Cultural and Political Contexts of Asian-American Plays – Term Paper

 Today, with the large scale immigration of Asians into America, most of them face cultural issues especially when their practices from Asian cultures collide with the American culture. This cultural clash is especially powerful for women who are confronted with both American culture and their homeland traditions resulting in conflicting cultural identities. Young Jean Lee and David Hwan typify the generational differences when talking about gender and race. Young Jean Lee debunks the stereotypical ‘China doll” depiction of Asian women in Western culture while David Hwang Both of these productions are done with style and elegance and manage to convey the intended message of the destructive nature of the stereotypical submissive Asian female.


The play M. Butterfly, written by David Hwang, is an original play about imperialism, sex, and espionage. It skillfully intertwines the story of the original opera Madame Butterfly with a plot based on true events. The play untangles the experiences of Rene Gallimard, a civil servant in the French embassy in China. During his stay in China, Renne meets a beautiful Chinese opera diva and their relationship lasts for 20 years. What Gallimard does not realize is that his demure wife may be more than she seems. Song Liling is actually a male spy masquerading as a woman. Additionally, in traditional Chinese opera, females were banned from the stage and hence, their roles were usually played by males. The play explores the sexual politics of Western and Eastern countries, a theme that resonates today.

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Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven by Young Jean Lee lacks a clear synopsis since the author does not use a clear and coherent plot but rather achieves harmony through mixing different plots to provide different perspectives of the confines of the Korean culture for women. Jean Lee toys with the accepted wisdom about feminity and identity by subverting the roles of women and men. In contemporary culture, Asian women are perceived as demure and shy. The play destroys these misconceptions as three gowned Korean women mercilessly taunt a fourth Korean American woman who has been alienated from her cultural heritage. The women later take turns beating her. In this way, the play highlights issues that Asian American women often face when immigrating to western countries where they become unsure of their cultural identity.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. Songs of the Dragons Flying depicts the situation of women living in a multi-cultural environment and the issues associated with having multiple cultural identities. On one hand, an Asian woman living in America is expected to conform to American cultural norms which in some instances, may conflict with their Asian cultural heritage. The post-colonial western perception of Asian women is that of shy, and submissive, a perception that Jean aims to dispel by showing the actual situations. Often, Asian women living in the United States have to subscribe to multiple cultures which results in a lack of cultural identity as their fellow Asian ostracize those who deviate from the traditional customs. This is shown by how the three Korean women at the start of the play taunt a fourth Korean American woman for having abandoned her cultural identity.

           Immigrant Asian women also find it difficult to reconcile the differences between their Asian culture and that of their adoptive countries. There are usually tensions associated with inter-cultural relations between the immigrant Asians and the white westerners. Young Jean Lee’s production is meant to highlight minority and racism issues that Asian Americans face in the US. She designs the play to emphasize her embarrassment about her identity and Korean culture. Korean traditions urge women to be submissive to their husbands and other dominant figures. Young Jean Lee recalls how her grandmother had wished her to drop her pride and become submissive to men. On the other hand, American culture emphasizes gender equality which is evident in the next scene in the play where a white couple argue about the problems in their relationship. These intercultural tensions are also caused by clashes in cultural practices as the three Koreans also recall an incident where a teacher raped a girl with full permission from her father (Lee 16). In American culture, this is viewed as minority rape which would be against the girl’s constitutional rights.

Song’s play was also influenced by socio-political elements in society. The use of violence and love songs side by side shows the conflicted and confining identity issues that the playwright had. The weirdness of a love song in the background while the audience watches a woman being slapped makes the audience to be uneasy which is critical in having the audience maintain their distance as the play continues. This is best evident after the Koran American finishes her monologue and invites Koreans to dance. The dance starts off happily with the audience laughing but minutes later, the dancers start erratic movements while the actors pull each other’s hair and slap their colleagues’ behinds. The Three Koreans then surround a Koran American which implies that although she had moved from the motherland, Korea, she could not escape Korean culture that emphasized the domestic role of a housewife.

M. Butterfly. M. Butterfly also deals with stereotypes and the often misguided stances that people take. The play is set in post-colonial Beijing where racial and cultural stereotypes still exist. At the time, Rene Gallimard, the main character, had definite views about how Asian women were supposed to be like. The colonial and post-colonial period was rife with poorly investigated stereotypes about oriental culture which was further compounded by a lack of interaction with the local culture. As his lover, Song Liling fulfills all of these qualities. Additionally, post-colonial Europe and China were not as accommodating to same sex relations as is the case today.  

