M. Boursicot was accused of passing...

(The entire section is 10851 words.)

Hsiao-hung Chang (essay date 1992-93)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chang, Hsiao-hung. “Cultural/Sexual/Theatrical Ambivalence in M. Butterfly.Tamkang Review 23, nos. 1-4 (1992-93): 135-55.

[In the following essay, Chang analyzes the trope of “cross-cultural dressing” in M. Butterfly in terms of the discourses of feminist politics, postcolonial studies, and deconstructivist theory.]


This essay situates D. H. Hwang's “deconstructivist” Madame Butterfly, a play which critiques sexual imperialism by politically re-visioning the archetypal East-West romance perpetuated by Puccini's opera, at the intersection of feminist politics, postcolonial discourse and...

(The entire section is 5729 words.)

Kathryn Remen (essay date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Remen, Kathryn. “The Theatre of Punishment: David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (fall 1994): 391-400.

[In the following essay, Remen draws on Michel Foucault's theories of vision and power to examine the staging of the central characters and the discursive positioning of the audience in Hwang's play M. Butterfly.]

It's an enchanted space I occupy.1

Mainstream American drama generally allows its audiences to slip into a passive role. With the exception of experimental theaters, such as the Living Theater, that rely...

(The entire section is 4852 words.)

Suzanne Kehde (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kehde, Suzanne. “Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)Construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Graham Greene's The Quiet American.” In Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, pp. 241-54. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Kehde argues that M. Butterfly functions as a powerful critique of imperialism by exposing the underlying gender-based structure of imperialistic thinking.]

By the time of his death this month at the age of eighty-six, Greene had become a kind of Grand Old Man of the left,...

(The entire section is 4917 words.)

Rosalind Morris (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morris, Rosalind. “M. Butterfly: Transvestism and Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Critique of Empire.” In Gender and Culture in Literature and Film East and West: Issues of Perception and Interpretation, edited by Nitaya Masavisut, George Simson, and Larry E. Smith, pp. 40-59. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Morris argues that M. Butterfly ultimately reaffirms and reinstates the hierarchical power structures of gender and culture that it sets out to deconstruct.]


When the curtains go up on the stage of M. Butterfly, the audience is greeted with a serenely minimalist...

(The entire section is 9985 words.)

Colleen Lye (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lye, Colleen. “M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority Discourse in an International Frame.” In The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu, pp. 260-89. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Lye examines the portrayals of gender, race, nationality, geopolitics, and power within M. Butterfly, and discusses the variety of critical interpretations the play has garnered.]

Few works by Asian American artists have captured as much attention as David Henry Hwang's dramatic adaptation of a newspaper account of a French diplomat's affair with a Peking...

(The entire section is 13045 words.)

Anne Anlin Cheng (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cheng, Anne Anlin. “Race and Fantasy in Modern America: Subjective Dissimulation/Racial Assimilation.” In Multiculturalism and Representation: Selected Essays, edited by John Rieder and Larry E. Smith, pp. 175-97. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Cheng examines the intersection of fantasy and representations of the racialized body in M. Butterfly and Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.]

Why does race have such a hold on us?

This paper explores the role fantasy plays in the narrations of race and ethnicity in American cultures, with the goal of expanding our understanding of fantasy beyond its...

(The entire section is 11234 words.)

Angela Pao (essay date 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pao, Angela. “M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang.” In A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong and Stephen H. Sumida, pp. 200-08. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001.

[In the following essay, Pao provides an introductory overview of M. Butterfly, including information about its critical reception, its historical context, and its major themes.]


M. Butterfly premiered in Washington, DC, at the National Theatre on 10 February 1988 and opened in New York on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on 20 March 1988. The play...

(The entire section is 3760 words.)

Andrew Shin (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shin, Andrew. “Projected Bodies in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Golden Gate.MELUS 27, no. 1 (spring 2002): 177-97.

[In the following essay, Shin argues that M. Butterfly and Golden Gate both function as powerful critiques of traditional Western notions of masculinity.]

It has been barely thirty years since the inception of ethnic studies programs at San Francisco State University in 1968 and Berkeley in 1969, yet movements that seek to dismantle the liberationist energies of the 1960s—whether in the form of reinstating traditional curricula or reversing civil rights policies—are well underway. In California, the...

(The entire section is 7632 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Campbell, Karen. “In the Realm of the Voices.” American Theater 20, no. 8 (October 2003): 103-06.

Reviews The Sound of a Voice.

Cheng, Anne Anlin. “The Melancholy of Race.” Kenyon Review 19, no. 1 (winter 1997): 49-62.

Provides a discussion of representations of race in M. Butterfly and The Flower Drum Song.

Cooperman, Robert. “Across the Boundaries of Cultural Identity: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” In Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre & Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, pp. 364-73. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.


(The entire section is 261 words.)