The Passage from the Orient to the Occident
The establishment of imperialism can be condensed to the rift between the Self and the Other. One can only believe that he or she possesses the right to will the destiny of another by assuming that there is an essential devaluation of that human being, otherwise known as an Otherness. Likewise, this legitimization of tyranny through the use of essentialism is the basis for the oppression of many social categories: race, gender, class and their intersectionalities. This dichotomy proves to be very problematic because various discourses of knowledge, whether it be film, literature or academic writings are only able to provide a subjective viewpoint for one side of the divide. In most cases, race and gender both figure very prominently in determining which side performs as the Self and which is the Other. Women and racial minorities are widely Otherized because they are foreign and antithetical to the idea of a subjective self that a white male audience believes in. Post-colonial criticisms like David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Wilibrordus Rendra’s The Struggle of the Naga Tribe deconstruct and invert Western notions of an antithetical Eastern Other. In Hwang’s play, a French diplomat named Rene Gallimard carries out a twenty-year-long affair with the feminine and enigmatic Song Liling, a Peking Opera actress. At first glance, their love story mirrors the plot of the opera Madame Butterfly, in which Pinkerton, the American Lieutenant marries a young Japanese woman named Butterfly. The Oriental woman’s love for the foreign devil faithfully endures despite his cruelty. However, in Hwang’s work, Gallimard discovers that Song is actually a Communist spy and a man. Song has never loved Gallimard and has been exploiting him as an unknowing informant all along. On the other hand, Rendra’s play takes a much more moralistic approach in narrating the struggle of Abisavam to protect his tribe’s homeland and copper reserves from the kingdom’s own Queen Sri Ratu and her foreign imperialist minion, the Big Boss. Abisavam is assisted in his fight by Carlos, an Occident who is devoted to writing about the Naga tribe and attracting international attention to the matter. In the end, thanks to Carlos’ activism, the Queen spares the Naga tribe’s village. However, Carlos’ visa has been revoked and the Naga tribe says their tearful goodbyes all the while realizing that this struggle is not over. Many voices from various post-colonial critics argue the disconcerting cultural imperialism that is still prevalent in today’s discourse because marginalized races and genders are forced to objectify and Otherize themselves. Both Hwang and Rendra deconstruct and reverse the racial and sexual Otherness of the oppressed groups by superimposing the empowerment of the Self on their characters. Song and Abisavam’s transformation from Otherized individuals to empowered selves and their capability of being the masters of their own destiny allow the respective playwrights’ to debunk the shallow Orientalist archetype of the East.
The prevalent Orientalist concept that the East is the feminine antithesis to the West metaphysically establishes imperialism as a violent and phallic gesture. In his seminal discourse on Orientalism, Edward Said reasons that the basis of this supposition is Western exceptionalism and its assumed superiority over the Oriental world. The latter is “separate” in its “eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability. … this is why every writer on the Orient … saw the Orient as a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption” (Said, 206). This prevalent epistemological feminization of the Orient justifies the stated Occidental attempts to annex or even occupy regions that they assumed were “uncivilized” (207). Moreover, the aggressive nature of Western expansion and those countries’ position as the empowered and masculine Occident exercises its power by raping the Orient’s helpless femininity. Said’s portrayal of imperialism and his use of sexual diction confirms the interrelated Otherness between race and sexuality – a metaphor that each author intricately depicts in M. Butterfly and The Struggle of the Naga Tribe.
Contemporary post-colonial critics also deconstruct the established archetype of the feminine throwing off the shackles of colonialism. In his play, Hwang visualizes the power struggle between East and West through Rene and Song’s sexual relationship. He depicts Song as the stereotypical exotic oriental woman, a beautiful and educated Peking Opera singer who, despite her poise, is still weak and dependent on a Western man to “protect her, take her home, and pamper her until she smiles” (Hwang, 16). In her pretense, Song also contributes to Gallimard’s construction of this oriental fantasy through her description of the “delicate Oriental woman” whom Song likens to a “slender lotus blossom” (22). Song’s actions show her deliberate acknowledgement of the notion of Eastern exceptionalism. Despite their emotional intimacy, Song refuses to appear naked in front of Gallimard. Gallimard speculates that due to her sexual modesty and adherence to tradition, she often feels inferior when compared with Western women (31). Those two decades of female submission and self-possession constructed the fantasy of the feminized Oriental Other; an idea which Gallimard swallows unquestioningly. Gallimard’s relationship with Song is very much indicative of his power and dominance over his situation. Prior to their meeting, he suffered from various insecurities due to his unattractive appearance, his bashfulness and his unremarkable performance at the Embassy. After meeting Song, he achieves masculine dominance over Song’s emotions, epitomized in his metaphor of piercing a butterfly with a needle (32), and subsequently, political ascendancy when he is promoted to vice consul. Gallimard admits that he finds a strange kind of enjoyment from not answering Song’s letters and heartlessly ignoring her. Hwang eloquently depicts Gallimard’s new-found masculinity when he muses that his divine blessings are a gift from “God who creates Eve to serve Adam, who blesses Solomon with his harem but ties Jezebel to a burning bed – that God is a man. And he understands!” (38). Gallimard reacts to his first taste of empowerment by cruelly abusing Song’s affections, therefore symbolically winning in the power struggle between East and West.
