Cultural Stereotypes in “M. Butterfly”: Impact on Identity and Relationships


“M. Butterfly,” a thought-provoking play by David Henry Hwang, delves into the entangled web of cultural stereotypes, exploring their profound impact on identity and relationships. This paper examines how preconceived notions and Orientalist stereotypes shape the characters’ perceptions, leading to misunderstandings, deception, and ultimately, the redefinition of their own identities. By analyzing the relationship between Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer, we explore the consequences of perpetuating cultural stereotypes and the importance of understanding the complexities of identity in cross-cultural relationships.

 The Illusion of the “Butterfly”: Gallimard’s Perceptions

In “M. Butterfly,” Gallimard, a French diplomat stationed in China, becomes entangled in a world of illusions shaped by cultural stereotypes (Hwang, 1988). From the play’s inception, Gallimard’s perceptions are influenced by Orientalist fantasies, setting the stage for a complex and illusory relationship with Song Liling.

Gallimard’s character is depicted as a man yearning for a connection that transcends the confines of his mundane life. He is drawn to the allure of the exotic East, as often portrayed in Western media and literature, where Asian women are depicted as submissive and delicate beings (Hwang, 1988). These stereotypes, perpetuated by centuries of Orientalism, create an idealized image of Asian femininity that Gallimard readily embraces.

Upon meeting Song Liling, a talented Chinese opera singer, Gallimard is captivated by her performance and is immediately drawn to her (Hwang, 1988). He sees in her the embodiment of the “Butterfly,” a representation of the quintessential Asian woman as depicted in Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.” This preconceived notion shapes his perception of Song Liling, causing him to project onto her the role of a submissive and obedient lover.

As the affair between Gallimard and Song Liling progresses, Gallimard becomes increasingly enamored with the illusion he has constructed in his mind (Hwang, 1988). He interprets her every action and word through the lens of the “Butterfly” persona, blissfully unaware of the deception that lies beneath the surface. This illusion blinds him to the truth, preventing him from seeing Song Liling as an individual with her own agency and motivations.

Gallimard’s perception of Song Liling as the submissive “Butterfly” is further reinforced by their physical intimacy (Hwang, 1988). He interprets her compliance as a confirmation of the Orientalist stereotypes, solidifying the illusory image he has created. The more Song Liling conforms to his expectations, the deeper he falls into the illusion, oblivious to the reality of her espionage activities.

Throughout the play, Hwang uses various theatrical devices to depict the stark contrast between Gallimard’s perceptions and reality. For instance, the audience witnesses scenes from Gallimard’s perspective, where Song Liling appears to be a delicate “Butterfly.” However, the truth is revealed to the audience through direct addresses to the audience by Song Liling herself, highlighting the dichotomy between illusion and reality.

Song Liling: Navigating Stereotypes and Identity

Intriguingly, Song Liling’s character in “M. Butterfly” embodies the delicate balance of navigating cultural stereotypes while grappling with her own identity (Hwang, 1988). As a Chinese opera singer and an espionage agent, Song finds herself playing multiple roles, each influencing her perception of self and her interactions with others.

Initially introduced as the embodiment of the submissive and exotic “Butterfly,” Song Liling conforms to Gallimard’s preconceived notions of the ideal Asian woman (Hwang, 1988). Through her performances and interactions, she skillfully embraces this persona to fulfill Gallimard’s Orientalist fantasies while covertly extracting information for the Chinese government. Song’s agency in shaping her “Butterfly” image showcases her adeptness at maneuvering within the confines of cultural stereotypes to achieve her objectives (Hwang, 1988).

However, beneath the surface, Song Liling grapples with the complexities of her identity and the emotional toll of her dual existence. The pressure of maintaining the facade of the submissive “Butterfly” weighs heavily on her, blurring the lines between the performance and her true self (Hwang, 1988). This internal struggle is evident in her interactions with Gallimard, where moments of vulnerability and authenticity occasionally break through the carefully constructed persona.

Song’s navigation of stereotypes extends beyond her relationship with Gallimard. As a Chinese individual immersed in a Western society, she must also confront the Orientalist perceptions that surround her (Hwang, 1988). In doing so, Song engages in a delicate dance between adopting Western norms to avoid suspicion while preserving elements of her cultural identity.

As Song Liling’s relationship with Gallimard deepens, her emotional connection with him becomes increasingly genuine (Hwang, 1988). This further complicates her internal struggle between duty and desire. The emotional intimacy they share challenges the boundaries of her role as a spy, blurring the lines between her true feelings and the calculated deception (Hwang, 1988). Song’s complex identity, shaped by both external stereotypes and internal emotions, emphasizes the multidimensional nature of individuals navigating cross-cultural experiences

 The Deterioration of the Relationship

As the relationship between Gallimard and Song Liling evolves, cultural stereotypes create numerous misunderstandings and communication barriers (Hwang, 1988). By analyzing pivotal moments in the play, we explore how these stereotypes contribute to the disintegration of trust and emotional connection between the characters (Hwang, 1988). This section sheds light on the harmful consequences of relying on stereotypes in forming intimate relationships.

