Tag Archives: butterflies

The Butterfly Lovers

Text: “This is the story of the Butterfly Lovers–it’s really well known and is like the Romeo and Juliet of Chinese legends. So one day, a long time ago, back when women weren’t allowed to be educated or go to school, there was a young lady who wanted desperately to be educated, but her parents told her that she couldn’t. However, she was determined to find a way to go to school and devised a plan to get into a boarding school by dressing as a boy. She managed to get into school and no one suspected anything. While she was away at school, she became really close friends with a guy, and they did everything together, though he didn’t know she was a girl. But as she got older, it became harder and harder for her to hide it. One day, while she was taking a bath in the river, some boys came to make fun of her and were trying to get her to come out, but she couldn’t and her friend came and chased them away. He told her to come out and she told him that he had to turn around, which he did. Once school ended, it was time for her to get married, and she told him that she had to leave, and he got very upset. So she left and was forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat. Her old friend found out that she was a girl and asked to marry her, but the parents said no since the other marriage had already been arranged. So, the two of them ran away and jumped off a cliff, killing themselves since they couldn’t be together. The parents were distraught and realized they should’ve allowed the marriage, so as a last attempt to let them be together, they buried them together in the cemetery under the same gravestone. But at the funeral, lightning struck the gravestone and split it in half, and out of the gravestone flew two butterflies–a pink one and a blue one–and both flew off together into the night.” 

Context: The informant is a 19-year old Chinese-American student who initially heard this as a bedtime story from her parents when she was younger; however, she recently remembered it while working on a screenplay and asked her mother to retell it to her.

Analysis: This legend represents a poignant form of social critique. In The Butterfly Lovers, two young lovers are prevented from pursuing a life together due to the institutions of arranged marriage forced upon them. As the informant acknowledged, it bears some striking similarities to Romeo and Juliet, which was also the story of a couple’s demise following the imposition of an arranged marriage. However, it is not just in the play’s explicit critique of arranged marriage that draws my interest, but also its more implicit, symbolic critique that is worth exploring. Legends have the characteristic ability to blend reality with the supernatural, and the supernatural element can be used as a tool to express or reinforce a social critique or function. This story utilizes the supernatural in this exact way in order to implicitly critique the oppressive and unethical institution of forced marriage. Not only is this message made explicit in how the lover’s kill themselves and their parents’ subsequent regret, but it is twice reinforced by the legend’s symbolic conclusion with the two butterflies that spawn once lightning strikes and fly away together into the night. A butterfly is a well-known symbol of metamorphosis, and in this instance, it represents a transformation into spirit, where the protagonists are no longer tethered to worldly expectations and are free to be together in a new, transcendent form. In other words, and excuse the cliché (although its pertinence and pervasiveness in our culture cannot be denied), love will always find a way, and thus our attempts in society to restrict and control it through arranged weddings, banning gay marriage, etc. will never truly succeed. I believe this legend, perhaps in a way similar to myth, naturalizes love and suggests that oppressive institutions and regulations should never be enforced on it. In reality, the story suggests, love will always adapt and find a way to circumvent the futile attempts to control it. It seems to critique the ancient Confucian principles that prioritize love as duty and commitment in marriage, rather than genuine emotional attachment, and acknowledges that love can exist separately from marriage, which is a fascinatingly progressive message for a piece of ancient Chinese lore. In all, this legend is more than a bittersweet love story, but rather a commentary on the nature of love itself. However, this could have very well been a more recent variation that took on a new meaning to conform to contemporary values and attitudes, whereas older versions which may have taken a more conservative stance that aligned more closely with Confucian ideals.

Butterfly Lovers


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.

Me: Oh.

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/.

Good Luck Butterflies

An old woman told my friend that seeing seeing white butterflies is good luck.

Lindsey: I was working on a community service gardening project and this old woman started talking to me. She said that if a black butterfly lands on you, it means you or someone you are close to will die or get very very ill. By the same token, a white butterfly indicates good luck.

Me: Had you ever heard of this before?

Lindsey: No, but I told my mom, and she said that a white butterfly is only good luck if the first butterfly you see in a year is white.

Analysis: In many cultures and religions, butterflies can be a symbol of rebirth. At first, one is young, and then they go into a sort of hibernation, and then they break from a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. White is an auspicious color as well, in that white often symbolizes purity, goodness, and untarnished youth. To see a white butterfly, an animal which is relatively elusive and fast-moving, is to glimpse at a special gift that feels as though only you were meant to see it.

Thai folk belief: Butterflies carry souls

My informant had a personal experience with this folk belief while attending her grandmother’s funeral in Thailand. She and the other funeral-goers were kneeling in prayer in front of the Buddhist temple where the funeral was being held, when she noticed a black butterfly fly over her grandmother’s coffin as the monks chanted a sutra to help the soul pass on.

When my informant mentioned the butterfly to an aunt afterwards, the aunt told her that butterflies are containers for souls, and that they carry souls away. The timing of the butterfly’s flight, as well as the fact that she’d never seen a butterfly in Thailand before, convinced my informant of the validity of this folk belief.

My informant suggested that it may be comforting to someone mourning a death to equate their loved one, and maybe death itself, with a butterfly, which is almost universally considered to be beautiful and graceful.

The main religion in Thailand is Buddhism, which rejects the idea of an unchanging self or soul, and so the soul’s flight in the butterfly could be considered the luminal stage between death in one body and reincarnation in the next. Also, while human/alive, we can’t fly—it could be exciting to think that in death, we are able to rise beyond the limitations of our past human bodies.