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


Episode 103: Lotus Lantern – part 3

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Today we will continue the story about a brave boy who cleaved the mountain to save his mother. Last time we talked about SanShengNiang helped LiuXi get successful and even agreed that he could marry the daughter of the prime minister. However, herself was punished and prison by her brother ErLangShen when she was pregnant.

LiuXi had no idea what had happened to his wife. After getting married with the daughter of the prime minister, they left to the city LuoYang that he would start his new job. On their way, they arrived at Mountain Hua, LiuXi remembered SanShengNiang and missed her so much. He brought some servants with him and climbed to the top of the Mountain Hua. When they arrived the temple of SanShengNiang, everything was destroyed and ruined. He couldn’t help and crying, “SanShengNiang, I never forget our days together and everything I have now is because of you. I am here to meet with you but it is so devastating to see everything is falling apart.”

The Lord of the Soil and Ground 土地神 heard the crying and guessed it must be SanShengNiang’s husband LiuXi. We talked about the lord of the soil and land in our episode 68, a local deity in charge of a region and a community. The Lord of Soil and Ground always knows everything happened in his area. He went to see the prison SanShengNiang and told her, “your husband is here to see you. Now he is crying on the mountain and said he would rather die just to see you.” SanShengNiang heard the words and started crying. The Lord of Soil and Ground said, “I can unlock you for a while and lend you some wind that you can at least say a few words to your husband.”

SanShengNiang thanked the Lord of the Soil and Ground and left with the wind. LiuXi already left. She caught them before the horses. LiuXi noticed the horse stopped and heard crying sound in the wind and shouted, “are you an evil or a ghost? What do you want? I can help.”

SanShengNiang started to talk through the wind, “I am not an evil or a ghost but your wife. You can only hear me but can’t see me. I am in trouble now and prison in the Cave of Dark Clouds 黑云洞 under the Mountain Hua by my brother because our secret marriage. I am pregnant now and it is a torture in the cave. After giving birth, I would sent the baby to you and please take good care of the child. Now you have a new wife she is a great lady that she would be the perfect stepmom. All I wish for is that when the child grows up to save me and then we can meet that day. ” Everyone cried. She continued, “it is a long journey for you to travel to LuoNiang. I have lotus lanterns to guide you and help you draw off ghosts and evil spirits.” After that, the wind disappeared and so did the sound.

LiuXi and the whole group kept their journey. They went through mountains, rivers and whenever they met evil spirits, a red lotus lantern would appear and the light scared away all the ghosts until they arrived their destination. This made LiuXi feel more grateful and sorrow for SanShengNiang.



SanShengNiang went back to the cave and felt contractions. Not too long, she gave birth to a cute little boy. She named the kid ChengXiang 沉香, meaning the agarwood. Now you know where the name is from. She hoped one day the kid would revenge for her and free her out of the cave. She wrote a letter and asked the Lord of the Soil and Land for help to send the baby along with a letter to her husband LiuXi.

LiuXi and his new wife was in their garden one day, and saw an old man walking from the clouds. The old man handed them a baby and a letter writing the name of the baby and her wishes. LiuXi felt sorrow again about the situation of SanShengNiang.

Not too long after that day, LiuXi’s new wife had a baby too and named him LiuGe 秋哥. The two brothers got along pretty well. One year, ChengXiang was ten years old and QiuGe was eight. They were sent to school together. There was a kid in school from a prestigious family and always bullied others. One day, he laughed at ChenXiang had no mother. ChenXiang and QiuGe fought back and in the end, ChenXiang killed the boy.

The family didn’t know what to do with the threat from the dead kid’s family. LiuXi’s new wife was grateful for everything SanShengNiang did for them and also wanted to keep the promise of raising ChenXiang well and let him revenge one day. So she made a cruel decision that she let her own kid QiuGe to cover for ChenXiang. QiuGe was willing to help his brother as well and he was sent to prison to redeem his brother’s fault after hearing the story of SanShengNiang from his mom.

After QiuGe got arrested, ChenXiang finally was told about his real mother and everything happened before his birth. He was only a 11 year old kid and how could he take this dramatic change in his life. While he was digesting everything, the servant came in a rush shouted, “the death kid’s family figured out ChenXiang is the real murderer and came to catch him!” ChenXiang ran away from the home with the help of the family. However, his father LiuXi was arrested for hiding ChenXiang.

All of the sudden, the 11 year kid from a wealthy family with loving parents and brother became homeless and on the escape as well as a mission of revenge for his birth mother he never saw before.

We will continue our story in our next episode.

