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Hwang’s Critique of Orientalism Essay


Orientalism is a set of historical, ideological, cultural, geographical, psychological and other implications for both Westerners and Easterners, with the latter being the actual subjects thereof.

However, it is possible to state, judging from the huge body of literature dedicated to the essence of Orientalism, the analysis of it roots and the process of its formation, that Orientalism in itself is the artificial phenomenon that has been created in the minds of Westerners performing the role of colonizers, explorers and researchers in the ‘laboratory’ of the conjugated East.

David Henry Hwang approaches the phenomenon of Orientalism from an unusual standpoint, – as a writer belonging to both China and the USA, he tries to dismiss the common stereotypes about Orientalism and to show how conventional it is in reality (Simon 117). David Henry Hwang’s play M Butterfly is a powerful, rich example of how one can show the ridicule, depth of misconceptions in an artistic way.

The central element of Hwang’s M Butterfly is the concept of stereotype in the mind of a Westerner. However, the very fact that the play utilizes the parts of the previously written Puccini’s drama Madame Butterfly, and reverses the traditional East-West the traditional roles in it, attacking the evil nature of Orientalism misconceptions, diminishing the role of gender, implies that the concept is of mental origin.

Since there is lack of motivating evidence to assert the notion of Orientalism but the colonial past of Europe, one can assume that M Butterfly is an attempt to address Orientalism not as a set of concepts about the East, but as a problem of inconsistency of the Western perception, with Orientalism being the misleading concept that has no sense behind it.

The basic tools of contrasting Orientalism and reality used by Hwang is by revolutionizing the approach to gender relationships (especially the ones of a Western man and an Oriental woman), and by deviating from the standard of submissive relationships between West (colonizer) and East (colonized).

The present work may have well been awaited from the writer like Henry Hwang, since he belongs to the category of Chinese Americans, and he seen much segregation, stereotyping, and unjust treatment in the USA due to the Orientalism limitations.

Hwang himself is a representative of “Chinese Americans,” thus having a dual identity of both a Chinese and an American. Therefore, he is reasonably interested in the roots of the east-west conflict.

As Ling and White-Parks note, though there is hardly any Chinese in the literature who is not a wooden peg, Chinese are still similar to all other people, possessing a “rapid comprehension”, “almost morbid sensitiveness”, “considerable inventive power” etc. (234-5).

Hwang directs these stereotypes and shows the deceptive power they have on Westerners, sometimes making them helpless in the nets of the Easterners who have also learnt to manipulate the Orientalism concepts for their benefit.

David Henry Hwang himself confessed that the main intent of writing M Butterfly was to explore the way two representatives of opposing cultures and worlds managed to become happy; in his editorial to the play, Hwang noted that “truthful contact between nations and lovers can only be the result of heroic effort” (The afterword by David Henry Hwang).

The reason for this was recognized by him in the fact that Western men were inclined to possess Oriental women because of the feminine, submissive stereotype they had about them in contrast to the independence, assertiveness, and even aggression of Western women (The afterword by David Henry Hwang). The attraction of Eastern women only due to the soft, feminine traits of character seems to Hwang to be the main delusion Orientalism bears, and he attacks this idea throughout his play (Cuizon).

There are many supplemental techniques to emphasize the mental origin of Orientalism, and its internal effect on Westerners. The theatrical arrangement of space in the play already suggests the mental struggle of Gallimard, and not the physical events that could have taken place in any region of the world.

The initial setting is Gallimard’s cell which he occupies during the trial for an affair with a Chinese spy. However, Gallimard does not seem disenchanted, and he still dreams of a different, happy ending to the play they acted out in real life: he wants her to return to his arms and be with him (4). It is the first manifestation against Orientalism in the play – Hwang shows that the stereotypes are so strong in the Westerner (a collective image represented by Gallimard) that he does not accept the reality even upon the publicly announced deception.

The heavy impact of Orientalism is destructive for Westerners, as it deprives them of the critical attitude to reality, making them neglect evidence certifying the notions opposite to what they believe – Gallimard does not take a critical standpoint about the reality he sees, but he is guided by western Orientalism, that is, the images connected with the East, produced by Westerners, and symbolizing inferiority of the East towards the West; the product of Western imagination (Said 56).

This fact may be proven by the opinion Gallimard officially claims he has about the East: “There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils” (91). Later in the play Gallimard draws a parallel between what he saw in Puccini’s play and what he expects from an Oriental woman in reality:

She would cry, alone, into those wildly soft sleeves, once full of possession, now empty to collect her tears. It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee (56).

The diminishing (practically disregarded, but at the same highly meaningful) role of gender in Orientalism is a vivid example of how this revelation takes place in Hwang’s critique. The Westerner becomes the captive of his own stereotypes about Oriental women, and he has nobody to blame for betrayal as he was the main liar in the story; he lied to himself and did not notice the obvious reality, living in the world of unrealistic misconceptions.

