H is a parental figure of mine who grew up in China and is currently living in California.
This conversation took place over a weekly phone call with my parents after I asked them about stories that they knew from China.
H: The Butterfly lovers –
Me: Oh not this one-
H: This one is actually pretty famous cause it has music, you know the flute. The Butterfly Lovers, which Dynasty I forgot, there’s a famous legend. So Zhu Yingtai comes from a very rich family, she’s the only daughter of the family. Because her brothers all went to school and she wanted to be like her brother, so she disguised herself as a man, a young man, and went to Hanzhou, a different city. Cause you know her family they lived in Shangyu, the same province as Hangzhou but Hangzhou is the biggest city, the capital city of the provence. There she met a fellow student called Zhu Yingtai, sorry Liang Shanbo.
The womens name is Zhu Yingtai, the guys name is Liang Shanbo in Hangzhou at the same school. And they felt like they could chat and develop a very good friendship with each other. They studied together for like three years and the lady, Zhu Yingtai actually fell in love with Liang Shanbo. But Liang Shanbo didn’t know she was a girl so he just treated her like a brother. One day, Zhu Yingtai received a letter from her brothers asking her to come back home so she went back home. I think her father tried to marry her off to a rich family’s son so she went back home. And then, Liang Shanbo decided to visit her afterwards because he happened to go to the area. And then, he found out, after he went to her home, that she’s a lady and he fell in love with her and decided to propose for her, for marriage. But her, Zhu Yingtai’s family looked down on Liang Shanbo’s family because he’s from a poor family and they said she’s already engaged to this rich guy, rich family’s son. So Liang Shanbo felt really sad by this and he got depressed and died soon after.
H: Yeah, he was, so Zhu Yingtai after she heard about the death, she told her family – she was resisting the marriage before but she told her family she decided to get married. So they, so she was all dressed up in red and they sent her by carriage to the other guy’s family because its not in her home town. And when her carriage passed by Liang Shanbo’s tomb, she said to stop and she wanted to um, bid him farewell. So she got off the carriage and kneeled by the tomb and you know, then suddenly the tomb, the sky changed color, the clouds came by, the sky changed color, and the tomb spilled open. And she decided to jump into the tomb, and the tomb closed itself and the sky was all cleared up. So I guess God was trying to help them. So, afterwards, they saw two butterflies came out from the tomb, that’s why they said they became butterflies.
Me: Ohhh I was about to say I don’t know where the butterfly lovers thing is coming from.
H: Because she jumped into the tomb and the tomb closed itself. Then they saw the butterflies and the butterflies lived happily in the flowers so they said they became the butterflies. Because the butterflies were always together so the local people thought it was their spirits together so they could never get separated.
This legend is incredibly interesting to me because it mirrors the cliche in Mulan of hiding one’s gender whilst also mixing it with what reminds me of the story of Hades and Persephone. It is a classic example of star-crossed lovers and one that is popular enough that there is a famous violin orchestral arrangement that illustrates this tragic love story. However, this story ends with an assumed happy ending, even though both protagonists seem to die, they are still reunited. This legend also brings up the concept of reincarnation as the people assume that the butterflies that immerge are the souls of the lovers who are finally able to live together after they both pass. According to an online source, the carriage actually stopped because of a storm rather than the bride being able to ask to pay her respects to him. These lovers are traced to written records of the story in a book from 700AD about the Chinese empire with a brief mention of the lovers. The butterfly element seems to be added at a later date to represent the idea of metamorphosis and change that allows them to be reunited together.
Su, Minjie. “The Butterfly Lovers: A Classic Chinese Love Story.” Medievalists.net, 13 Feb. 2019, https://www.medievalists.net/2018/02/butterfly-lovers-classic-chinese-love-story/.