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M. Butterfly

M. Butterfly

In 1986, Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang read a news story about a French diplomat who carried on a twenty-year-long affair with who he believed was a female Chinese opera singer. In a huge scandal, the diplomat’s lover was revealed to be both male and a spy, and the pair was each sentenced to six years in prison for espionage. This story, combined with inspiration from the classic opera Madame Butterfly (1904), inspired Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (1988).

M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway in 1988, winning the Tony Award for Best Play, and becoming a finalist for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It remains one of Hwang’s best-known works.

M. Butterfly: Characters

  • Rene Gallimard is a sixty-five-year-old former French diplomat. While serving in Beijing, he fell in love with Song Liling, who he believed to be a woman. The two maintained a relationship for twenty years.
  • Song Liling is a male Peking opera singer who performs female roles. He plays into Gallimard’s fantasy of a submissive Chinese woman and manipulates him into sharing classified documents with the Chinese Communist Party. Gallimard often refers to Song as Butterfly, referring to the opera Madame Butterfly.
  • Marc is Gallimard’s friend from school. He is a womanizer who boasts of cheating on his wife with three hundred women over twelve years, and he encourages Gallimard to do the same.
  • Comrade Chin is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. She is Song’s contact in the Party, the comrade to whom he passes classified documents.
  • Manuel Toulon is the French ambassador to China and Gallimard’s boss.
  • Helga is Gallimard’s wife. She is older than he is, and their marriage is one of convenience, not of passion.
  • Renee is a young Danish student who comes to China to study Chinese and has a brief affair with Gallimard.

M. Butterfly: Summary

Below is a summary of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, a play in three acts.

Act One

Act One opens in 1988 with Rene Gallimard, a French civil servant, in prison for treason. Gallimard describes his cell to the audience and explains that he is treated well because he is “a celebrity.” To prove his point, Gallimard directs the audience towards another part of the stage where a group of people at a party are mocking him.

Gallimard then begins to tell his own story, starting in Beijing in 1960.

At the beginning of M. Butterfly, Gallimard addresses the audience, explaining that an understanding of the opera Madame Butterfly is essential to understanding his own actions. Madame Butterfly is an Italian opera that premiered in 1904. It tells the story of Pinkerton, a US Navy officer who married a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl known as Butterfly. Unbeknownst to Butterfly, Pinkerton intends to divorce Butterfly as soon as he meets an American woman. After the wedding, Pinkerton leaves Japan, and for three years, Butterfly waits for him to return. She has his baby and waits devotedly, turning down all offers to remarry.

When Pinkerton returns, however, he brings his new American wife, who has agreed to raise Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child. When Pinkerton learns how excited Butterfly is for his return, he decides he cannot tell her himself that he has remarried. Instead, his wife, Butterfly’s maid, and the American consul must tell her. Butterfly sends her son away, then kills herself.

Gallimard recaps Madame Butterfly for the audience, and the opera’s end coincides with his introduction to Song Liling. When he first meets Song, she is singing the final act of Madame Butterfly during a performance at the German ambassador’s home. The opera is Gallimard’s favorite, and Song immediately captivates him. She scoffs at his praise of Madame Butterfly, arguing that it depicts a Western fantasy of the submissive Oriental woman. She invites Gallimard to see her perform with the Peking Opera, and they part ways.

M. Butterfly, opera singer, StudySmarterSong Liling is a performer in the Peking opera.

Four weeks later, Gallimard finally gathers his courage and goes to see Song perform. After the show, they walk the streets of Beijing together and talk. Gallimard, often awkward and uncomfortable with women, is surprised to find Song flirting with him.

Although they only speak for a few minutes each time, he continues to see Song perform until she invites him back to her apartment one day. Once there, she becomes more shy and vulnerable than Gallimard has come to expect from her, and she reveals that she has never invited a man to her home before.

After this meeting, Gallimard decides that he should conduct an experiment to see if Song is truly infatuated with him. He stops going to the opera and cuts off all contact with her, feeling as if he is exercising his masculine power.

Six weeks later, he begins to receive heartbroken letters from Song. Although he has achieved what he wanted, seeing Song’s distress makes Gallimard feel incredibly guilty. However, he is then promoted to vice-consul, which restores his self-confidence. He finally visits Song, after an eight-week absence, calling her his Butterfly, and the two begin their affair.