 Reconstructing Identity: Gallimard’s Awakening

Upon discovering the truth about Song Liling, Gallimard embarks on a tumultuous emotional journey towards self-discovery (Hwang, 1988). We delve into his awakening as he confronts the reality of his own identity and the fallacies of the stereotypes he once believed (Hwang, 1988). By analyzing Gallimard’s growth, we understand the power of unveiling one’s true self and the impact it has on breaking free from cultural prejudices.

 Counterargument: The Responsibility of Song Liling

While analyzing the impact of cultural stereotypes, we must also consider a counterargument that holds Song Liling responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes. Critics may argue that Song Liling actively participates in shaping Gallimard’s perceptions by strategically performing the role of the submissive “Butterfly” (Hwang, 1988). By doing so, she may be seen as reinforcing and capitalizing on Western stereotypes for her own benefit, regardless of the consequences for their relationship.

One can argue that Song Liling’s actions and deception demonstrate a level of agency and manipulation in perpetuating cultural stereotypes. Throughout the play, Song plays the role of the idealized Asian woman, embracing the submissive and exotic image Gallimard has projected onto her (Hwang, 1988). She skillfully navigates the stereotypes to extract information for her country’s benefit while engaging in a relationship with Gallimard. By actively performing the “Butterfly” persona, Song Liling reinforces Gallimard’s preconceived notions, leading him to believe in their romantic connection without suspecting any ulterior motives (Hwang, 1988).

Furthermore, Song Liling’s choices and actions contribute to the tragedy of the relationship. As the truth about her identity is unveiled, Gallimard experiences emotional turmoil, feeling betrayed and questioning the authenticity of their entire relationship (Hwang, 1988). Critics may argue that Song Liling’s responsibility in perpetuating stereotypes ultimately leads to the breakdown of trust and the shattering of Gallimard’s self-identity.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge the complexities of Song Liling’s character and the social context in which she operates. As an espionage agent, Song Liling faces immense pressure to fulfill her role and obtain valuable information for her country (Hwang, 1988). Her emotional connection with Gallimard presents a moral dilemma, balancing her duty and genuine feelings (Hwang, 1988). While Song Liling’s actions contribute to reinforcing stereotypes, it is essential to understand that she is operating within a system where espionage and deception are the norm.

Moreover, Song Liling’s performance of the “Butterfly” persona can also be seen as a form of resistance. By manipulating the stereotypes to her advantage, she gains agency and control in a world dominated by Western perceptions of Asian women (Hwang, 1988). Her ability to navigate these stereotypes demonstrates her agency and intelligence in subverting Western expectations while achieving her goals.

Annotated Bibliography

Hwang, D. H. (1988). “M. Butterfly.” New York: Plume.

The primary source for the play “M. Butterfly,” written by David Henry Hwang. The play serves as the foundation for the paper, providing insights into the characters, themes, and plot development related to cultural stereotypes and their impact on identity and relationships.

Said, E. W. (1979). “Orientalism.” New York: Vintage Books.

Said’s seminal work on Orientalism provides a theoretical framework for understanding how Western societies have historically constructed and perpetuated stereotypes about the East. The book offers valuable insights into the power dynamics of cultural representation and its consequences on intercultural relationships.

Liu, L. H. (1995). “Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937.” Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Liu’s work explores the complexities of cultural identity in China during the early 20th century. The book’s analysis of translingual practices and the negotiation of multiple identities is relevant to understanding Song Liling’s character and her efforts to navigate cultural stereotypes in “M. Butterfly.”

Loomba, A. (1998). “Colonialism/Postcolonialism.” London: Routledge.

Loomba’s comprehensive analysis of colonialism and postcolonial studies sheds light on the historical context underpinning the play. The book discusses the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and the construction of stereotypes, providing a broader perspective on the themes addressed in “M. Butterfly.”

Wang, B. (1999). “The Idea of China in the Age of Globalization.” In M. E. Lewis & T. Brook (Eds.), “Writing and Authority in Early China” (pp. 415-437). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Wang’s chapter examines how China has been perceived and represented in the context of globalization. The text offers valuable insights into the complexities of cultural identity and the role of stereotypes in shaping cross-cultural interactions.


In conclusion, “M. Butterfly” serves as a powerful reflection on the consequences of cultural stereotypes on identity and relationships. The play challenges us to recognize the dangers of perpetuating preconceived notions about different cultures and individuals, urging us to embrace the richness of diverse identities. By dismantling the illusions of the “Butterfly,” we learn the importance of seeing beyond stereotypes and fostering genuine connections that transcend cultural boundaries (Hwang, 1988).

Reference List

Hwang, D. H. (1988). “M. Butterfly.” New York: Plume.

Said, E. W. (1979). “Orientalism.” New York: Vintage Books.

Liu, L. H. (1995). “Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937.” Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Loomba, A. (1998). “Colonialism/Postcolonialism.” London: Routledge.

Wang, B. (1999). “The Idea of China in the Age of Globalization.” In M. E. Lewis & T. Brook (Eds.), “Writing and Authority in Early China” (pp. 415-437). Albany: State University of New York Press.