A love story about a pair of white butterflies is one of the most enduring Chinese legends that has been told for hundreds, probably thousands, of years in China.

As the legend goes, the butterflies were initially humans, one is named Zhu Yingtai and another is called Liang Shanbo.

Crossdresser Zhu Yingtai and her maid go to school

Zhu Yingtai was an academically talented teenage girl. After a decade of “good good study and day day up” under the guidance of a family tutor, she yearned for further education.

However, before 1949, it was considered to be inappropriate for boys and girls to study together in one room, except in a family studio among relatives.

Nevertheless, since Zhu Yingtai was the only child of her father and her father was the only parent in the family who would do everything for his daughter, Zhu Yingtai was eventually able to secure her senior’s consent for her to go to a prestigious boarding school in Hangzhou.

There was one condition though: the girl must hide her true gender identity from other students in the class.

Zhu Yingtai agreed and she and her maid all put on male clothing.

Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo becomes sworn brothers

On the way to the school, Zhu Yingtai met Liang Shanbo when both took a break at a roadside pavilion.

Upon conversation, Zhu Yingtai found Liang Shanbo was a supporter of girls’ equal rights to education and was attending the same school, she suggested they should become sworn brothers.

So the pair sank to their knees before heaven and swore their loyalty to the brotherhood.

Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai studying together

From the day they arrived at the college, the pair shared one studio, one dining room and one bedroom for a good three years.

Liang Shanbo never suspected Zhu Yingtai was actually a girl.

Zhu Yingtai asks teacher's wife to reveal her true identity to Liang Shanbo

One day, Zhu Yingtai received an express mail from her father. The old man said he was gravely ill and urged his daughter to return home without delay.

Before departure, Zhu Yingtai revealed her true identity to her teacher’s wife and asked the lady to hand her jade fan pendant to Liang Shanbo as a token.

Liang Shanbo farewell Zhu Yingtai

Liang Shanbo walked 18 lis (9 km) to see his sworn brother off until they reached the pavilion where they first met.

Along the way, Zhu Yingtai attempted everything intellectually possible to imply that she was a girl and Liang Shanbo should see her father to propose a marriage ASAP.

Yet a single-minded Liang Shanbo didn’t get a clue.

Zhu Yingtai makes a proposal for her sister to Liang Shanbo

Finally, it was time to say goodbye and Zhu Yingtai was at her wit’s end.

In an idealistic natural setting which is often seen in typical Chinese landscape paintings – a river nearby, mountains in the distance, boats sailing in a stream, buildings with water views, and cliffs with plants – Zhu Yingtai told her dummy sworn brother that she had an identical twin sister and wondered if Liang Shanbo would like to ask her father for her hand.

After receiving a confirmation that the sister looked, talked and walked just like Zhu Yingtai, Liang Shanbo joyfully accepted the matchmaker’s marriage proposal.

Zhu Yingtai's father orders her to marry governor's son

When Zhu Yingtai rushed home, she only found her father was as healthy as a bull and as happy as a clam. He accepted a marriage offer for his daughter from a local governor’s family.

Zhu Yingtai’s world collapsed. She urged her father to decline the offer, but the old man said he had already taken the betrothal gifts and drank wine with the governor, which virtually means a marriage contract had been formally signed by both parties.

As Zhu Yingtai insisted she could not marry the governor’s son, her father became suspicious, and interrogated her maid, “Have your miss unashamedly fallen in love with a man in the school?”

Zhu Yingtai meets Liang Shanbo for the last time

When Liang Shanbo returned to the school, the teacher’s wife passed him Zhu Yingtai’s message as well as her jade pendant.

It was a mind-blowing revelation to the man and he immediately set off at full speed for Zhu Yingtai’s hometown.

Yet it was all too late. Zhu Yingtai’s father told her daughter to see her lover for the last time and say goodbye forever.

Zhu Yingtai receives a news of Liang Shanbo's death

Now it was Liang Shanbo’s turn to see his world collapse before him. The poor man returned home and died of a broken heart.

Zhu Yingtai’s heart also broke into pieces when she learned about her lover’s death, just shortly before her wedding.

Zhu Yingtai killed herself at Liang Shanbo's tomb

Upon hard negotiation, Zhu Yingtai’s wedding sedan was allowed to stop at Liang Shanbo’s burial site for her to pay final respect to the man in the grave.

When she approached Liang Shanbo’s tomb, Zhu Yingtai smashed her head against the tombstone and killed herself …..

Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai becoming butterflies and live together forever

After Zhu Yingtai committed suicide at Liang Shanbo’s graveyard, she was buried with her lover.

Then one day, people noticed a pair of white butterflies emerging on the site circulating the tomb …

They believed Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo were happily together once again in the form of a beautiful butterfly couple.

Artist of the picture book: Song Wenzhi (宋文治)

Butterfly Lovers of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, a violin concerto by Yu Lina (俞丽拿), one of China’s best violinists

Yueju opera: Last Meeting on Terrace with English subtitle

Liang Shanbo is played by Wu Fenghua (吴凤花), the best inheritor of Fang Ruijuan-style for young male roles;

Zhu Yingtai is played by Chen Fei (陈飞), one of the best inheritors of Fu Quanxiang-style for young female roles.

Since Yueju opera by principle is an all-female performing art, Liang Shanbo on the stage is in fact also a crossdresser as the role is played by actress Wu.

Yueju opera: Lovers bid a heartbroken final farewell

Liang Shanbo by Wu Fenghua (吴凤花), and Zhu Yintai by Zhu Yafen (方亚芬), one of the best inheritors of Yuan Xuefen-style for young female roles.

Traditional Chinese papercut – the lovers transformed into a pair of butterflies. 

P.S. It is said that certain organic forms could be more easily hijacked by spirits newly lost their human body and become their convenient shelters when they need to communicate with their loved ones in this world. These creatures include white butterflies and dragonflies.

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