Act Two

Although Gallimard continues to live with his wife, he rents a new apartment in Beijing which he often shares with Song. The Vietnam War is beginning, and Gallimard’s job is to advise the American military, some of the details of which he shares with Song, who in turn passes the information onto Comrade Chin, a member of the Communist Party.

Song’s methods of gathering information perturb Chin. She tells Song that homosexuality does not exist in China and that he should avoid “gathering information in any way that violates Communist Party principles.”

This is the first time it is revealed that Song is a man.

Gallimard and Song continue their affair over the years. Then, in 1963 he meets a young Danish woman, Renee, who is a student studying Chinese. The two begin an affair, and Gallimard is surprised by Renee’s forwardness and lack of shame, which contrasts sharply with Song’s modesty.

M. Butterfly, Beijing, StudySmarterSong and Gallimard live together in Beijing for many years.

For several months, Gallimard sleeps with Renee and sees little of Song. When he does go to see her, he commands her to undress, but Song avoids the demand by telling him that she is pregnant.

Song tells Comrade Chin that she needs a baby. She goes away for several months, and returns with a baby boy, who she insists will never live in the West.

A few years later, however, as American troops pulled out of Vietnam, Gallimard was sent back to France. Song admits the sexual nature of her relationship with Gallimard and is sent to work in the fields of Hunan Province as punishment.

Four years later, Song is also sent to France with the mission of resuming the affair and passing more information to the Communist Party.

Act Three

Act Three begins in a French courthouse in 1986. Song appears as a man for the first time, and the stage directions switch to using he/him pronouns to describe the character.

Song describes how he found Gallimard in France and lived with him for fifteen years. He testifies in court, saying that he encouraged Gallimard to get a new job that gave him access to sensitive documents. He would share these documents with Song, who passed them on to his contact in the Communist Party.

He insists that Gallimard never saw him naked and that he believed completely in the vision of the submissive Asian woman that Song created.

Song comes to visit Gallimard in his cell, dressed as a man. He taunts Gallimard, insisting he admits his attraction to him, that he is the same person that Gallimard loved for so many years.

In the final scene, Gallimard puts on makeup and Butterfly’s costume. He understands that he has been Butterfly in his relationship with Song, and he stabs himself while the music from the opera’s final scene plays.

M. Butterfly: Key Themes

Some key themes in M. Butterfly are femininity, imperialism, and theatre and deception.


One important theme in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is the depiction of femininity. Gallimard has a specific vision of the ideal woman: she is submissive, delicate, and modest, just like the female persona that Song creates to seduce him.

M. Butterfly, butterfly collection, StudySmarterGallimard is captivated by the feminine ideal of the delicate butterfly.

However, there are many other female characters in the play that illustrate the failings of this simplistic view of femininity. Comrade Chin is strong and commandeering, Renee is outspoken and shameless, and Helga, Gallimard’s wife, is rather dull and matronly.


Much of the play revolves around Western imperial stereotypes of Eastern culture. Gallimard and other Western characters in the play subscribe to various Orientalist ideas of the East as exotic, submissive, and naturally subordinate to the West.

Song takes advantage of these preconceptions to create Gallimard’s fantasy woman, someone beautiful, doting, and submissive. However, Gallimard never suspects he is being deceived because he believes so fully in Eastern inferiority that it never occurs to him that an Asian man could better him.

How do references to the opera Madame Butterfly relate to the theme of imperialism and the construction of Asian stereotypes?

Theatre and Deception

There are many layers of deception in M. Butterfly, and the illusion of theatre is central to the play. The clearest example of deception, of course, is Song, who turns out to be both a man and a spy. However, theatre plays a key role in constructing this deception.

Gallimard is captivated by the opera Madame Butterfly and believes so fully in the cultural stereotypes it conveys that he easily falls for Song’s deceptions. He begins to call Song “Butterfly,” further blurring the lines between theatre and reality, and lines from the opera are dispersed throughout the play.

M. Butterfly: Key Symbols

Two key symbols in M. Butterfly are the butterfly and the kimono.


