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The Butterfly Lovers: A Classic Chinese Love Story

By Minjie Su

February 14th is Valentine’s Day, a day which is celebrated with loved ones and everyone knows it. But this year, according to the reckoning of the lunar calendar, Valentine’s Day also comes very close to the traditional Chinese New Year. To celebrate the two holidays in one shot, were sharing an ancient Chinese love story for this occasion – the Butterfly Lovers.

Monument to Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai near the Tombe di Giulietta in Verona, Italy – photo by Andrijko Z. / Wikimedia Commons

Although the story is widely known in the Sinophonic world as Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai or Liang Zhu (the names of the two lovers), it mainly develops around Zhu Yingtai, the heroine. Zhu, the spoiled young daughter of a wealthy family, persuades her father to let her go to school, disguised as a man and accompanied by her similarly disguised maid. She met Liang in class; they are attracted to each other, and quickly became best friends and, later, foster-brothers. Three years later, Zhu is recalled by her father, who has promised her hand to the son of another wealthy family in the neighbouring village. Liang pays Zhu a visit at her family mansion; and to his greatest surprise, he discovers that his foster-brother is really a girl. Now the friendship has developed into something else. Liang asks to marry Zhu, only to be rejected by the lady’s family on account of her betrothal – as it has already taken place; to break a promise would bring shame to the family. Liang dies from grief and, at his request, is buried by the road outside the village of Zhu’s fiancé – where the lady is bound to pass it by on her wedding day.

When the appointed day arrives, Zhu is escorted to her fiancé’s house to complete the wedding ceremony. A raging storm suddenly breaks out, and the marriage procession has no choice but to stop by Liang’s grave. The lady steps out of the litter to mourn her lover, richly dressed in her scarlet bridal dress and adored with dazzling jewels, as if she were really the dead man’s bride. Seeing that the tombs opens at her coming, the lady throws herself in without hesitation. The sky soon clears, and the sun shines again, but to the amazement of those present, the bride is no more. Instead, a pair of butterflies are seen fluttering around the grave before they disappear into the distance.

The earliest written record of the lovers is traced back to about 700AD, when the Empress Wu Zetian (624–705) reigned over the Tang Dynasty and it was renamed as the (Restored) Zhou Dynasty. The book itself, ten volumes in total, describes the landscape and local cults of the Chinese Empire at that time – very much in the same spirit of Pausanias’s Description of Greece. The lovers’ names only appear in one sentence, saying that they are buried together. The story is entirely glossed over, but this record – albeit brief – attests to the long history and popularity of the tale. It must have been so well-known at that time that the author deems it unnecessary to recount the story. A slightly expanded version is found in the 9th century. Though written in a concise manner somewhat resembling a chronicle, it tells the bulk of the story and anchors Zhu’s loyalty and bravery. The butterfly metamorphosis, however, is only brought into the story in the Ming Dynasty.

As the story becomes more fully developed, Zhu, the heroine, becomes the dominant character of the two. This perhaps has something to do with her rebellious spirit – after all, no ordinary girl would demand to go to school in an era when literacy and knowledge were denied to girls, forcing her to live among men and pretend to be one of them. The disguise immediately brings her close to Mulan, the woman warrior who is praised for her bravery and courage and who, thanks to Disney, is a household name. The moment when Zhu throws herself into the grave is indeed a moment of empowerment.

Her act, or her last gesture of defiance, is boundary-breaking on multiple levels: by stepping into the grave, she not only transgresses all the norms and expectations from a patriarchal society that bind her to her family and marriage, but she also breaks down the boundary between this world and the next. Even life and death no longer matter in in the face of her love. In this regard, the butterfly metamorphosis, though a much later addition, seems a rather logical and proper one – as the barrier between worlds collapses, why not the physical boundary, too? Besides, butterfly is a fitting metaphor: after death-like dormancy, it emerges as something of great beauty, and its wings enables it to cross the barriers that it could not before.

Last but not least, it is worth noting that though the story is traditionally represented as a celebration of heterosexual love, it is also subject to homosexual interpretation and recreation. It hardly goes unnoticed that, during the years when Liang and Zhu developed feelings for each other, Zhu was disguised as a man. The story’s association with homosexuality is furthered when it comes to operatic performance, for The Butterfly Lovers is one of the classics in Yue opera, which is performed by women only.

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

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