by Lucia Xiaoran Zhu
It seems like the butterfly is always a popular metaphor choice in eastern theme stories, from the Chinese folktale The Butterfly Lovers (Chinese: Liang Zhu) to Puccini’s most well known opera Madame Butterfly (which inspired M. Butterfly). While most people compare the butterfly to a woman who is beautiful, delicate, and fragile, I prefer to see it as a figure that is struggling with her assigned destiny changing from one state to another, as are both Cho-Cho-San (heroine of Madame Butterfly) and Song Liling (heroine of M. Butterfly). Song Liling’s story sounds dramatic and audiences may doubt the truth of her experience. How similar is it to the real life story?
Whether or not you think this is true, the pain people suffered during the Cultural Revolution of 1960s China is immeasurable. And in that unconscionable 10 years, many people’s lives were changed permanently. My grandmother is one of those people whose destiny was hugely changed by China’s Cultural Revolution.
My grandmother had two dreams when she was young: to be a writer, and to be an engineer. Women in her generation who received a good education are rare to see in 1950s China, since most of the Chinese were still facing hunger at that time. She is not only knowledgeable in classical and western literature, but also adept in solving mathematical problems. Even now when she is well into her seventies, she is still able to tutor my little cousin’s high school algebra mathematics. She is the one who first read theatre stories to me when I was still in preschool, and I still remember the first Chinese drama she read to me was Thunderstorm. The first Western drama I know from her was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Though she was a brilliant woman, all the universities rejected her application. The only reason was because of her background: she was a daughter of a capitalist. Capitalism was a sharp word. Chinese society had accepted that it was reasonable to force those who embraced it to live like dirt because, as M. Butterfly’s Comrade Chin says, “you lived above common people” and should feel shame. I have to say my grandmother was lucky that she wasn’t hurt. Since she was just a student and didn’t live with her “capitalist” family, the red guards didn’t harm her physically, though she was robbed of the opportunity to receive higher education and could not realize her dream of becoming an engineer. Later, for a more stable life, she chose to go to work in a fabric factory as one of the “Proud Labor”.
Reading is my grandmother’s hobby, but all literature books from Western countries (especially Britain, America, France) were forbidden in China during the Cultural Revolution because they are “poisons from capitalist countries”. Therefore, the only way my grandmother could read literature was to borrow from her sister’s husband, a general in the Navy whose position was high enough to have these restricted materials at home. My grandmother told me that she wrapped those books with many pieces of newspaper, to make the book titles invisible so that no one would know that she is reading something forbidden. And everyday when she took a break from working on the machine, she would just find a remote corner, reading books quietly until her break ended.
Time flies fast when you have to spend most of your time struggling to earn a better living, with no time to devote to fulfilling your own dreams. Being a factory worker will not allow you to have much time to write a book, especially when you have two children to educate. For my grandmother, when she finally realized that she was dreaming to be a writer and an engineer, she was already old. My grandfather passed away in February this year, which was a shock for my grandmother and it also worsened her health: she has not been able to read or write since that time. Now she can only spend her time watching TV or going to the theatre to watch the Chinese Opera or theatre production. This summer she was complaining to me about how Thunderstorm has become a comedy in modern audiences’ eyes since the time has changed so much. I hope one day I can produce a play for my grandmother, I hope one day I can be capable enough to tell a beautiful story to her as what she did to me many many years ago.
M. Butterfly means more than a normal IU Theatre main stage production for me, I spend all my love and passion on this play, and I feel grateful that this play allows me to make connections with both my multi-cultural background and skills I obtained in the past two decades. Every minute I work for this production makes me feel how wonderful my life is with theatre. Personally, “butterfly” reminds me of my grandmother, who could not say “no” to all the unfairness she was given. This play, M. Butterfly just like a mirror that reflects those political events my grandmother might have gone through long ago.
As an assistant director, each time when I come to the rehearsal, watching this story performed live in front of me, I am reminded that no matter if it is a celebrity’s theatrical story like Song Liling’s or a common person’s story like my grandmother’s, the truth is they did actually happen in real history.
If you are available from Oct. 24th to Nov. 1st, please come to join us at the Wells-Metz Theatre to watch David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly! It is a fantasy. It is reality. Give us a chance, and we will fulfill Song Liling’s promise to “further expand your mind!”
Many thanks to our director Prof. Murray McGibbon who offers me this opportunity to work on M. Butterfly; I have an intuition that this production will change my life. And also special thanks to our department’s former faculty Prof. Fontaine Syer, who is the one that brought me back to the stage again.