The Western Valentines day festival is becoming more and more celebrated by the younger generation of modern China. However, instead of focusing on Valentines; let me tell you a legendary Chinese love story.
The love tragedy of the Butterfly Lovers is seen as the equivalent of the ‘Oriental Romeo and Juliet’ and is counted as one of China’s Four Great Folktales. It has been shared across China and other parts of East Asia for over 1600 years since its conception in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (although it has also been traced to the Tang), and has since inspired many artistic interpretations of the tale.
The title of the story in Chinese is 梁祝 (Liang Zhu) and is derived from a combination of the names of the protagonists of the story. Each version of the story has slightly altered details, which is why I have written my own collective summary.
Zhu Yingtai is the only child of the wealthy Zhu family. The story was set in a time where women were expected to stay at home and tend to household duties, however Zhu (female protagonist) yearned to pursue scholarly studies. After unsuccessfully asking her father a number of times for permission to take up studies, her father finally agreed that she could join a school if she could find one that would accept a female student. Zhu was clever and decided that she would join a school by disguising herself as a boy (similar to the actions of Hua Mulan). And so she left her home in Zhejiang to travel to Hangzhou to stay with her aunt whilst she began her school. Every morning she would disguise herself as a boy. Zhu became sworn brothers with her classmate Liang Shanbo and as the months passed by she realised she was in love. Zhu tried to drop hints of her gender, but Liang did not pick up on them. One day Zhu’s father sends her a letter telling her to return home immediately. She packs her things to leave but is saddened because she wants to stay with Liang. Liang hears of her departure and decides to accompany his ‘brother’ on his journey home. Zhu conceives a plan and tells Liang that once he finishes school and finds a job, he can ask for Zhu’s sister’s hand in marriage so that the two friends will still stay close by to each other. Zhu reminds Liang of this plan before they depart. A year passes and Liang has gotten a job and saved enough to travel to Zhu’s residence. Zhu was overjoyed to be reunited with Liang and without restrain she revealed she is actually a woman. Liang understood his feelings more clearly after learning Zhu’s true identity. Liang asked Zhu’s father for her hand in marriage but he refused, revealing that she has already been betrothed to Ma Wencai, a wealthy merchant. Liang was devastated and as he left to return, he collapsed and died. When Zhu learnt of Liang’s death she becomes miserable and consents to the marriage on the condition that the wedding procession pass by Liang’s grave. On the day of the wedding, as the procession neared Liang’s grave, the wind howled and there was a thunder storm. A lightening bolt broke open the grave and Zhu leapt inside. When her relatives came to pull her out they realised that the coffin was empty. After a moment had passed, out flew two butterflies dancing merrily together. Zhu and Liang were finally together.
As mentioned earlier, the story of the Butterfly Lovers has inspired a culture of Liang Zhu ‘art’. Examples include; operas, violin concertos and films. If you are interested in exploring these further, I have included a video link of a violin concerto inspired by the tale. The photograph at the start of the post is taken from Xinhua news, and I have included a link to a short article written by them talking about a Korean troupe (including the members shown in the photo) who had performed the story whilst touring China.
Although the story is not from our time many still find it quite relatable, but I’ll leave that for you to ponder about. 我不太喜欢爱情故事但是我很欣赏这样的古典故事～也想说这部小提琴协奏曲非常好听！What did you think of the tale?
If you want to appreciate classical Chinese love stories, good luck 世界。
从欣妍 – From Xinyan.