A key feature of the Song of the Female Textile Workers is that of a love that forms between people but is not allowed to be expressed due to circumstances, until of course, it is too late and tragedy strikes. It is a theme that resonates throughout the performance through the inclusion of the classic Chinese Folk Story ‘The Love of the Butterfly’.
‘The Love of the Butterfly’, often referred to as ‘The Butterfly Lovers’ or ‘Liang Zhu’, is one of China’s four great folk stories, along with ‘Legend of the White Snake’, ‘Lady Meng Jiang’ and ‘The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid’.
‘Love of the Butterfly’ has often been referred to as the Chinese ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and there is a white marble monument to the two main characters, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, in Verona, Italy. The legend itself has been adapted into many forms of traditional Chinese Opera, most notably as ‘Liang Zhu’ in Yue Opera and ‘In the Shade of the Willow’ in Sichuan Opera. The Yue opera version was popularised when it was made into a film in the 1950s.
Later productions include ‘The Love Eterne’, a Huangmei Opera version filmed in 1962, and ‘The Lovers’, a Hong Kong film released in 1994. The story also inspired the production of the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto composed by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang in 1958.
The legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai is set in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265-420AD). Zhu Yingtai is the only daughter of the Zhu family and, despite women being discouraged from scholarly pursuits she persuades her father to allow her to study in disguise as a man.
At school, Zhu meets Laing Shanbo, and they form a strong friendship and study together for three years. Whilst Zhu gradually falls in love with Liang she retains her male disguise and Liang, deeply immersed in his studies, fails to notice the femininity of his friend and maintains a brotherly relationship.
Zhu receives a letter from her father asking her to return home and she packs and leaves. Liang walks with her for 18 miles to see her off. During the journey Zhu hints to Liang that she is actually a woman – referring to the two of them as mandarin ducks (a symbol of lovers in China) but Liang does not catch on. Before they depart Zhu suggests that Liang could marry her ‘sister’ and asks Liang to visit her home later to meet her ‘sister’.
Several months pass before Liang visits Zhu and now he discovers that Zhu is in fact a woman. They become devoted to each other and vow never to be parted.
Unfortunately, Zhu’s parents have arranged for her to marry a wealthy businessman Ma Wenchai and upon hearing this news Liang is heartbroken. He falls ill and dies.
On the day of the wedding the procession passes Liang’s grave and strong winds prevent them from passing. Zhu leaves the wedding procession to pay her respects at the grave and she begs for the grave to open so that she could enter and join Liang. The grave does open and Zhu throws herself inside. Their spirits then emerge as a pair of butterflies and they fly away together, never again to be separated.