Every culture has great loves stories: myth, legend, literary, and real. The Butterfly Lovers is a legend that, for the Chinese culture, is similar to the Romeo and Juliet love story. A legend of an ill-fated romance so beloved that the story has been replicated in movies, music, operas, plays, reenactments, stories, and dance for over a thousand years.
"The hero of the legend, Liang Shanbo, and the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, are often equated to Romeo and Juliet, but the story is less similar than it may seem on the surface. “The duels and poisons of Shakespeare’s impulsive romantics have given way to disguises, leading metaphors, and unbreakable family arrangements.” http://www.chinawhisper.com
Since Liang and Zhu are actually last or surnames, I’ll refer to them as Shanbo and Yingtai, the equivalent of first or given names. Drawing http://aminoapps.com ▼
Our heroine, Zhu Yingtai, is the only daughter of the nine Zhu family children. She is very bright and has been educated by her wealthy father. She reads, writes, has studied the classics and history, and admires the great women in China’s past, but craves more education. Unfortunately for Yingtai, Chinese schools don’t accept female students. Finally she convinces her father to let her travel to an academy in Hangzhou disguised as a boy, to continue her studies.
For three years, as sworn brothers, they live, study, debate scholarly topics, write poetry, and play together. Shanbo is so consumed by his studies that never suspects Yingtai is a girl. On the other hand, Yingtai falls in love with Shanbo and attempts to show her affection, but Shanbo never gets the picture.
Unknowing, Shanbo accompanies his "sworn brother" several for miles to see her off. During the journey, Yingtai again hints she is actually a woman by comparing them to a pair or mandarin ducks, in China the symbol of love between a man and a women. He is only confused and questions her comparison. [This guy is really dense. I wonder what she sees in him.]
After Shanbo returns to the academy, the headmistress gives him the message and pendent.
Shanbo is so devastated that he becomes ill and dies.
Yingtai is also heartbroken, but her marriage to Wencai is a family commitment and she can’t have Shanbo. Finally she agrees to marry Wencai on the condition that the marriage procession pass by Shanbo’s grave and that she be permitted to make a sacrifice at his tomb. On the day of her wedding, dressed in funeral white (red is the usual color of Chinese wedding dresses), as the procession approaches the tomb, the weather became stormy. Yingtai is standing before the grave in the rain, weeping over the loss of her true love, when a bolt of lightning splits open the grave. Off balance, Yingtai falls into the hole, and then the chasm closes over her.
LEGEND OR REALITY
The Butterfly Lovers is one of four Chinese Legends considered in that culture as The Greatest Love stories. Like most legends, there is usually a kernel of truth somewhere in the story since the character are also mentioned by name in written historical records.
The earliest dates back to the late Tang Dynasty, around 600 BC. Author Liang Zaigan wrote in Shidao Sifan Zhi, “The righteous woman Zhu Yingtai was buried together with Liang Shanbo.” http://www.chinawhisper.com
Also, a work entitled Xuanshi Zhi by author Zhang Du (Assistant-director of the Left in the Department of State Affairs, Tang Dynasty) tells 250 stories including that of Liang and Zhu.
References indicate the story became well known on a broad scale in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 - 420 AD), and it is often credited to that time period or said to be set in that period. Also like most legends, there are many versions of the story.
While none of my research says specifically these were actual people, apparently Liang Shanbo was a magistrate of some nearby town. Several reference indicate the Liango Shanbo Temple was built in 347 (no reference to AD or BC but I’d guess the earlier) by locals in his memory primarily because he “contributed greatly in his term of office as magistrate to resolving the problems cause by the flooding river.”
Comparison to Romeo and Juliet
I was surprised by reader comments in some of my sources. Many seemed offended or indignant that The Butterfly Lovers is even mentioned in the same article as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (even though the R&J legend was in writing before Shakespeare wrote his play).
None the less, Verona, Italy (the setting for Romeo and Juliet) and Ningbo, China (the setting The Butterfly Lovers), became Sister Cities in 2005. In 2007, a delegation from Verona presented Ningbo with a bronze statue of Juliet which stands today in Liang Cultural Park. The next year, in September, 2008, the two cities co-sponsored the Sino-Italian love culture festival in Verona, during which Ningbo reciprocated with a white marble statue of Liang and Zhu which was placed in front of the Juliet Museum. Somebody must see a connection.
Photo: www.wuxitravel.com Photo: www.chinaholiday.com Verona, Italy
According to http://meammi.blogs.wm.edu, “The most significant difference between the romantic story lines in these three works [includes The Butterfly Lovers and two other legends] is that the Chinese iterations offer a happy ending.
All three feature tragic deaths, but while Romeo and Juliet become solemn examples of the perils of blind hate, their Chinese companions are resurrected to enjoy an eternity together. The Eastern audience (or reading public) is reassured that love really can overcome all obstacles. While the Western audience learns from tragedy, Chinese audiences traditionally thought that no lesson could be learned unless justice was served in the end. In romantic tragedies, a story that ended with lovers unfairly parted by social or realistic constraints would not be tenable to the purpose of art: to positively educate.”