The story of Zhu and Liang is one of China’s four great folktales. It is more a love story than a traditional fairy tale. There are no witches and step-parents. No bad guys. “The Lovers Who Become Butterflies”, “Liang Zhu” or “The Butterfly Lovers” is reminiscent of the story of Mulan.
In fact they were rarely allowed out of the house, and if they did go out they should be accompanied by a male.
Zhu Ying Tai was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and she was possessed of a boundless thirst for knowledge. She was always questioning her father, her mother, her brothers, the servants.
She was envious of her brothers when they started school, and she was determined that she herself should go to school as well and get an education.
She pestered her parents day in day out. They kept telling her, No, it just is not done for a girl to go to school, but she would not give up.
They tried to take her mind of school by buying her nice clothes, dolls and other toys. Nothing could dissuade her. School became an obsession.
Her parents loved her very much, and after some time they started to think what they could do to satisfy Zhu’s lust for learning.
The only thing they could think of was that Zhu should pretend to be a boy. She could go to school if she dressed up in boys’ clothing!
That’s how Zhu finally entered school. She didn’t find it too difficult to live like a boy. She was only interested in learning and hardly ever got involved with any of her schoolmates after lessons.
In any case, they thought this new boy was a bit strange, and were quite happy to leave him alone. There was only one boy she became friendly with.
His name was Liang Shan Bo, and he was a studious young man with very gentle manners. They often studied together, and gradually they became good friends.
Years passed, and Zhu did very well. By this time Zhu had become aware that her feelings for Liang had grown strong, beyond the way two fellow students would normally feel, even if they were the best of friends.
Liang too, felt something similar; he couldn’t quite understand why he felt so strongly attracted to this other boy.
Then one day, Zhu’s parents send one of their servants with a message that she is to return home immediately. The servant doesn’t tell her very much, other than to insist that it is her father’s wish that they return without delay.
Zhu fears the worst, maybe her mother is on her deathbed! So she travels home with the servant, and she is mightily relieved to find both her parents in good health.
But she is shocked when her father tells her the reason why she has been summoned home. One of her father’s business associates has a son, just a little older than Zhu, and they have arranged for the two to get married.
Zhu is in despair; now she realises that she is in love with Liang, and it is him she wants to marry. Zhu then arranges for the servant to go back to the school, and to ask Liang to come to the town, and to take a room at a local inn.
The next day the servant returns and informs Zhu that her friend is lodging in the inn. She dresses up as a boy once more and goes to see Liang.
She tells Liang that because of a family problem, she won’t be able to come back to school, but that she has a cousin who is staying at their house.
Liang should make her acquaintance, Zhu says she feels sure that when the two of them meet, they will fall in love, and Liang should then ask her parents for the cousin’s hand in marriage.
Zhu tells Liang to present himself at the house later that afternoon.
She goes back home to change back into her girl’s clothes. She is going to play the part of her cousin, she feels sure that when Liang sees her as she really is, he too will realise that what he has been feeling for his friend all this time is nothing but love!
Eventually her servant comes to announce that Liang has arrived, and she goes to meet her friend. She introduces herself as Zhu’s cousin, but Liang is struck by the likeness between this cousin and his friend.
Now that Zhu finally stands before him in without any disguise she cannot control herself, and she bursts out crying and tells Liang the whole story of who she really is, and how much in love she is with him.
At first Liang is angry that he has been deceived, but then he is relieved, because he too realises that he is deeply in love with Zhu.
Zhu then tells Liang about the arranged marriage her parents have planned for her, and they agree that he must ask Zhu’s father for her hand in marriage.
That same afternoon, Liang asks to see the father. Of course, he doesn’t have any idea who this young man is. When he hears that Liang wants to marry his daughter, he just laughs.
He questions Liang about his parents, where they come from, what they do, how much money do they have? Liang’s parents don’t have very much, his mother works as a weaver, and his father is a fisherman.
They can only pay for Liang’s education by living a very frugal life. Zhu’s father dismisses him, tells him to go back to school and to find a girl in his own social class.
He forbids Zhu to have any more contact with Liang, and tells his servants to make sure she doesn’t leave the house unsupervised.
Liang stays in the inn, he cannot face going back to school alone, and he feels he has to stay close to Zhu. But he has lost his appetite and he can’t eat anything.
He sits at his window every day, all day long, and looks out to see if he can catch a glimpse of Zhu.
He gets sick, and pines away. Zhu can’t get out of the house; the servants are not prepared to disobey their master.
She spends her days crying for her lover. One of the servants has offered to take messages to the inn and back. That’s how one sad day she learned that Liang had died.
Zhu cries more and more, but her parents carry on with the preparations for the wedding regardless. Her father is certain that eventually she will forget this poor student, and will accept her duties as a good daughter and wife.
But Zhu doesn’t stop crying; she cries and cries until all the tears in her body are used up. Then she starts crying blood, instead of tears, small pearls of blood come out of her eyes. The day of the wedding arrives.
Zhu will be carried in a palanquin to her new husband’s house. She instructs her bearers to take the route that oases the cemetery where Liang is buried.
When they get there, she orders them to stop, and she gets out to say a prayer over his grave. As she kneels down by the grave, a butterfly appears, it seems as if it came out of Liang’s grave.
It circles around her head, and she watches it, spellbound. She is sure this butterfly looks just like her dead lover, Liang. She stretches her arms out towards the butterfly, which flies up a bit, over her head.
She lifts her head and her arms towards it, and as the butterfly flies higher up, she realises that her arms have turned into butterfly wings, and she can join him now, at last, and together they fly away from this place full of dead people.
Her servants come looking for her, but they don’t see anybody. All they can see is a pair of butterflies cavorting over the graves, then disappearing into the blue distance.