Throughout the play, the butterfly is a symbol of femininity and fragility. Gallimard believes that he has complete control over Song, a theory he tests by cutting her off for periods of time or by sleeping with other women. Like a butterfly, she is captive and under his control. Butterfly also refers to the opera Madame Butterfly and therefore symbolizes the illusion and falsity of Song and Gallimard’s relationship.


Kimonos repeatedly appear throughout the play as another symbol of femininity and sexuality. It is what Song wears when she performs as Butterfly, and Gallimard frequently imagines her wearing a kimono when they are not together. When Song comes to Paris, she sleeps on the streets for three days while she searches for a kimono, unwilling to appear before Gallimard in anything else. Finally, at the play's end, Gallimard dons a kimono before he kills himself.

M. Butterfly, kimono, StudySmarterThe kimono is a key symbol in M. Butterfly.

M. Butterfly: Key Quotes

The first time that Song and Gallimard meet, Song sings the final act of Madame Butterfly.

Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young ·Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful.” -Act One: Scene Six

The two speak after the performance, and Gallimard tells Song that he finds the opera very beautiful. Song scoffs at him, saying that he only finds it beautiful because it perpetuates stereotypes of the submissive Asian woman.

But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too…masculine?” -Act Two: Scene Six

When Gallimard begins an affair with the young Danish student, Renee, he is almost alarmed by her forwardness. These are characteristics that he associates with masculinity, and they make Renee seem less feminine to him.

The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor . . . but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom—the feminine mystique.” -Act Three: Scene One

During the trial, Song explains how he seduced Gallimard by playing into his Western imperialist mindset. Because Gallimard already believed the East to be weak and inferior to the West, Song was easily able to fit himself into these ideas.

My name is Rene Gallimard—also known as Madame Butterfly.” -Act Three: Scene Three

This is the play’s last line. Gallimard realizes that he has played the role of Butterfly in his relationship with Song. He loved Song despite the deception. Butterfly, however, kills herself out of devotion even though her lover is not worthy of the sacrifice, and Gallimard does the same.

M. Butterfly - Key Takeaways

  • M. Butterfly is a Tony Award-winning play by David Henry Hwang that premiered in 1988.
  • The play was inspired by the opera Madame Butterfly and a real-life scandal involving a French diplomat and his relationship with a Chinese actor who turned out to be a male spy.
  • M. Butterfly tells the story of the French man Rene Gallimard as he meets and falls in love with Song Liling, who he believes to be a female opera singer. The two have an affair that lasts for twenty years before Gallimard discovers that Song is actually a male spy that has been passing information to the Chinese Communist Party throughout their entire relationship.
  • Some key themes in M. Butterfly are femininity, imperialism, and theatre and deception.
  • Some key symbols in M. Butterfly are the butterfly and kimonos.

Frequently Asked Questions about M. Butterfly

Hwang wrote M. Butterfly after reading about a scandal involving a French diplomat and a Chinese actor in the newspaper.

M. Butterfly was written by David Henry Hwang.

M. Butterfly is about a French man, Rene Gallimard, who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer, Song Liling, while he is on assignment in Beijing. However, Song turns out to be a male spy that deceives Gallimard into believing he is a woman during their twenty-year-long affair.

The plot of M. Butterfly follows Rene Gallimard as he meets and falls in love with Song Liling, who he believes to be a female opera singer. The two have an affair that lasts for twenty years before Gallimard discovers that Song is actually a male spy that has been passing information to the Chinese Communist Party throughout their entire relationship.

M. Butterfly was written in 1986 and premiered in 1988.

Final M. Butterfly Quiz


What year did M. Butterfly premier?

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What is NOT a key theme in M. Butterfly?

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How long does Gallimard and Song’s relationship last?

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Twenty years

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What prestigious award did M. Butterfly win?

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The Tony Award for Best Play

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What classic opera plays a key role in M. Butterfly?

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Madame Butterfly

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How many acts are in M. Butterfly?

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Who is Song’s contact in the Communist Party?

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Comrade Chin

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Which is NOT a key symbol in M. Butterfly?

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What does Gallimard believe about Asian women?

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That they are submissive, delicate, and modest.

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True or false? M. Butterfly is based on a real-life scandal involving a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer.

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