Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo – A Relentless Love in China’s Folklore

Our local classical music radio station invited its listeners to submit music requests over Valentine’s Day weekend. I wonder if they have the piece of music posted above in their repertoire.

One of the most popular and familiar pieces of Chinese music is “The Butterfly Lovers Concerto.” It was composed in 1959 and was arranged for solo violin performance, accompanied by an orchestra. Although many people may not have heard the entire piece, there are very few people in China who could not hum the opening melody. Not only is the opening melody memorable and beautiful, but the popularity of this music is intricately tied to one of the most famous and celebrated love stories of the Chinese culture.

In about 300 CE, there was a girl named Zhu Yingtai (祝英台), who came from a wealthy family in the Zhejiang Province. She was the ninth child in her family, but was the only daughter. Zhu loved poetry and literature, but unfortunately traditions discouraged women from attending schools. Zhu convinced her father to allow her to attend school disguised as a young man.

On her way to her boarding school, Zhu met a scholar from Huiji named Liang Shanbo (梁山伯), who was also on his way to study in Zhu’s school. The two of them immediately became close friends and even swore an oath of fraternity to each other. For the next three years, they studied together, traveled together, and even occasionally shared a bed. While they spent almost every waking moment together, being an innocent bookworm, Liang never suspected that Zhu was actually a woman. When they shared a bed, Liang was always puzzled why Zhu would insist on placing a bowl of water in the middle of the bed to separate the two of them. But in those three years, Zhu had fallen deeply in love with Liang and secretly vowed in her heart that she would spend the rest of her life with Liang.

One day, Zhu received a letter from her father requesting that she return home immediately. Zhu had no choice but to abruptly end her studies and travel home. Unwilling to part with Zhu, Liang accompanied his “sworn brother” for eighteen miles on her journey home. Throughout the journey, Zhu kept secretly hinting to Liang that she was actually a woman, but Liang’s bookish simplicity kept him from catching Zhu’s hint. At one point, Liang even poked fun of Zhu for comparing herself with a woman. Exasperated, Zhu said to Liang before parting, “I have a sister at home. She is very beautiful. At the end of ten days you should come to my parents’ house, and I will help arrange a marriage between you and my sister.” With these words, Zhu parted from Liang.

Unknown to both of them, the reason Zhu had to return home is because her father had already arranged a marriage between Zhu and the son of another wealthy family, Ma Wencai (马文才). When Liang showed up at Zhu’s house to propose, he was surprised to discover the beautiful “sister” that Zhu told him about was actually Zhu herself! They confessed their love for each other, but this knowledge only made their reunion more bittersweet. Zhu was already betrothed to another man; no one could change her parents’ decision. Liang went home heartbroken, and he soon fell critically ill. Within a month, Liang passed away in his sadness.

After learning of Liang’s death, Zhu agreed to marry Ma under one condition – she requested that her wedding procession pass by Liang’s grave. On the day of her wedding, while her carriage was passing by the grave, a strong wind prevented the group from proceeding. Zhu jumped out from her carriage and stripped off her traditional red wedding garments, revealing the white mourning cloth that she had been wearing underneath. She mourned at Liang’s graveside and refused to leave. Suddenly, the strong winds turned into a lightning storm and at the clap of a thunder Liang’s grave split open. Without hesitation, Zhu threw herself into Liang’s grave. Before anyone around her could react, the earth quickly returned and buried the two of them together.

A little while later, when the sun was again shining over the land, some farmers noticed two small butterflies emerging from Liang and Zhu’s grave. They were flying happily together, and would never be separated again.

This is one of China’s four most celebrated folklores. Like the other great love stories, it contains humor, separation, longing, heartbreak, death, and of course, unrelenting love. We cherish these stories with plays, films, and music because our souls are helplessly stirred by their yearning. They echo the great cosmic love story that we live in, which also contains humor, separation, longing, heartbreak, death, and unrelenting love. In all of these stories, our souls are not satisfied until the lovers are united. So too with the cosmic love story in which we live; our hearts are restless until we are united with the God who pursues us with his relentless love.


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Ryan moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm. It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music. In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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