However, in an unexpected turn, the Orient becomes empowered when Song reveals that she is a man. In this twist, Hwang demystifies the Eastern ideal of feminine vulnerability. Gallimard’s dominance suddenly becomes hollow when he discovers that Song has been sabotaging his political power through her espionage activities and when he realizes that that their love affair was a mere pretense. In his testimony, Song – in true Edward Said fashion – deconstructs his armchair political theory on how the West dominates the East and how he exploited that flaw to ensnare Gallimard. Song describes how “The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. … “Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.” The West thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine. … The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated – because a woman can’t think for herself” (83). In this speech, Song deconstructs the very notion of Orientalism as defined by Said, rejecting the presupposed femininity of the East and her need to be dominated and redeemed from barbarity. Because she is actually a man, Song knows exactly how to make herself into the male fantasy of a perfect woman that a man like Gallimard would love. Hwang’s visualization of Song’s empowerment by masculinizing him is further elaborated in the penultimate scene. Song’s boldness is a violent change from his genteel charm in the first half of the play, when the audience perceived him as a woman. As a man, Song becomes the dominant sexual agressor in the relationship as he emotionally abuses Gallimard and strips off his clothes to show his genitals, despite the French man’s constant pleading for him to return to his identity as “Butterfly.” In his concluding monologue, Gallimard acknowledges his Orientalist fantasies – “A vision of the Orient. … Of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils. … Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth” (91). He comes to the realization that his Orientalist perspective is flawed and fantastical and that he is the only hopeless romantic int his situation. He professes that his “name is Rene Gallimard – also known as Madame Butterfly,” and finally commits suicide in the hands of a foreign devil, a Chinese man by the name of Song Liling. Overall, from the preciseness of the parallel between M. Butterfly and Orientalism, we can observe Hwang’s deliberate deconstruction of the rigid dichotomy between the Self and the Other in traditional colonial discourse. The relationship between The Struggle of the Naga Tribe and Orientalism is much less pronounced, which is a fascinating example of how a playwright separated by time and space from Said can come to such a similar observation on Otherized Eastern bodies.
Rendra creates the binary opposition between the chief of the Naga Tribe Abisavam and the Astinamese Queen Sri Ratu by inverting essentialist notions of masculinity and femininity.2 Rendra depicts Abisavam as masculine, empowered and potent but untainted by the typical virile hamartia of aggression and domination. He remains a charismatic leader who is steadfast in defending the Naga Tribe’s cultural integrity and copper reserves despite the doubts of his sister, Supaka and his daughter-in-law, Setyawati. However, Abisavam’s love for peace does not hinder him from confronting the President of Parliament about the nation’s agenda for “progress.”3 Abisavam frankly proclaims his dislike of the President and Parliament and proceeds to argue that rights of the constituency take precedence over the parliament’s agenda. When the government official accuses him of being subversive,4 Abisavam bravely exclaims that “I want justice – not a change in government” (Rendra, 65). In the end, although the Naga Tribe has been left untouched, the government exiles Carlos, a friend of the tribe who has been writing about their struggle in the international media. Abisavam rises above this defeat by facing the audience and questioning “Why must you be afraid of defending the balance? Defending life brings serenity” (71). Despite his gallantry, Abisavam is not a dominant character and possesses certain “feminine” Eastern qualities as defined by Orientalism. His leadership and his culture in the Naga Tribe is very inward looking, and may at first fall under the Orientalist assumptions of eccentricity, backwardness and irrationality. The Nagas’ closeness to the earth and their position as guardians of nature is exotic and serenely indifferent, especially juxtaposed against the cosmopolitan government officials of Astinampuram. Abisavam himself is very introspective and constantly emphasizes that “Every farmer must own land. … that land owned by a person must be worked by that person. … Farmers must protect their land” (20) in order to prevent the economic dominance of a particular group in society.