In a social-political context, it shows how a person’s ideological views and political history may make them biased towards others or towards certain situations. M. Butterfly shows how these ideological and political biases may skew relations in a multi-cultural environment. Rather than recognizing the region’s reality, Gallimard’s mind depends a lot on the power of stereotypes in order to keep his wife in his perfect vision of an “Oriental” wife. Despite living in the Chinese landscape, he refuses to leave the bubble of his European home where stereotypes were the only reality. As Gallimard desperately trains to maintain his fantasy, Song creates a broader sense of imperialist nostalgia through the theme of people trying to maintain a sense of stability through boundaries, and measured space (Wen 44). However, the boundaries are often blurred with roles reversed yet stereotypes persevere. In fact, the play depends on the sense of defined space to form stereotypical roles since they provide orientation, structure, and a version of “truth” that is free from the chaos of real life.

While it may appear that such role reversals can lead to a destruction of boundaries, sometimes a counter-revolutionary act is necessary in response to another counter-revolutionary act (Wen 44). Therefore, increased role playing may serve to reinforce the idea of fantasy roles. Hwang also focuses on inter-cultural relations between the West and East countries. M. Butterfly touches on the use of Western male tactics to exploit and control Gallimard. The audience’s familiarity with these methods causes them to ignore how power is wielded between the different characters. At the time, Western occupation of the Asian continent was dependent on the Westerners employing aggressive tactics against the less united communities in the region. By deciding how the story is told in different parts of the play, Song takes the power of telling the story from the Westerners. Song represents how dominant powers colonize others and then represent their subjects with stereotypes. Perhaps the most dramatic role change is at the end of the play where Gallimard eventually turns into his vision of a perfect woman, the one he wanted song to be all along. Song in this case, plays the role of the man who uses and then dumps the woman. By consistently applying role playing, it reinforces the paradigm of male dominance which is a culturally accepted phenomenon.


Both M. Butterfly and Songs of the Dragons try to deal with stereotypes in their community through describing the experiences of those who are usually the victims of this stereotyping. In Songs of the Dragons Flying, Jean lee presents cultural and social differences between the Korean way of life and the American way of life. While the American couple is shown arguing about their relationship programs, Korean women are expected to be submissive to their men and to never question their actions. The cultural silence leads to women suffering in society as the men can make harmful decisions regarding the female members in their families. The cultural confines create identity and esteem issues among the women which hinders their development and that of the country at large. Lee moves between the white couple’s romance and the Korean girl’s identity issues by highlighting the passive acceptance of violence in Korean cultural and social life which may be a sign of self-hatred. M. Butterfly, on the other hand, shows stereotyping from the perpetrator’s perspective and how it can influence our relationships with others especially in a multi-cultural environment. Gallimard’s long-term relationship with Song in post-colonial China and France shows his colonial attitudes toward Asian culture. Asian women were long considered as dainty housewives who were supposed to be submissive to their husbands. However, this was far from the reality on the ground as Gallimard would have found out had he left his European style home and interacted with the people. Additionally, Gallimard spent twenty years before discovering that his wife was in fact a man. His calm acceptance of the facts may be considered a natural extension of the western intercultural perceptions of Asian men as feminized figures. By maintaining cultural stereotypes, both Gallimard and Jean Lee show how it can lead to worsening relationships. Both of these plays show that stereotypes are based on ignorance and a desire for stability and structure even when the reasoning is flawed.


Both Hwang and Lee work to present the experiences of Asian immigrants into western countries. Hwang disassembles the male dominant perspective through explicitly challenging it. Lee, on the other hand, achieves the same effect by having the female characters ironically or appropriately pander under it. In this way, they show the hardships of Asians in a multicultural environment as their traditional cultural practices hinder effective and productive inter-cultural relations.

 Works Cited

Hwang, David Henry. M. butterfly. Dramatists Play Service Inc, 1988.

Wee, Young Jean. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays. Theatre Communications Group, 2009.

Wen, Songfeng. “The Subversion of the Oriental Stereotype in M. Butterfly.”English Language and Literature Studies 3.2 (2013): 44.