LIANG Shanbo Yu Zhu Yingtai — Liang Zhu in Chinese and Butterfly Lovers in English — is one of China’s Four Great Folktales and is regarded as the Chinese version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The other three Chinese Great Folktales are the Legend of the White Snake, Lady Meng Jiang, and the Cowherd and Weaver Girl.
The Butterfly Lovers story is set in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420) and it goes like this:
Zhu Yingtai was the youngest child and only daughter of a wealthy family in what is today’s Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province.
Since her childhood, Zhu loved poetry and Chinese classics and when she was 17, she decided to attend a school to further her study.
But this was nearly a mission impossible, because girls were not allowed to go to school.
But Zhu was stubborn and also a bit spoiled, so she persuaded her parents to allow her to go to a school in Hangzhou, now the capital of Zhejiang Province, where one of her aunts lived.
She disguised herself as a boy and her maid as a boy attendant before they left.
On the way to Hangzhou, Zhu met a young man called Liang Shanbo, who was also going to attend the same school. They hit it off right away, and before they reached the school, they had already become best friends.
During the next three years at school, they spent a lot of time together and soon Zhu found herself falling in love with Liang, but she could not express her feelings to him without revealing who she really was.
Meanwhile, the friendship between the two was getting deeper with each day.
One day, Zhu received a letter from her father, asking her to end her study and immediately return home.
This time, her father didn’t leave any room for argument, so, Zhu had no choice but to bid her best friend farewell.
Liang decided to accompany Zhu for the 30-kilometer journey to see her off, and this part has become one of the best known episodes of the whole story.
During the journey, Zhu repeatedly hinted to Liang that she was actually a woman, but the latter was such a bookworm that he simply didn’t get it.
For instance, when they came to a small river, they saw two white geese swimming towards them.
“Hey, look at that couple of beautiful geese,” said Zhu. “The big one at the front is a gander and the following one is his sister.”
“Don’t be silly,” replied Liang. “No one could tell which one is male or female from here.”
When they passed by a big pond and saw a couple of mandarin ducks there, Zhu asked Liang if she were the female mandarin duck, whether Liang would be willing to turn himself into the male one and live with her for the rest of their lives.
This hint here is nearly as clear as daylight, because in Chinese culture mandarin ducks are the symbol of lovers as the birds are known to live in pairs during their lifetime and never separate.
However, Liang still didn’t get it and instead, he mocked his friend for presuming himself as a female.
Near the end of the journey, Zhu invited Liang to visit her home as early as possible and told him that she would like to be the matchmaker between Liang and her twin sister, who was extremely beautiful. In fact, of course, the “twin sister” was none other than herself.
Then, they reluctantly said goodbye to each other near a pavilion.
Three months later, when Liang came to visit Zhu in her hometown, he was so pleasantly surprised to discover that his “sworn brother” was actually a very beautiful woman.
The two were overjoyed for their reunion and immediately vowed in private “untill death do us part.”
Liang then went to see Zhu’s parents and asked for their only daughter’s hand.
But his proposal was dismissed by Zhu’s father, who told him that he had already arranged her to marry a young man from another rich family and nothing Liang said would make him change his mind.
In feudal China, which lasted for more than 2,000 years until its last feudali dynasty was overthrown in 1911, marriages were all arranged by parents and young people were not allowed to pursue “free love” or choose their spouses.
Heartbroken and absolutely distraught, Liang left Zhu’s home, with his face covered with tears.
A few days later, Liang became seriously sick and died soon afterwards.
When Zhu learned of Liang’s death, she was devastated and lost all desire to live.
On her wedding day, Zhu asked her father to allow the wedding procession to pass by Liang’s grave, so she could pay her last respect to her friend. Her father agreed.
As the wedding procession was approaching Liang’s grave, a wild thunderstorm suddenly broke and then a blinding bolt of lightening ripped open the grave. Zhu immediately dashed forward and leapt into the gaping tomb.
Everyone there was simply too stunned to do anything about it. A moment later, the storm stopped and the sun came out. People then saw two colored butterflies gently rose out of the tomb. They danced in the air for a while, and then flew away.
When people looked into the grave, they found it empty.
This beautiful folk tale has been adapted into many other forms of art, such as poems, dramas, novels, dances and movies. Particularly, in the middle of last century, it was adapted into Yueju opera, a local opera of Shaoxing, the hometown of the heroine.
In 1959, the story also inspired two Chinese composers, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, to write a violin concerto — the famous Liang Zhu, or “Butterfly Lovers.”
The concerto features a solo violin playing melodies derived from Chinese operas and folk songs.
When the concerto is played in Western countries, it often reminds audiences of the memorable melody in Zigeunerweisen, or Gypsy Airs, a work for violin and piano composed by Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), a Spanish violinist and composer.
Living Cultural Heritage
China boasts a very long history and a rich cultural heritage. Many ancient traditions are still very much alive today. Some of those, such as taichi and Chinese Chess, are ubiquitous around the country. Others, like Suzhou embroidery and Thangka art, are preserved in specific regions or practiced by different ethnic groups.
In this column, writer Peter Zhang and arts editor Chen Jie will offer readers insight into some of the most popular living cultural practices in the country, as well as some of the fascinating stories behind each of them.
This series of articles is also intended to help readers obtain a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture and the people who helped create it.