From prison in Paris, René Gallimard looks back on his life, especially the love relationship and espionage trial that have made him the laughing stock of the world. Gallimard recalls his years of work in the French embassy in Beijing, where he developed an intimate relationship with Song Liling—a relationship made extraordinary by Gallimard’s faulty perception of the Chinese opera star’s sexual identity.
Gallimard recalls his first encounter with Song at the German ambassador’s house in Beijing in 1960. Song’s performance of the death scene from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly (1904; Madame Butterfly, 1905) enchants Gallimard, and when he and Song have the chance to talk after the performance, Song’s strong statements about opera and Western misconceptions about the East stimulate Gallimard. Soon Gallimard regularly attends performances of Chinese opera, drawing attention from Song in return. Like Pinkerton, the American naval officer in Puccini’s opera, Gallimard has a need to feel power in his relationship. To make Song need his love, Gallimard begins to avoid Song, disregarding several letters from her. When Gallimard returns to Song, the relationship becomes sexual, but Song insists on modesty, never appearing in the nude with Gallimard, even though they engage in intimacy. When Gallimard finally demands to see Song naked, Song consents, but Song’s willingness to be naked makes Gallimard relent in his demand, leaving Song’s sexual identity unverified. Song announces that she is pregnant, and Gallimard declares that he wants to marry Song. After Gallimard returns to Paris, Song joins him there, and their relationship continues until the French government arrests Gallimard and Song for espionage.
In the French foreign service, Gallimard at first was only a bureaucrat, but executive confidence in his knowledge of the Chinese grew, and eventually he became vice consul. During Gallimard’s service in China, the United States was involved in the conflict in Vietnam, but it did not have full diplomatic relations with China. The French served as diplomatic intermediaries, and the United States relied upon the French to provide information about possible Chinese reactions to actions planned by the United States. Again thinking like Puccini’s Pinkerton, who felt that the best policy toward people in the East was strong tactics, Gallimard recommends a strong approach in Vietnam, including the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first elected president of South Vietnam. When this policy proves ineffective for the United States, Gallimard falls from favor and is reassigned to Paris. In China, Song endured the hardships of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), including indoctrination and required service at a commune. Coerced by the Chinese government, Song travels to France and takes advantage of Gallimard’s love to gather confidential information, which Song then passes to Chinese leaders. In the end, the French discover the espionage and convict both Gallimard and Song. In the process, Gallimard learns that Song is a man. In prison, Gallimard now suffers especially because the fantasy that was the basis of his love is destroyed, and he is humiliated and brokenhearted. He is driven to suicide.
To help the reader assess the development of Gallimard’s sexual outlook, Hwang also provides Gallimard’s recollections of his sexual experiences. For example, in 1947 Gallimard and his schoolmate, Marc, discussed plans for an adventurous weekend. Marc previously had gone to an apartment in Marseilles owned by Marc’s father, and according to Marc, various women swam naked in the pool. With no moonlight, people could not see each other well, and the sexual contact was indiscriminate. Marc’s plan to repeat the experience made Gallimard uncomfortable because he worried that the women would reject him. With Marc, Gallimard also remembers his first sexual intercourse, which Marc arranged: a woman named Isabelle climbed on top of Gallimard as he lay in the bushes near a cafeteria. The intercourse was rough and uncomfortable, and the woman dominated the experience. In marriage, Gallimard and Helga apparently based their relationship on social status rather than a loving sexual union. The couple was childless, and although Helga sought the help of a doctor, Gallimard rejected such help. After the affair with Song begins, Gallimard has another affair with a young woman named Gallimarde, the daughter of a businessman. Renée is shapely and unashamed about being naked; her frank discussion of Gallimard’s penis seems inappropriate to Gallimard. Finally, in prison, Gallimard has a collection of magazines with pinup girls, and these photos stir Gallimard’s fantasies. These sexual experiences are not fully satisfying, but the viewer of the drama must think of them when trying to understand how Gallimard could spend twenty years in a relationship with Song without ever determining that Song is a man.