M. Butterfly effect: Mr or Madame?


If I say “M. Butterfly” your mind will immediately go to Puccini’s opera, but I won’t be talking about that. “M. Butterfly” in fact is the title David Henry Hwang used for his play in 1988 – the same play David Cronenberg  would have readapted ten years later.


What’s interesting? The odd story behind them, no doubt.


Hwang took a weird historic episode and turned it into a parody of Madame Butterfly, just to “softly” support the post-colonial critic.

His “Madame” is Shei Peipu, an opera singer, his “Pinkerton” is an employee attached to the French embassy in China – Bernard Boursicot; names are real, this story is real.



Shi told Bernard she was a woman obliged to dress like a man by her father, who wanted a male successor. Even when they got intimate, Boursicot never realized – or at least he said so! – that Shi was actually a man. Surprise, surprise! The intercourses usually took place in dark rooms you know – so it sounds quite possible. Someone said he had a UNIQUE ability in retracting his testicles.


Who knows? However – the communist regime found out the relationship and blackmailed Boursicot, so the affaire became espionage.

When he returned to France Shi followed him and introduced him a child – his son; they all went living together in 1982 and, believe it or not, he still had no idea about the truth. At that point coup de théatre; they were both arrested and Shi Peipu had to reveal  his  actual gender.


Could you imagine the poor french man? On an evening at the radio was said: “Chinese Mata Hari is a man”, and his world just wasn’t the same anymore.

He tried to kill kimself by cutting his own throat, but he doesn’t succeed. He still lives in some hospice, ironically, while Shi died years ago.



The whole thing seems obviously funny if seen from a certain perspective, but  its fascination relies on the astonishment it produces. Boursicot was a young man looking for adventures, Shi Peipu was “Sherazade”-  according to his own words.

In the play “her” character performes Puccini’s opera, and at the end she says him explicitly that he’s fascinated because he sees in “Madame Butterfly” the submissive asian girl – an occidental stereotypical fantasy.  A little girl who loves so naively and deeply, ready to kill herself for love. It is not a case that Cronenberg used as a key line the sentence: “…only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”.

Renè is the imperialist, the strong man –  the same who won’t see  that  penis for years.


“Are you my Butterfly?” he asked, and the illusion begun, all quivers and emotion. At the end he said it was a beautiful story – when he believed it, which all considered means he didn’t regret it. We can’t be severe with a broken heart.


Anyway , the episode suggests reflections and offers many interpretations – seriously. Big standpoints can be found between the lines, on the stage, on the screen; anyone who chose THIS Butterfly has seen a sort of message in this weird relationship.


“Love is a look who sees nothing”…





Carolina Vecchi





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