By Shen Yun Shop
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Have you heard of the classic Chinese love story called “The Butterfly Lovers”? Well, like the classic Shakespearean story of the star-crossed lovers, “Romeo and Juliet,” the ancient Chinese were no strangers to ill-fated lovers.
Our story begins around 300 AD with our heroine, Zhu Yintai, who was the ninth child and only daughter of the wealthy Zhu family. Growing up, Zhu Yintai loved to read and write. At that time, it was very uncommon for a woman to be able to read and write. Zhu’s thirst for learning did not end at home. She wanted to go to school. Back then, schools did not accept females. For Zhu to be enrolled, she tried to persuade her father to let her disguise herself as a boy. After her countless attempts, Zhu’s father eventually gave in and sent his only daughter to school.
At school, Zhu met a handsome scholar named Liang Shanbo. The two of them immediately became close friends due to their similar interests. They would often study poetry and read literature together. During their leisure time, they would eat, study, or even travel together. Liang would always take care of Zhu like a “little brother,” and both of them soon became sworn brothers.
Little did Liang know that over the years, Zhu had taken a liking to Liang and fallen deeply in love with him. The schoolmaster’s wife immediately could tell that Zhu was a lady. Zhu begged her to not tell. The schoolmaster’s wife agreed and helped take care of Zhu.
One day, Zhu received a letter from her ill father stating that she should come home immediately. Zhu was left with no choice but to end her studies and leave abruptly. On her way home, Liang insisted that he accompany Zhu. They walked together for many miles. Throughout the journey, Zhu tried numerous times to hint at Liang that she was actually a lady. The bookworm that he was, Liang never caught on.
Zhu then said: “I have a twin sister and she looks exactly like me, I would like to introduce you to her. Come to my house in ten days and I will help arrange a marriage for you.” Delighted, Liang agreed and they parted.
When Zhu got home, she learned that her father had already long recovered from his illness and the true reason for having Zhu come home was because her father had already arranged a marriage to Ma Wencai, cementing a financial alliance between the Zhu family and the Ma family. Devastated, Zhu told her father about Liang.
“How absurd! How can a lady go chasing boys around when it is a father’s duty to arrange a daughter’s marriage?” said Zhu’s father.
Zhu waited and waited for Liang. The tenth day arrived and Liang never came. Back in school, Liang had completely forgotten about the date as he was so engrossed in his studies that the schoolmaster’s wife had to remind him.
When Liang showed up at Zhu’s house to propose, he was surprised to see Zhu, more beautiful than ever in ladies’ garments. They confessed their love for each other and Zhu burst out crying, saying, “Oh, why have you come now?! It is all too late. My father has arranged my marriage and it is soon about to take place!”
Liang went home heartbroken. He could neither eat nor sleep for many days. Soon he fell critically ill and within a month, he passed away. After learning of Liang’s death, Zhu wept and cried. She agreed to the arranged marriage on one condition: the wedding procession would pass by Liang’s grave, where she could mourn for him.
Being the gentleman that Ma Wencai was, he agreed. On the day of her wedding, Zhu came out of her carriage to mourn for Liang. Just then, a strong gust of wind became a lightning storm. The lightning struck open Liang’s grave and she jumped in. Before anyone could react, the earth quickly returned and buried the two of them together. Almost immediately, the sun came up and a rainbow appeared. Then, the people of the wedding procession saw two butterflies dancing and flying happily together. The two butterflies were said to carry the souls of the two lovers.
This is one of China’s great love stories that has been passed down generation after generation. It has received countless adaptations, including an iconic violin concerto “The Butterfly Lovers,” composed in China in 1959, and the Shen Yun dance “The Butterfly Lovers” from 2019. The Shen Yun piece ends happily with the scene of Liang discovering that Zhu is really a lady and the wife he has always wanted. This ecstatic scene captures the pure beauty of innocent love.