Episode 101: Lotus Lantern – part 1

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Today we will tell a story about a brave boy who cleaved the mountain to save his mother. It is one of the most well-known stories in many ancient plays and Chinese operas and is still popular in today’s TV shows and movies.

This kid’s name is ChenXiang 沉香, which means agarwood, a fragrant dark wood used in incense, perfume and medicine formed in the heartwood of various Asian evergreen trees when they become infected a fungus. It is popular in China but it is originally from India. It is an interesting name and you will find out where his name soon.

The earliest version of the story is from a couple of Chinese operas from the Yuan dynasty 元朝. However, those original plays don’t exist any more and the story we know today is from the texts in Ming dynasty 明朝 and Qing dynasty 清朝. There are different variations of the stories. Today I will talk about the version from the text ChenXiangBaoJuan 沉香宝卷 from the Qing dynasty 清朝.


It says this story happened in the Tang dynasty 唐朝. There was a scholar called LiuXi 刘锡 from the place YangZhou 扬州. Both of his parents passed away and he was poor but ambitious. He decided to attend another round of the Imperial Exam in the capital.

He traveled from his hometown to the capital. What a long journey! One day he arrived the Mountain Hua 华山. He heard there were many temples on the Mountain Hua and he entered one of the temples. This decision changed his whole life.

The temple he entered was for worshiping the goddess SanShengNiang 三圣娘 or SanShengMu 三圣母. LiuXi not only asked the goddess for a good ranking in the exam but also before he left he wrote a poem on the wall of the temple. The poem is for the goddess that he expressed his love for her.

The goddess SanShengNiang at that time wasn’t in the temple. She was attending the bouquet held by the Queen Mother of the West 王母娘娘, we talked before in our episode 74. However, she was informed by other gods in the temple and got ashamed and raged. I think the reason can be: first she was a goddess but he was just a human. Considering the hierarchy in the ancient China, this is not appropriate. Second, it was not very moral for men and women to flirt if they were not married. Not to say LiuXi wrote on the wall that everyone could see. It probably equals to sexual harassment today. Third, temples are holy places that should be maintained well. LiuXi just wrote on the wall which was a disrespectful behavior.

SanShengNiang felt insulted. She thought, who does he think he is? How could he express his feelings to me like this and wrote it on the wall? Since she was a goddess she had power to punish LiuXi. She asked the dragon king for help and borrowed storms. She asked the help from LeiGong 雷公, the Lord of Thunder and borrowed thunder and lightening. She asked the help from FengBo 风伯, the Lord of Winds and borrowed winds.

When LiuXi left the Mountain Hua and headed to the east, he saw clouds suddenly coming towards him and then followed the thunder and lightening. He ran to a tree for shelter. SanShengNiang saw him under the tree and thought it was the perfect timing to hit him with the lightening. At that moment , someone shouted, “wait! Wait!” It was TaiBaiJingXing 太白金星, a Taoist god which is defied of the star Venus. He is the envoy of the Jade Emperor 玉皇大帝. We will talk about him in our future episodes.

TaiBaiJingXing asked, “why are you trying to kill that man?” SanShengNiang told him all. TaiBaiJingXing laughed and replied, “this man can not be killed by you. You and him have the destiny of marriage. ” SanShengNiang asked the reason. TaiBaiJingXing explained, “LiuXi was a Taoist priest in his previous life. He traveled far and helped the poor. He already built this fate with you in this life. If you don’t trust me, I can show you the the book listing marriages.” We talked about the book listing marriages in our episode 20 about YueLao 月老, the matchmaker. SanShengNiang checked the book and was still confused, “he is just a human. How can we match with each other?” TaiBaiJingXing replied, “it is the fate that nothing can be changed.”

SanShengNiang was convinced. She thought, the poem was rude and inappropriate but it did show his feelings for me. I shouldn’t turn him down. Plus, it is getting bored staying in the temple, it would be fun to live like a normal human. She told TaiBaiJingXing, “if this is my fate, I have nothing more to say.” TaiBaiJingXing said, “it is great!” and disappeared.

We will continue our story in the next episode.



沉香宝卷 ChenXiangBaoJuan

Episode 97: YingNing The laughing girl – part 4

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Today we will finish our story about Ying Ning , the laughing girl from the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊斋志异.

Last time, we talked about YingNing went back home with Wang ZiFu and their figured out YingNing was a fox spirit’s daughter from Mr. Wu.

Wang ZiFu’ s mother let her share a room with her daughter, she started her life in Wang’s family and took her part of duties of family. Her knitted better than any women. She laughed a lot but nobody had any problems with it and everyone liked her.


