Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, also known as The Butterfly Lovers in the West, is one of China’s four great folktales (also see White Snake).
The legend tells of a young girl from a rich family in the Jin dynasty (281-420 AD) called Zhu Yingtai, who finally gains her parents’ permission to disguise herself as a man and go to Hangzhou to study. Her maid also disguises herself as a male servant. Having spent three years there, Yingtai falls in love with her fellow student Liang Shanbo, who has no idea at all that this smart young scholar is actually a woman. The two decide to become “sworn brothers” and Zhu Yingtai makes a marriage agreement between Liang and Zhu’s “Number Nine Sister” who actually is Yingtai herself. Later, when Liang Shanbo is clear about everything and proposes a marriage to the Zhu family, Yingtai’s father prefers a young man from another family that matches Zhu’s wealth and social status. Liang is so grieved that he becomes ill and passes away. On the wedding day, when the procession passes Liang Shanbo’s tomb, Zhu Yingtai, in linen white mourning costumes, comes out of the marriage sedan and “walks” with her knees to the tomb. Suddenly the tomb splits in storm and thunder, Zhu Yingtai jumps into it. After a while, a pair of colourful butterflies fly out of the tomb wing to wing in the clear and beautiful sky.
The legend was first seen in a ballad (yuefu) in the Jin period. Then in the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) there was a melody model (see kunju) entitled “Zhu Yingtai” and later play texts based on the same story appeared in the form of southern play (nanxi in the Song period), Yuan variety /miscellaneous drama (Yuan zaju) [Yuan dynasty: 1279-1368 AD], and the Ming marvel tales (Ming chuanqi) [Ming dynasty: 1368-1644 AD]. Many local genres including jingju have their own versions of the story, among which the yueju’s is most famous. The violin Concerto of Liang-Zhu composed by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, played by Yu Lina in 1958 exemplifies the excellent combination of an intercultural piece in music. Recently films, musicals and other forms of performing arts have produced their own interpretations of the same story.