(a Chinese folktale)
Once upon a time in ancient days, there lived a young girl named Zhu Yingtai who came from a noble Chinese family in Shangyu, Zhejiang. In those days in China, girls were barely allowed out of their homes, and they were never permitted to go to school.
But Zhu was determined to learn. At long last, she convinced her father to let her go to school. He agreed, but to do this, Zhu had to dress up as a boy.
Zhu happily disguised herself and set off for Hangzhou, where she planned to study at Wansong Academy. On her way there, Zhu happened to meet a young man named Liang Shanbo. Liang, too, was heading to Wansong Academy to study, and the two agreed to walk together. From the start, they got along very well, and by the time they arrived at the school, Liang swore they would be lifelong brothers.
Liang, of course, did not know his new friend was a girl.
Zhu agreed, but secretly she had already begun to fall in love with Liang. She wished she could tell him the truth, but she dared not risk her opportunity to study.
The two became great friends at school, and as the years passed, Zhu fell more deeply in love with Liang. Sometimes at night she wept, wishing she could tell him the truth. But Liang was so busy with his studies that he never noticed the hints Zhu sometimes tried to drop. Nevertheless, he loved Zhu and he swore everlasting friendship.
One day, after three years of study, Zhu received a letter from her father. He wrote to say she must return home immediately. He did not explain why, and Zhu was terribly upset. She hated to leave the school, and she could not imagine saying goodbye to Liang.
“Promise you’ll visit me,” Zhu said. “You know how much our friendship means to me.”
“Of course I do,” Liang said, and Zhu went on to speak of the way mandarin ducks remained friends for life. In China, mandarin ducks symbolize lovers, but Liang did not catch the hint.
“I promise to visit,” Liang said. “Let me walk you part of the way home, and we can say our goodbyes as we walk.”
So they set off, talking and laughing, enjoying each other’s company and the last of the warm summer days. Before long, Liang realized he had walked 18 miles. He stopped and laughed.
“Zhu,” he said, “I must turn back.” He noticed darkness was falling. They stood beneath the thatched roof of a hut to say goodbye. In the darkness, they did not see that they both had tears in their eyes.
When Zhu arrived, she learned that her parents had called her home to announce her engagement to a wealthy merchant named Ma Wencai. They were due to wed in the spring.
Yet while they were apart, Zhu and Liang wrote letters to each other. Each time she wrote, Zhu thought of telling her beloved the truth, but she held back.
One day, Liang decided it was time to visit Zhu, and the two friends joyfully embraced when they saw each other again.
Zhu could not bear the secret any longer. She pulled off her cap and bulky shirt, revealing herself to be the beautiful young woman she was.
“I only disguised myself as a boy so I could study,” she confessed. “I have loved you for a long, long time.”
“I love you, too,” Liang said. “I will love you forever.”
Alas, Zhu had to tell her beloved about her upcoming wedding. Liang felt his heart nearly break in two when he heard the news. Suddenly, he no longer had an appetite. All that evening and the next day, he pretended to enjoy his time. But deep inside, he felt as if he were going to die.
Zhu was terribly sad, but she could not imagine disobeying her parents’ wishes.
At last, Liang said farewell.
“Promise you will come to my wedding,” Zhu said. “I cannot marry without your blessing.”
“You have my blessing, in life and in death,” Liang told her.
Winter passed, and as it did, Liang grew weaker and weaker. He could barely eat. He felt no joy. He knew he would not live long, for life without his beloved did not interest him.
And then one day he died. People said he died of a broken heart.
When Zhu heard the news, she wept for days. She could not break her vow, though, and soon the wedding day was upon her. On that day, as the procession marched through the village, Zhu asked to stop at Liang’s grave to pay her respects. Drenched in despair, she stood by the grave and prayed that it would open so that she could say one last farewell to Liang.
Suddenly, a great wind rose up and a clap of thunder sounded. The grave opened, and Zhu threw herself in to be with Liang. In the next moment, the two lovers’ spirits turned into a pair of butterflies.
As the wedding party stared in amazement, the butterflies emerged from the grave and flew away, never again to be separated.