115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Butterfly Effect: West-East Relations through Asian Americans Writers

Megan Evans, California State University, Fresno

The paper will explore the idea of Western assumed dominance over the East through the portrayal of the Western male fantasy of an Asian woman as being submissive and weak, typically described as the Butterfly character, through the classic work of Onoto Watanna’s The Heart of Hyacinth and the modern counter to this idea from David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.


I argue that Onoto Watanna’s The Heart of Hyacinth and David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly both represent the idea of Western assumed dominance over the East through the portrayal of the Western male fantasy of an Asian woman as being submissive and weak, otherwise known as the Butterfly character; however, while Watanna’s novel fulfills the fantasy, Hwang’s play challenges, and even flips, the roles to suggest that the West is the submissive and weak one fooled by the East. With this in mind, the West, to which I refer to, is comprised of the countries within Europe and the United States of America. This distinction is necessary to understand that the West is predominately seen as colonizers, or world powers, those with heavy influence in the world. This definition also serves to explain the similarities in fascination and imagination that European and American societies historically have had about the East. Beginning with how the Western world came to the fantasy of a Butterfly character, an Asian woman that is weak and submissive, I will be exploring the events that took place to create misconceptions about the East. One of these misconceptions that arose from the early contacts with the East was the idea that Asian women were more sexually knowledgeable. It was also during the Victorian period that Japanese women were becoming widely known as obedient lovers, a stereotype created by a Western adventurer, Lafcadio Hearn, who misunderstood Japan’s culture. This fantasy of the docile and innocent Japanese woman thus created Madame Butterfly, the perfect Japanese woman who was loyal, submissive, and willing to kill herself rather than be dishonored, a character that influenced writer Onoto Watanna in her novel The Heart of Hyacinth. In response to the height of Orientalism and the portrayal of Japanese women as Butterflies, a portrayal that has grown to encompass Asian women in general in modern stereotypes, Asian-American writer, David Henry Hwang, wrote the play M. Butterfly by using stereotypes to his advantage by reversing the power roles to show that such stereotyping can be the downfall of the West. Ultimately, the stereotype of the Butterfly created during the height of Orientalism can be seen as a reason the West needs to end its assumptions of being superior to the East. Cultures are ever-evolving and in order to repair West-East relations, stereotypes and fantasies of the Orient need to be removed in order to move forward today.