Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo – A Relentless Love in China’s Folklore

Editor’s note: We initially shared this post two years ago and think it is well worth revisiting for Throwback Thursday the week of Valentine's Day!
Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then.  Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm.  It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music.  In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.

Our local classical music radio station invited its listeners to submit music requests over Valentine’s Day weekend. I wonder if they have the piece of music posted above in their repertoire.

One of the most popular and familiar pieces of Chinese music is "The Butterfly Lovers Concerto." It was composed in 1959 and was arranged for solo violin performance, accompanied by an orchestra. Although many people may not have heard the entire piece, there are very few people in China who could not hum the opening melody. Not only is the opening melody memorable and beautiful, but the popularity of this music is intricately tied to one of the most famous and celebrated love stories of the Chinese culture.

In about 300 CE, there was a girl named Zhu Yingtai (祝英台), who came from a wealthy family in the Zhejiang Province. She was the ninth child in her family, but was the only daughter. Zhu loved poetry and literature, but unfortunately traditions discouraged women from attending schools. Zhu convinced her father to allow her to attend school disguised as a young man.

On her way to her boarding school, Zhu met a scholar from Huiji named Liang Shanbo (梁山伯), who was also on his way to study in Zhu's school. The two of them immediately became close friends and even swore an oath of fraternity to each other. For the next three years, they studied together, traveled together, and even occasionally shared a bed. While they spent almost every waking moment together, being an innocent bookworm, Liang never suspected that Zhu was actually a woman. When they shared a bed, Liang was always puzzled why Zhu would insist on placing a bowl of water in the middle of the bed to separate the two of them. But in those three years, Zhu had fallen deeply in love with Liang and secretly vowed in her heart that she would spend the rest of her life with Liang.

One day, Zhu received a letter from her father requesting that she return home immediately. Zhu had no choice but to abruptly end her studies and travel home. Unwilling to part with Zhu, Liang accompanied his "sworn brother" for eighteen miles on her journey home. Throughout the journey, Zhu kept secretly hinting to Liang that she was actually a woman, but Liang's bookish simplicity kept him from catching Zhu's hint. At one point, Liang even poked fun of Zhu for comparing herself with a woman. Exasperated, Zhu said to Liang before parting, "I have a sister at home. She is very beautiful. At the end of ten days you should come to my parents' house, and I will help arrange a marriage between you and my sister." With these words, Zhu parted from Liang.

Unknown to both of them, the reason Zhu had to return home is because her father had already arranged a marriage between Zhu and the son of another wealthy family, Ma Wencai (马文才). When Liang showed up at Zhu's house to propose, he was surprised to discover the beautiful "sister" that Zhu told him about was actually Zhu herself! They confessed their love for each other, but this knowledge only made their reunion more bittersweet. Zhu was already betrothed to another man; no one could change her parents' decision. Liang went home heartbroken, and he soon fell critically ill. Within a month, Liang passed away in his sadness.

After learning of Liang's death, Zhu agreed to marry Ma under one condition - she requested that her wedding procession pass by Liang's grave. On the day of her wedding, while her carriage was passing by the grave, a strong wind prevented the group from proceeding. Zhu jumped out from her carriage and stripped off her traditional red wedding garments, revealing the white mourning cloth that she had been wearing underneath. She mourned at Liang's graveside and refused to leave. Suddenly, the strong winds turned into a lightning storm and at the clap of a thunder Liang's grave split open. Without hesitation, Zhu threw herself into Liang's grave. Before anyone around her could react, the earth quickly returned and buried the two of them together.

A little while later, when the sun was again shining over the land, some farmers noticed two small butterflies emerging from Liang and Zhu's grave. They were flying happily together, and would never be separated again.

This is one of China's four most celebrated folklores. Like the other great love stories, it contains humor, separation, longing, heartbreak, death, and of course, unrelenting love. We cherish these stories with plays, films, and music because our souls are helplessly stirred by their yearning. They echo the great cosmic love story that we live in, which also contains humor, separation, longing, heartbreak, death, and unrelenting love. In all of these stories, our souls are not satisfied until the lovers are united. So too with the cosmic love story in which we live; our hearts are restless until we are united with the God who pursues us with his relentless love.