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.