Wang ZiFu’s mother fixed a date for Ying Ning and Wang ZiFu’s wedding although she still felt suspicious about her being the daughter of a fox spirit. She tried to check YingNing’s shadow under the sun and found nothing weird.

On the wedding day, Ying Ning dressed up in all the finery of a bride. She laughed so hard that she was unable to kneel down and she was excused by people. Wang ZiFu sometimes thought his wife was too silly that would not keep the secrets between them, but she never indulged in gossip.

Whenever Wang ZiFu’s mother was in trouble or bad mood, YingNing could always make her feel better with her laugh. The servants came to ask her for help when they made some mistakes and tried not to get punishment. YingNing had a great interest in flowers. She collected all kinds of species from people she knew and even secretly pawned her jewels to buy them. After a few months the whole place was planted with flowers.


Behind the house there was a tree right next to the neighbor. YingNing always climbed up on the tree and played with her flowers and sometimes stick the flowers in her hair, for which Wang ZiFu’s mother rebuked her severely. One day, the neighbor’s son saw her and was enchanted by her beauty. YingNing didn’t try to hide but started to laught. The young man thought she was flirting with him and was much smitten with her. YingNing pointed at the wall between them and left. The young man thought YingNing meant they would have a secret date at the wall at night. So he presented at night and saw YingNing sure was there waiting for him. He was so horny and jumped onto her. The next moment he felt a deep pain in his lower body, he looked carefully, it was not YingNing but just a log of wood and he was stung by a scorpion. He died in the middle of the night.

His father sued Wang ZiFu of having a witch wife. The judge happened to be an admirer of Wang ZiFu’s talend and knew he was a noble man. Therefore, they got away any punishment. Wang ZiFu’s mother gave YingNing the last word, “I knew you would cause some troubles with your silly and naive personality. We are lucky this time. I can’t imagine if met another judge, how could your husband ever have the reputation and respect? ” This time, YingNing didn’t laugh and swore she would laugh no more. Wang ZiFu’s mother added, “everyone laughs but at the reasonable times.” However, from that moment, YingNing laughed no more even when people tried to make her though her expression was by no means sad.

One night, in front of her husband, YingNing cried. Wang ZiFu was confused. YingNing said, “I didn’t want to scare you before since we didn’t know each other for too long. Now you and your mother have been so kind to me and care about me, I will keep nothing from you. I am the daughter of a fox. When my mother went away, she asked the spirit of an old woman to take care of me with whom I grew up for over 10 years. I have no siblings and all I have now is you. Now my foster mother is lying on the hill alone and she has been depressed about it. If you could be so kind to bury her with her past husband Mr. Qin together her spirit may be at rest. ”

Wang ZiFu consented. On a selected date, the couple brought a coffin to the hill. YingNing pointed to a spot amidst the shrubs and there they dig out the old woman’s dead body. YingNing held the body and wet bitterly. Then they put the body in the coffin and buried it next to Mr. Qin’s tomb.

That night, Wang ZiFu had a dream that the old woman came to thank him. He told YingNing when he wake up. She said she saw her and was warned by her not to frighten him. He asked why she didn’t ask her to stay. YingNing replied, “she is a ghost and can’t be a good thing for her to stay too long around many alive people.” He asked about YingNing’s maid XiaoRong and she said XiaoRong was a fox spirit too. She was married now.

Since then, every year on QingMing Festival, the couple would go to visit Mr. Chin and YingNing’s foster mother’s tombs. YingNing gave birth to a son after a year who wasn’t afraid of strangers and laughed all the time just like his mother used to be.


In the end, the author commented the story, YingNing looks like an innocent and silly her that she laughs all the time. But think about the trick she did at the wall, who can compared with her? She was grateful for her foster mother, she stopped laughing but crying. My girl YingNing was trying to use her laugh to hide her real feelings. I heard there is a kind of plants called XiaoYiHu 笑矣乎, the name basically means laughing, when you smell it you would start laughing and can’t stop. If you plant this in the house, then even the silk tree. or orange day-lily can’t compare with it. Silk tree is called HeHuanHua 合欢 花 in Chinese, which literally means happy together. Orange day-lily is called WangYouCao in Chinese, which literally means forgetting the sadness. Not to say to flower JieYuHua 解语 花, full of pretentiousness. JieYuHua literally means understanding the words and it is a kind of mythical flower, which is supposed to understandable.

So the author used the names of different flowers to metaphor YingNing as the plant XiaoYiHu that her innocent and natural laugh was better than anything especially the people who know so well about social norms and following the strict rules.