The Astinamese Queen Sri Ratu is the opposite of Abisavam. She is a character who is constantly swayed by the varying inexpert opinions of her ministers and the enigmatic Big Boss. The dalang5 describes her as having “the character of a clothesline, nothing to it except what’s hung on it” (26). Likewise, the Sri Ratu is glib, coarse and graceless despite her status as a queen. For instance, she fails to recognize the dalang, who is a very respected figure in Javanese society. She possesses the Otherness of a woman, but none of its mythical charisma and so it is difficult for an audience to sympathize with her. She flaunts a masculine desire for domination, but none of the empowerment that accompanies it. In The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, the ownership of land coupled with the tribe’s cultural and natural integrity is important in establishing imperialism as a phallic act of domination. Abisavam’s lack of the tendency for obsessive male domination is depicted through his controlled attitude in managing land. He instead accuses the Sri Ratu’s decision “to disregard our spirit and rape nature, in the name of commerce” (69). While Hwang inverts the gender of his characters to visualize empowerment, Rendra does it by using essentialist notions of gender as a common point of departure with the audience and plays around with those assumptions in order distinguish thos who are empowered and those who are hungry for power.
In general, the two playwrights show their defiance against the imperialistic establishment using Said’s method of shifting the archetypal knowledge that proclaims the East as a negative inversion of the West. Due to this misconception, the Orient suffers from a “sense of estrangement experienced by Orientalists as they dealt with or lived in a culture so profoundly different from their own” (Said, 260). In Orientalism, Said uses Foucault’s method on the discipline of the body and considers the example of Islamic Orientalism, which is doomed to forever be scrutinized from a Western Judeo-Christian perspective that threatens its religious primacy and ownership of the Holy Land. Muslims are haunted by “cultural effrontery, aggravated naturally by the fear that Islamic civilization originally (as well as contemporaneously) continued to stand somehow opposed to the Christian West” (260). The forms of knowledge that various academic works, novels, plays and other literature distributed amongst the East constantly Otherize them. Those discourses in themselves are tools of Occidental bondage to discipline Eastern bodies; establishing specific standards that an individual must obey in order to access the intelligibility to the rest of his identity (Foucault, 155). This tendency is also the reason for Said’s grievance that the East has been reduced to a stereotype of the feminine, backwards and fragile Orient. Both playwrights reverse this tendency to “Otherize themselves” by inviting the audience to view the Oriental character as an empowered Self.
Hwang highlights Song’s revelation as a man and his testimony as the reversal of the Oriental mystique and its establishment as an empowered Self. When Gallimard is reunited with Song in Paris, (s)he sidesteps his embrace and starts speaking with the audience instead. This moment serves as one of the first instances when Song intimately converses with the audience over the course of the play. She also defies Gallimard’s pleas for her not to leave, ushers him off stage and tells the audience that she will “change.” The way she commands the stage is evidence of Song’s newly acquired empowerment previously only reserved for Gallimard (Hwang, 79). When Song delivers her testimony in the French courthouse, she exposes the audience to her intersubjectivity. She narrates the account of her affair with Gallimard from the Orient’s perspective. The audience, who is accustomed to observing the world of the play through Gallimard’s gaze now occupies a different phenomenological space that allows them to gaze at Gallimard through Song’s perspective. Song leaves the position of the Other when her character sheds the Oriental feminine mystique and builds an intimate relationship with the audience. However, whereas Hwang elevates Song’s position to the subjectivity of the self, Rendra does the exact opposite and relegates the stereotypical Self into the position of the Other.
