Episode 110: The Butterfly lovers

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There are four Chinese Great Love Stories and we have talked about three of them. The Legend of the White Snake (Ep 59 ~ Ep 62), Lady Meng Jiang (Ep23) and The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid (Ep 21). Today we will talk about the last one The Butterfly Lovers, a tragic love story of the lovers Liang ShanBo 梁山伯 and Zhu YingTai 祝英台. Some people call it the eastern version of Romeo and Juliet.

It is interesting that this story has been around for almost 2000 years since the Jin dynasty 晋代 even before the earliest written tests that people passed it on by retelling the stories over and over. In 2004, China applied it as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on the legend at UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). There are endless plays and Chinese operas about this story in the history and even today in dance, music and movies.


It is said the story is based on a real event based on books and historical relics throughout time. There are different variations of the story but the most of parts are quite the same.

There earliest written test is in the book ShiDaoSiFanZhi 十道四蕃志 from the Tang dynasty 唐朝, it says Zhu YingTai and Liang ShanBo are buried together. The story is said to happen in the Eastern Jin dynasty 东晋 from the year 265 to 420 AD.

Based on the book YuanShiZhi 宣室志 from the Tang dynasty, Zhu YingTai is from the place called ShangYu 上虞. In the old times, women were forbidden to go to schools in China and in other places in the world as well. Zhu YingTai pursued his father to allow her to go to school in disguise as a man. Like Mulan 木兰, this is another story starts with an ancient Chinese lady dressing up as a man to do something women weren’t allowed to do.

In school, Zhu YingTai met Liang ShanBo, one of her classmates. They became best friends and they always studied together although Liang ShanBo never knew Zhu YingTai was actually a girl. They were as close as brothers and tool an oath of fraternity in the pavilion of a wooden bridge. This was a serious ceremony in the old days and it meant you could die for each other and like in some novels the oath can be like “although we are not born on the same day, we can die on the same day.” which basically means “till death do us apart.”

They studied together for three years and Zhu YingTai fell in love with Liang ZhanBo. Liang ShanBo, during the three years, spent everyday together with Zhu YingTai, never doubted that his “brother” was a girl. Although in some plays, Liang ShanBo felt he had special feelings for Zhu YingTai and doubted his own sexuality. Maybe he was actually a bisexual.

One day, Zhu YingTai received a letter from her father who asked her to return home as soon as possible. Zhu YingTai had no choice but left the school and her love of life Liang ShanBo. In her heart , she was already committed to Liang Shanbo. Liang ShanBo accomanies his “brother” for miles to see her off. During the journey, Zhu YingTai hinted Liang ShanBo a few times like comparing them as a pair of mandarin ducks, a symbol of lovers in Chinese culture. But Liang ShanBo didn’t get the what she meant. Before they were apart, Zhu YingTai asked Liang ShanBo to visit her house that she could set up him and her “sister”. So she never told him that she was a girl directly.


After two years, Liang ShanBo visited his “sworn brother” and finally discovered that she was a woman. How did he feel? In most books, it says he felt something was lost. There are mix feelings. I don’t know how he accepted his best bro was a woman and after a long time of separation, it was a different person in front of him. Their oath still stood that “till death do us part”. There were joys of course after a long time of separation.

Liang ShanBo was devoted to Zhu YingTai as well but he found out Zhu YingTai was already engaged to a wealthy man named Ma WenCai 马文才 by her parents. We have talked before that in ancient China, marriages were arranged by families. Young people didn’t have the freedom to choose who they would spend their lives with. Liang ShanBo was heartbroken that he just lost a life-long brother and now he lost the love of his life.

His health gradually deteriorated and died after three years. On the day of Zhu YingTai’s wedding, she visited Liang ShanBo’s tomb and cried in despair. Suddenly, the ground cracked and the tomb separated into halves. Zhu YingTai went into the tomb to join her love of life. Then the tomb closed itself again.

In some versions and especially modern versions, after the tomb closed, there were two butterflies flew together that were believed the spirits of the lovers. That’s why the translation of this story is The Butterfly Lovers. This ending is kind of similar to the story we talked in Ep 53~ 54 that after the lovers death, they became two peacocks and would not be separated again.




十道四蕃志 ShiDaoSiFanZhi

宣室志 YuanShiZhi


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