The discrepancy in the western and eastern vision of femininity, love, and women, is shown from the very start by the estimate of Gallimard that he loved a Perfect Woman (Hwang 4), while Song voices a diametrically opposite opinion later: “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (63).

The main weakness of Orientalism is in its static nature – Gallimard refuses to alter his vision of Orientalism even after all dramatic events in his life; in addition, it is obvious that the deception actually took place in his mind, and the main person to blame was he and not Song.

It was Gallimard who let Song charm him, let him stay unaware of his genuine sexual identity using the stereotypes Gallimard possessed, and even manipulating those stereotypes to make their relationship strong, close, and long-lasting. This ignorance and striving to fir the surrounding life into stereotypes is the reason for which Gallimard tries to make Song what he wants her to look like in his imaginative world, in the cell of his mind: “You have to do what I say! I’m conjuring you in my mind!” (78).

The answer of Song possesses high symbolism in terms of relationships of West and East seen by Hwang – Song applies to reason and shows that submission and subjugation is impossible, as it is far in the past for the reality. S/he says to Gallimard: “Rene, I’ve never done what you’ve said. Why should it be any different in your mind?” (78).

One of the techniques Hwang uses to deconstruct the conventional Oriental images is the deconstruction of gender as a symbol, an allusion of power relationships between East and West. It is clear that Hwang sees the common themes of geisha women and evil Westerners making them commit suicide because of tragic love as a metaphor for the relationships existing on the political, economic, and social level between the two parts of the world.

As Hwang noted in his editorial, the idea of his play was to show that both Easterners and Westerners were similarly human beings, and they had the same characteristics, which presupposed they could live in peace, understanding each other – sharing “a common and equal ground” (Hwang). The present point is of significance because Westerners have always distanced themselves from Easterners by means of drawing the line of Orientalism, while proves to be wrong and misleading.

Thus, deconstructing gender means the destruction of the main Oriental plot – a weak Oriental woman and a strong Western man. The first character by means of which Hwang achieves the goal is comrade Chin who possesses no feminine charm at all, but still is a woman and has a husband (in contrast to Song).

Gallimard does not want to accept Chin as reality that destroys his idealized vision of Oriental women, so he does not want to let Chin in his dream, in his thoughts that he communicates to the audience. However, Song insists on Chin’s entrance: “Rene, be sensible. How come they understand the story without her? Now, don’t embarrass yourself” (47).

Chin performs an active position protecting her absence of femininity and showing that it is not an indispensible quality of an Oriental woman, no matter what Westerners think, thus showing that power and assertiveness can be in the hands of Oriental women as well (Hwang 72).

Power relationships between East and West are also symbolically shown in act two in terms of power relationships between Gallimard and Song – the latter curls over Gallimard’s feet in chong sam at first (though it is deceptive behavior, and Song never obeys), while several scenes later Gallimard is in the submissive, obedient position for real.

The present issues in the work have a direct relationship to rethinking Orientalism – though Westerners believe in the submission of the East, it may struggle for its identity, it may be the ruler and the winner as well. By these images, Hwang attacks stereotyping and shows that everything changes dynamically, with the defeated becoming winners with time, and vice versa.

In conclusion, one should state that the critique of Orientalism by Hwang is a powerful play in which the author manages to deconstruct the main assumptions of Orientalism by means of de-essentializing gender (shifting the power relationship in the bond of Song and Gallimard, showing Chan as a masculine image, exposing the deceptiveness of Oriental femininity in the words of Song etc.), by creating extreme gender ambiguity, and symbolizing the ambiguity of power relationships this way.

The idea of misconception and stereotype as a psychological problem stands out in the progress of the play, and shows how deeply embedded stereotypes may ruin the person’s life once skillfully used and nurtured. Surely, one can see that Hwang himself is the direct participant of Orientalism, as the ending still brings no consensus, no peace and no salvation for the participants.

The characters are not multi-faceted, they are the soft and superficial French who does not possess the basic knowledge about the Eastern culture to unveil the deception at the very start, and the wicked, clever, and wile Oriental man who makes an advantage of the French ignorance for the sake of spying for the Chinese government.

The conflict remains, though it is reversed; the power relationships, the superiority and inferiority relationships remain, thus implying the attempt to look at the Orientalism from another angle, but not to dismiss it completely.

Works Cited

Cuizon, Gwen. ‘M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang’. Bukisa. 15 Dec. 2008. Web.

Hwang, David Henry. M Butterfly. New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1988. Print.

Hwang, David Henry. The afterword by David Henry Hwang. 1988. Web.

Ling, Amy, and Annette White-Parks. Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Champaign, IL: University of Chicago Press. 1995. Print.

Said, W. Edward. Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage Books. 1979. Print.

Simon, John. ‘Finding Your Song’. The New York Magazine, special issue II, 11 April 1988, pp. 117-118. Print.

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IvyPanda. "Hwang’s Critique of Orientalism." March 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/hwangs-critique-of-orientalism/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Hwang’s Critique of Orientalism." March 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/hwangs-critique-of-orientalism/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Hwang’s Critique of Orientalism'. 6 March.

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