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Monday, September 10, 2018

THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS: The Greatest Love Stories Ever Told Series

Posted by Author #R. Ann Siracusa

Every culture has great loves stories: myth, legend, literary, and real. The Butterfly Lovers is a legend that, for the Chinese culture, is similar to the Romeo and Juliet love story. A legend of an ill-fated romance so beloved that the story has been replicated and interpreted in movies, music, operas, plays, reenactments, stories, and dance for over a thousand years.

Although the hero, Liang Shanbo, and the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, are often equated to Romeo and Juliet, but the story is less similar than it may seem on the surface. “The duels and poisons of Shakespeare’s impulsive romantics have given way to disguises, leading metaphors, and family arrangements which are unbreakable.”

Since Liang and Zhu are actually last or surnames, I’ll refer to them as Shanbo and Yingtai, their first of given names.


The heroine of the legend, Zhu Yingtai, is the only daughter of the nine Zhu family children. She is very bright and has been well educated by her wealthy father. She reads, writes, has studied the classics and history, and admires the great women in China’s past, but craves more education.

Unfortunately, Chinese schools do not accept female students. Finally she convinces her father to let her travel to an academy in Hangzhou disguised as a boy, to continue her studies. In her camouflage on her way to the academy, she meets Liang Shanbo, a scholar from Kuaiji, headed to the same school. They feel an immediate kinship and, after chatting the whole way there, they take an oath of fraternity in the pavilion of a thatched bridge.
Declaration of Brotherhood at Bridge

For three years, as sworn brothers, they live, study, debate scholarly topics, write poetry, and play together. Shanbo is so consumed by his studies that never suspects Yingtai is a girl.

On the other hand, Yingtai falls in love with Shanbo and attempts to show her affection, but Shanbo never gets the picture. She is like a brother, best friend, and confidant to him.

Then Yingtai receives a letter saying her father is ill and she needs to go home. She has to go but loves Shanbo and is determined to be with him for the rest of their lives. To pave the path she wants to follow with Shanbo, she discloses who she is and the situation to the headmaster's wife. Yingtai asks her to inform Shanbo and give him a jade pendant as a betrothal gift.
Roommates For 3 Years
Unknowing, Shanbo accompanies she "sworn brother" for several miles to see her off. During the journey, Yingtai again hints she is actually a woman by comparing their relationship to a pair of mandarin ducks. In China, mandarin ducks are the symbol of love between a man and woman. He is just confused and questions her unusual comparison.

Desperate, Yingtai tells Shanbo she will act as a matchmaker for him and her "sister." Before they part,  she reminds him to visit her residence later so he can propose to her "sister." The two part with great reluctance.
The Reluctant Departure
Some references say Shanbo didn't come to visit her for two years, and only then learned she was a woman. [There are a number of variation regarding timing of his return. However, her father was wall again when he showed up.]

In the mean time, Yingtai learns her parents have already arranged a marriage for her with Ma Wencai, the son of a wealthy and powerful provincial governor. In the Chinese culture marriage is not simply a union of a man and wife, but the act of joining two families as one. In this case, the Zhu and Ma families had a history of amiable relations, and both were of high social standing. To cancel the engagement at this time would have been unthinkable.

After  Shanbo returns to the academy, the head mistress gave him the message and the pendant.
Shanbo Proposes

When Shanbo finally arrives to ask for Yingtai’s hand in marriage, the answer has to be “no.” Shanbo is so devastated that he soon becomes ill and dies.

Yingtai is also heartbroken, but her marriage to Wencai is a family commitment and she can’t have Shanbo. Finally she agrees to marry Wencai on the condition that the marriage procession pass by Shanbo’s grave and she be permitted to make a sacrifice at his tomb. The Ma family agree.

On the day of her wedding, dressed in funeral white [the usual color of Chinese wedding dresses is red], as the procession approached the tomb, the weather became stormy.
Becoming Butterflies

Yingtai was standing before the gave in the rain, weeping over the loss of her true love, when a blot of lightning split open the grace. Off balance, she fells into the hole, and then the chasm closed over her. As suddenly as the storm came, it let up. Before the family could dig the bride out, two large, colorful butterflies fluttered out of the tomb. Dancing and Weaving, the ill-fated couple now were rejoined in the afterlife.                                                                                                                


The Butterfly Lovers is one of four Chinese Legends considered in that culture as The Greatest Love stories. Like most legends, there is usually a kernel of truth somewhere in the story since it is also mentioned in official written historical records.

The earliest dates back to the late Tang Dynasty, around 600 BC. author Liang Zaigan wrote in Shidao Sifan Zhi,The righteous woman Zhu Yingtai was buried together with Liang Shanbo.”
Also, a work entitled Xuanshi Zhi by author Zhang Du [Assistant-director of the Left in the Department of State Affairs, Tang Dynasty] tells 250 stories including that of Liang and Zhu.
References indicate the story became well known on a broad scale in the Eastern Jin Dynasty [317 - 420 AD], and it is often credited to that time period or said to be set in that period. Also like most legends, there are many versions of the story.

While none of my research says specifically these two were real people, apparently Liang Shanbo was the magistrate in some nearby city. Several references indicate that the Liang Shanbo Temple was built in 347 [no reference to BC or AD, but I'd guess the earlier] by locals, in his memory, because he "contributed greatly in his term of office [as magistrate] to the resolving the problems caused by flooding."
Liang Temple in Liang Cultural Park
Travel to Foreign Lands For Romance and Intrigue
With a Novel by


Sources:Title Photo: youTube Presentation of Butterfly Lovers
Violin concerto


E.L. F. said...

Wow, I was not familiar with that story. Thanks for the beautiful presentation.

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