Friday, January 17, 2014

"M. Butterfly"

I finally had a chance to read David Henry Hwang's play, M. Butterfly (1988).  It was quite famous in the late 1980's and early 1990's--it won a Tony award in 1988.

The play is based very loosely on the true story of former French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and a Chinese opera singer, Shi Peipu.  Boursicot and Shi were convicted of espionage in 1986: a judge found that, between 1969 and 1983, Boursicot had passed sensitive documents to Shi, who was a spy for Communist China.

The two men had also had a lengthy affair during that time.  And here's where it gets odd:  Boursicot was convinced that Shi was a woman.

I'll pause for a moment while you take that in.

At one point, in fact, Shi actually convinced Boursicot that he was pregnant.  He subsequently bought a child from a Chinese peasant family and presented it to Boursicot as their baby.

Again, I'll wait a bit for you to absorb that.

It was only when prosecutors showed Boursicot a picture of Shi's naked body that he realized that Shi was actually a man.  At that point, Boursicot had been living in Paris for some years with his male partner, so the homosexuality of the relationship wasn't an issue for him.  The question remained, however: how could one be sexually intimate with a man for nearly 20 years and not realize he wasn't a woman?

In response, Boursicot said that he never actually saw Shi naked, and that their sexual encounters were always conducted in the dark and rather quickly and furtively.  He said,

"He was very shy.  I thought it was a Chinese custom."

This is the point that was the inspiration of Hwang's M. Butterfly.  As Hwang points out in his afterword to the play, Boursicot's statement is a stereotype: "Asian women are no more shy with their lovers than are women of the West," but "Boursicot's assumption was consistent with a certain stereotyped view of Asians as bowing, blushing flowers" (94).

Hwang envisioned a retelling of the story as a retelling of Puccini's famous opera, Madame Butterfly, in which a U.S. naval officer (Pinkerton) marries a 15-year-old girl (Cio-cio san) in Nagasaki, and then abandons her.  (There's more to it, of course, but not much: that's the gist.)  The abandoned Butterfly kills herself by cutting her own throat, after placing a small American flag in the hand of her infant son.

Quick sidebar: Western audiences often describe Butterfly's act as an act of "hara-kiri."  Two things: "hara-kiri" is a Western reconfiguration of the word used to describe the ancient practice of "seppuku"--Japanese do not use the word "hara-kiri."  In an act of "seppuku," a person ritually disembowels himself: they stab themselves in the left abdomen, pull the knife across to the right, then back to the left.  They may also then pull the knife upward towards the sternum, although this is not required.

Seppuku is carried out with very strict accompanying rituals of tea-drinking and poetry writing, often in the presence of spectators.  Its origins stem from the samurai code of bushido: it is originally conceived of as a way of achieving an honorable death in spite of military defeat.  (In Ancient Rome, Roman soldiers did something a bit similar: they would impale themselves on their own swords as an honorable mode of death.)

In Japan, women could commit what is known as "jigai"--suicide by slicing the arteries in the neck.  In many cases, they would tie their knees together first so that when they fell, their dying position would not be "undignified."    

As Hwang realized, stereotypes of Asian cultures abound in the West and are, like most stereotypes, extremely resistant to the influence of reality.  When it comes to Chinese and Japanese culture, the West often sees what it wants to see and will ignore or negate any evidence to the contrary.

This is precisely why the Chinese American writer Frank Chin has taken such issue with the works of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang: he believes they cater to Western stereotypes of Asian culture, and help to reaffirm precisely those perceptions that American culture needs to rid itself of.

A contemporary example: the American consumer's hostility towards products made in China.  While I don't disagree that we shouldn't buy badly-made crap produced in countries that engage in violations of human rights and pay laborers pennies an hour (if at all),  I disagree with characterizations of this as somehow "China's" fault.

In many cases, these aren't products manufactured exclusively by Chinese companies and sold in the West. They're produced by Western or American companies that are operating factories in China, companies that are more than capable of withdrawing their holdings in China or exerting stricter quality controls, if they choose to do so.  But instead, Western nations find it easier to characterize the problem as the age-old one of "China," writ large.  By playing on age-old stereotypes (the wily, evil Fu-Manchu who is out to trick the honest, wide-eyed American, the "Asian horde" that threatens to overwhelm the planet through the sheer force of numbers, etc. etc.), Western economic interests manipulate perception to achieve their own (immensely profitable) ends.

In essence, this what David Henry Hwang's play is about: Song Liling, the Chinese opera singer, manipulates the French diplomat Bernard Gallimard because he is able to play on precisely those points where Gallimard's desires intersect with his racism, sexism, and cultural stereotypes.

Gallimard wants a "Madame Butterfly" of his own, so Song Liling gives him one.  As he tells Gallimard near the end of the play, "I take the words from your mouth.  Then I wait for you to come and retrieve them" (86).

The point that Hwang is making, I think, is that stereotypes that seem to grant a perception of power in fact weaken us, both individually and culturally.  By ignoring truth and masking reality-- by making "truths" out of self- or culturally-generated fictions--we render ourselves vulnerable to anyone who can manipulate these perceptions for their own purposes.

While Hwang's play focuses on a straightforward switching of gender roles--Song Liling is a man masquerading as a woman--in real life, the case of Boursicot and Shi Peipu was somewhat more complicated.  As Boursicot later acknowledged, he believed, not simply that Shi was a woman, but that he was a woman masquerading as a man.

Shi told Boursicot a story straight out of Chinese legend: that he was born a woman, but because his father needed a son, he had disguised himself as a boy.  Ultimately, he told Boursicot that he was a woman disguised as a man and that he worked as an opera singer, playing roles that required him to pretend to be a woman.

In the end, Shi appears to have interwoven Chinese legend with Western racist and sexist stereotypes in order to convince Boursicot to engage in a twenty-year career of espionage on behalf of Communist China.

The effectiveness of Shi's play-acting is can be witnessed in Boursicot's comments at his trial.  When asked by the trial judge how he could have been so completely taken in, Boursicot insisted, "I was shattered to learn that he is a man, but my conviction remains unshakable that for me at that time he was really a woman and was the first love of my life. And then, there was the child that I saw, Shi Dudu."

The child convinced Boursicot because, he insisted, "He looked like me.''

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