In the book Strange Stories from A Chinese Studio, you can tell the author himself is a conflicted person that on one hand he pursued the main values of the society and one the other hand he values the natural spirits like YingNing.



聊斋 志异 Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio

Episode 62: Madame White Snake — part 4

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Xu Xuan thought about the last words from Madame White Snake, “you got suspicious, I will let the whole city be flooded and everyone would suffer.” and couldn’t find a way. He was standing on the bridge and planned to committee suicide. When he heard somebody calling him. It was FaHai, the abbot. He gave Xu Xuan a bowl and asked him to cover on his wife’s head with a hard push. Xu Xuan arrived home and saw Madame White Snake sitting in the room murmuring, “I don’t know who are provoking the distrust between me and my husband.” Xu Xuan walked behind her slowly and boom! with all his strength. FaHai arrived at the same time and wailed incantations. Afterwards, he opened the bowl, Madame White Snake was as small as around 20 cm and crawled on the ground.

FaHai asked, “who are you exactly?” Madame White Snake said, “I was a serpent. I came to the West Lake on a rainy day and encountered Xu Xuan. I fell in love and got married with him. I know this is forbidden but I never harm anyone. Please forgive me.” I don’t know the full explanation, but in Chinese mythology, the love between a human and a spirit is a sin. I guess it is against the Confucianism that it is not the “right” match. It is one of the reasons that why homosexual marriages is still forbidden in China. FaHai asked, “who is Qing Qing?” “Qing Qing is the green fish in West Lake after thousands of years of practice. We met and became accompanies. ”

FaHai sealed the bowl with a piece of cloth teared from his clothes and imprisoned Madame White Snake and Qing Qing under Leifeng Pagoda 雷峰塔 by the West Lake forever. FaHai left with a poem to warn people in the world not to be bewitched by lust.


Hangzhou, Suzhou where the story took place and West Lake and Leifeng Pagoda all really exist until today. There are statues of Madame White Snake, Qing Qing and Xu Xuan along the West Lake if you visit there today.

This is the end of this story. However, there are a lot of variations.

One version adds a sequel that Madame White Snake gave birth to a baby before she was imprisoned by FaHai named Xu Rulin 许儒林. Years later, he got a high ranking in the imperial examinations. Returning home to visit his mother at Leifeng Pagoda, Madame White Snake was freed and reunited with her family. The childbirth part tried to depict Madame White Snake more like a human instead of a spirit and about the imperial examinations part I would say at ancient time people still thought only a honor could save the whole family.

Some versions have an epic fight between Madame White Snake and the abbot FaHai in the end before Madame White Snake was lost and imprisoned. It is another classical and dramatic plot in today’s version.

Now I am going to answer the question why do we need to talk about this story during DuanWu Festival or Dragon Boat Festival 端午节. One variation of this story has a plot that Xu Xuan didn’t believe his wife was a snake spirit until he was told by FaHai to let her drink a kind of liquor called XiongHuangJiu 雄黄酒 , a kind of alcohol traditionally consumed on the Dragon Boat Festival to prevent diseases and evil spirits. Of course, Madame White Snake transformed into a huge white serpent after drinking. The scene of Madame White Snake got drunk and transformed into a snake was a classic plot in the story. Xu Xuan scared to death, literally died. Madame White Snake tried to save him by risking her own life to steal a magic herb and brought Xu Xuan back to life. It is the turning point when the couple really were honest to each other and bounded together. That’s the main difference probably between the original story and the variation that Xu Xuan really fell in love and trusted his wife instead of being suspicious the whole time and was with his wife out of lust and money.

However, today’s Chinese people, more affected by the TV shows and movies based on the this story, have a different understanding of the story. Firstly name wise, Xu Xian 许仙 instead of Xu Xian 许宣 is the name widely known today. Qing Qing , the green clothes maid is known as Xiao Qing 小青. Secondly, Qing Qing is known as a green colored snake spirit today instead of a fish spirit in the original story. Thirdly, in the original story, FaHai the abbot was a good guy who helped Xu Xuan to escape from Madame White Snake. Today people regard FaHai as an obstacle who tried to separate the loving couple.


I do like the modern variations in TV series and movies better because Madame White Snake is more brave for love instead of just being an attractive woman who tried to seduce a man. And the character of Xu Xuan is also more complicated instead of just being a suspicious coward. Although I still like Madame White Snake far more better than Xu Xuan.

If you like this story, definitely check those videos and I would put some links in our website and social media. Just a reminder you probably would cry.


Movie :

青蛇 Green Snake  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBjycaw5ulk

白蛇传说 The Sorcerer and the White Snake


TV show:

新白娘子传奇 New Legend of Madame White Snake