The Butterfly Lovers is a Chinese legend of a tragic love story of a pair of lovers, Liang Shanbo (梁山伯) and Zhu Yingtai (祝英台), whose names form the title of the story. The title is often abbreviated to Liang Zhu (梁祝).
The legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai is set in the Eastern Jin dynasty (265-420 AD).
Zhu Yingtai is the ninth child and only daughter of the wealthy Zhu family of Shangyu, Zhejiang. Although women are traditionally discouraged from taking up scholarly pursuits, Zhu manages to convince her father to allow her to attend classes in disguise as a man. During her journey to Hangzhou, she meets Liang Shanbo, a scholar from Kuaiji (present-day Shaoxing). They chat and feel a strong affinity for each other at their first meeting. Hence, they gather some soil as incense and take an oath of fraternity in the pavilion of a thatched bridge.
They study together for the next three years in school and Zhu gradually falls in love with Liang. Although Liang equals Zhu in their studies, he is still a bookworm and fails to notice the feminine characteristics exhibited by his classmate.
One day, Zhu receives a letter from her father, asking her to return home as soon as possible. Zhu has no choice but to pack her belongings immediately and bid Liang farewell. However, in her heart, she has already confessed her love for Liang and is determined to be with him for all eternity. Before her departure, she reveals her true identity to the headmaster’s wife and asks her to pass a jade pendant to Liang as a betrothal gift.
Liang accompanies his “sworn brother” for 18 miles to see her off. During the journey, Zhu hints to Liang that she is actually a woman. For example, she compares them to a pair of mandarin ducks (a symbol of lovers in Chinese culture), but Liang does not catch her hints and does not even have the slightest suspicion that his companion is a woman in disguise. Zhu finally comes up with an idea and tells Liang that she will act as a matchmaker for him and his “sister”. Before they part, Zhu reminds Liang to visit her residence later so he can propose to marry her “sister.” Liang and Zhu reluctantly part ways at the Changting pavilion.
Months later, when Liang visits Zhu, he discovers that she is actually a woman. They are devoted to and passionate about each other and they make a vow to the effect of “till death do us part”. The joy of their reunion is short-lived as Zhu’s parents have already arranged for her to marry Ma Wencai, a man from a rich family. Liang is heartbroken when he hears the news and his health gradually deteriorates until he becomes critically ill. He dies in office later as a county magistrate.
On the day of Ma and Zhu’s marriage, strong winds prevent the wedding procession from escorting the bride beyond Liang’s grave, which lies along the journey. Zhu leaves the procession to pay her respects at Liang’s grave. She descends in bitter despair and begs for the grave to open up. Suddenly, the grave opens with a clap of thunder. Without further hesitation, Zhu throws herself into the grave to join Liang. Their spirits turn into a pair of butterflies, emerge from the grave, fly away together and are never to be separated again.