Rendra presents the Occidental characters in the play – the Ambassadors and the government officials of Astinampuram – using the archetypal and satirical methods normally reserved for Otherized Oriental characters. During the Ambassador’s entrance, Rendra uses comic stereotypes to depicts representatives of various countries that were guilty of neocolonization in Indonesia. For instance, The Japanese Ambassador Horomoto obsessively repeats the onomatopoeia “ah-so,” which is not an actual Japanese word but an Indonesian jest on their perception of the Japanese language. To the audience’s further amusement, he is unable to pronounce the letter ‘l’ and says “Harro, harro!” instead of “Hello.” The German ambassador, who introduces himself histrionically as “Herrrr Schmits Schmerrrr” is another comical representation of how Indonesians perceive the German language – with overaccentuated “err”s and “itt”s. The Dalang ridicules the German by calling him “cleverrr” and comments that the “fly shit isn’t too bad eitherrr” (Rendra, 8). Rendra characterizes the Astinampuram scene with satirical and comical motifs that both Otherize and emphasize their crimes against the country. The Sri Ratu repeatedly credits her stresses to her high blood pressure. Her many ministers also suffer from various diseases, ludicrously admitting to taking up to seventeen pills a day. Their ailments cause them to constantly emphasize the need for “the most modern hospital in Southeast Asia” to be built in Astinam (27). On the other hand, the realistic characters of the Naga Tribe; Abisavam, Abivara and Carlos, are more genuine and relatable human beings, allowing the audience to vest their sympathies and observe themselves through the lens of the Naga Tribe. Here, we see a change in the paradigm where the Oriental and somewhat “exotic” characters are presented as the Self and not the Other.
These two playwrights, in dealing with post-colonial issues, interchangeably utilize subjectivity and Otherness to complicate the relationship dynamic between the “colonizers” and the “colonized.” In his seminal work that uncovered the specter of Orientalism throughout modern discourse, Said argues that the most powerful tool to reverse this is the distribution of knowledge. He believes that writers, playwrights and academics need to reverse the habit of using marginalized genders and races to Otherize themselves. In these two plays, both Hwang and Rendra begin by reaffirming and utilizing the stereotypes of racial and sexual Otherness then reversing them to represent the Otherized characters using the appropriate subjectivity. Hopefully, this epistemological empowerment is a step towards bridging the gap between the Orient and the Occident and will allow us to imagine a world that is not tainted by Otherness.
Apart from the preciseness of the parallel between M. Butterfly and Orientalism, various extrinsic sources also show evidence that Hwang intentionally meant the play as a metaphor based on Said’s theory. In an afterword of the New American Library Edition, David Henry Hwang acknowledges the intellectual weight of the term “Oriental.” Hwang explains that “I use the term ‘Oriental’ specifically to denote an exotic or imperialistic view of the East. … The idea of doing a theoretical and deconstructivist Madame Butterfly immediately appealed to me” (95).
Even though The Struggle of the Naga Tribe is set in the fictional country Astinam, the similarity of the socio-political setting to Indonesia undeniably reaffirms its role as a metaphor for the actual country. During the New Order regime, it was dangerous to openly criticize the government. Thus, the setting of “Astinam” is a cover that will allow Rendra more freedom in performing the play. In the beginning of the play, the dalang even sarcastically emphasizes that “This story does not … take place in Indonesia. So don’t get uptight and censor the story” (Rendra, 3).
Progress in the economy and infrastructure of Indonesia was seen as the merits of the New Order regime. However, these affirmations of progress were the result of millions of dollars of foreign aid, mainly from the United States. Thus, even though a national unity state was established under Soeharto, the brand of nationalism prevalent during that era went hand in hand with the role of foreign aid and intervention. On the other hand, in an attempt to establish unity and tighten their grasp on every layer of society, autonomy in culture, language and local customs in various diverse Indonesian provinces were marginalized for the sake of a uniformed “nationalistic” society (Scott).
Under Soeharto’s dictatorship, subversion is the worst indictment for any civilian. Under this sentence, many were sent to penal colonies, where they were subjected to torture, forced labour and starvation (Scott).
The dalang is a significant role especially in wayang kulit shadow puppet performances. In wayang kulit, they perform the dialogues, give cues to the gamelan orchestra and serve as the main puppeteer. In The Struggles of the Naga Tribe, the dalang serves as the main narrator who controls the flow of characters and scenes. Moreover, they are a very respected occupation in Javanese society, which points to the Sri Ratu’s witlessness when she fails to recognize him. (Art of Indonesia: Tales from the Shadow World)
Art of Indonesia: Tales from the Shadow World. Produced by Christopher Noey. Directed by Andrea Simon. Chicago, IL: Home Vision, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Hatley, Barbara. Javanese performances on an Indonesian stage: contesting culture, embracing change. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 2008.
Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York, NY: New American Library, 1989.
Rendra, W. S. The Struggle of the Naga Tribe: A Play. Trans. Max Lane. New York: St. Martin’s, 1979.
Said, Edward William. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 2003.
Scott, Margaret. “Waging War with Words.” Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong) 9 Aug. 1990, Books Special sec.: 26-30.