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The Chinese legend of the butterfly lovers


By Alexandra TzourtziPublished 6 months ago 3 min read

Zhu Yingtai adjusted her disguise, preparing to bid her parents goodbye. She had always been a dutiful daughter— staying home and creating works of embroidery that brought her parents pride. And yet, although only boys were allowed at the Confucius Academy in Hangzhou, what Yingtai truly wanted was to go to school as a boy. She begged her parents to let her attend dressed as a boy and, seeing her determination and clever disguises, they finally agreed.

However, they only gave her permission when she promised

to keep her true identity a secret

and eventually return to the traditional path they’d set for her.

Elated, Yingtai began her journey to Hangzhou.

On the way, she found herself at a crossroads,

unsure which route to take when a young man approached.

As their eyes met, they shared an instant connection.

Yingtai learned that his name was Liang Shanbo,

and that he’d be her classmate at the academy,

so they walked the rest of the way together, rapt in conversation.

Yingtai realized that, despite her meticulous disguise,

she felt that she could finally be herself.

The two decided to celebrate what they thought would be

a long, close friendship, and became sworn brothers.

At the academy, Yingtai buried herself in books

and studied with Shanbo late into the nights.

The two felt at home so long as they were at each other’s sides.

They shared a room, but even though Shanbo questioned her about it,

Yingtai always used the bathroom alone

and buttoned her thick robes up to her chin— no matter the weather.

Now and again, Yingtai heard students muttering about her secretive behavior.

As months slipped into years, Yingtai continued to excel at her studies

and felt like her past— and intended future—were lifetimes away.

Yet the whispers grew louder.

And after three years, she had no choice but to leave.

Parting tearfully, Yingtai asked Shanbo to visit her.

When Yingtai returned home,

her parents announced that the Ma family from the neighboring village

had sent a matchmaker to ask their permission

for Yingtai to marry their son.

They’d found it a fitting match and accepted.

Trying to hide her disappointment, Yingtai honored their agreement.

But as she prepared for another new life, she thought of Shanbo.

Meanwhile, he too was distracted— his studies dull without Yingtai near.

When Shanbo finally visited Yingtai’s house,

he came upon a young woman.

He was about to ask for her brother,

but as their eyes met, he recognized the young scholar he’d always loved.

Shanbo knew he couldn’t stand being separated from Yingtai again

and asked her to marry him.

But, heartbroken, Yingtai told him that she was already promised to another.

Shanbo was devastated, but he understood that Yingtai had to abide

by her parents’ wishes, and they parted again.

Shanbo fell ill and grew weaker by the day.

Worried, his family sent a matchmaker to the Zhu family.

But, because of Yingtai’s current engagement,

her father refused the proposal.

Doing otherwise would bring their family public shame.

Shanbo’s Illness took a turn for the worse

and, sensing he wouldn’t live to see her married,

Shanbo wrote Yingtai a final letter.

If Yingtai loved him, he asked that she burn incense

in front of his tomb when she was on her way to the Ma family.

When Yingtai’s wedding day came, it also felt like a funeral.

As the procession wound through town under stormy skies,

Yingtai broke off and knelt in front of Shanbo’s tomb,

lighting incense and offering sacrifices through her tears.

Suddenly, a clap of thunder sounded above

and a lightning bolt shot through the tomb,

fracturing the stone.

Without hesitation, Yingtai threw herself in.

As her parents rushed to rescue their daughter,

two butterflies fluttered out of the crack.

This time, Yingtai had transformed for good.

Finally free, she could float forever with Shanbo at her side.


About the Creator

Alexandra Tzourtzi

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