Tales of the of ill-fated “Butterfly Lovers,” Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, have roots in the Yuan dramatic corpus. Modern adaptations of this story in popular theatrical, musical, and cinematic venues often inject sociocultural themes ranging from advocacy for women’s education to cross-dressing and homoeroticism.
The earliest historical records of the tale of the lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai date back over a millennium. Zhu Yingtai, a young girl of a good family, cross-dresses to attend a school where she befriends a fellow student, Liang Shanbo. Without his ever becoming aware of her gender, they study together, and when he dies years later, she jumps into his tomb, an officially commemorated act of virtue on her part. In later vernacular versions Liang realizes during a reunion with Zhu at her home that she is a woman; he falls in love with her, but she has already been betrothed to a rich landowner. When Liang dies of lovesickness, Zhu passes Liang’s grave, the tomb miraculously opens, and Zhu jumps in to be united with Liang’s spirit. Two butterflies were said to dance upon the site, symbolizing the two lovers and their devotion to one another.
In the wake of the emergence of author-generated libretti in the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), songwriter and dramatist Bai Pu treated the Zhu-Liang story in a now-lost Yuan zaju drama, Zhu Yingtai Marries Liang Shanbo in Death. Emotionally charged key scenes from other early dramatic forms—Yuan dynasty xiwen and Ming dynasty (1368–1644) chuanqi—depicting the imminent departure of Zhu and the reunion of the pair at her home survived in late Ming song miscellanies. The version contained in Feng Menglong’s (1578–1644) seminal collection of vernacular tales, Stories Old and New (1620), develops to the theme of deep and ultimately lethal passion in a manner not unlike the famous play Peony Pavilion (1598). During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) numerous storytelling genres embraced the romantic tale, as did many regional operas. (Ironically, the role of the Liang Shanbo would have been played by a cross-dressing man in nineteenth-century Beijing Opera productions, which at that time were renowned for employing female impersonators.) Beijing, Guangzhou (Canton), Shaoxing, Huangmei, and Sichuan opera companies, among others, continue to feature it in their contemporary repertoires.
With the development of modern media, the story was newly rendered in films, animation, concertos, ballets, and spoken drama. Many of these adaptations have been wildly popular with audiences in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Shao Zuiweng’s silent film The Heartrending Story of Liang and Zhu (Liang Zhu tengshi, 1926) starred actress Hu Die. Liang Zhu (1953) with Shaoxing opera star Yuan Xuefen was the first operatic film shot in color in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), contributing to the popularity of the story up to the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when the subject of personal love became anathema. Cast in the Huangmei opera style featuring female star Ling Bo, Hong Kong filmmaker Li Hanxiang’s Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (1963) also played to unprecedented sold-out crowds in Taipei, Taiwan. Meanwhile “The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto” (composers: Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, 1958) synthesized Western instrumentation and Chinese tonalities in the tradition of pentatonic (consisting of five tones) romanticism. The piece premiered to great acclaim amid the social reforms of the early PRC period and served as the musical score for newer filmic and animated adaptations of the Liang-Zhu story in the 1990s and 2000s. These and other renditions vary in thematic emphasis, ranging from unrequited love and monogamous marriage to advocacy for women’s education, cross-dressing, and homoeroticism.
From “Butterfly Lovers”
In this rendition of the famous “Butterfly Lovers” story, Yingt’ai has discovered the death of her beloved Hsienpo, but continues on the the house of her future husband, stopping at Hsienpo’s grave along the way.
But when they passed the grave of Hsienpo, she begged her attendants to let her get out and visit it, to thank him for all his kindness. One the grave, overcome by grief, she flung herself down and sobbed. Her attendants urged her to return to her chair, but she refused. Finally, after great persuasion, she got up and dried her tears, and, bowing several times in front of the grave, she prayed as follows: “You are Hsienpo, and I am Yingt’ai. If we were really intended to be man and wife, open your grave three feet wide.”
Scarcely had she spoken when there came a clap like thunder and the grave opened. Yingt’ai leaped into the opening, which closed again before the maids could catch hold of her, leaving only two bits of her dress in their hands. When they let these go, they changed into two butterflies.
Dr. Ma was furious when he heard that his wife had jumped into the grave of Hsienpo. He had the grave opened, but the coffin was empty except for two white stones. No one knew where Hsienpo and Yingt’ai had gone. In a rage the grave violators flung the two stones onto the road, where immediately a bamboo with two stems shot up. They were shimmering green, and swayed in the wind. The grave robbers knew that this was the result of magic, and cut down the bamboo with a knife; but as soon as they had cut down one, another shot up, until finally several people cut down the two stems at the same time. Then these flew up to heaven and became rainbows.
Now the two lovers have become immortals. If they ever want to be together, undisturbed and unseen, so that one on earth can see them or even talk about them, they wait until it is raining and the clouds are hiding the sky. The red in the rainbow is Hsienpo, and the blue is Yingt’ai.
Source: Tamura, E., Menton, L. K., Lush, N. W., Tsui, F. K. C., & Cohen, W.. (1997) China: Understanding its past. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 17–18.
Li Siu Leung. (2003). Cross-dressing in Chinese opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Source: Sieber, Patricia (2009). Butterfly Lovers. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 251–252. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Butterfly Lovers (Liáng Sh?nbó y? Zhù Y?ngtái ???????)|Liáng Sh?nbó y? Zhù Y?ngtái ??????? (Butterfly Lovers)