The Butterfly Lovers


Maybe you don’t like to go to school, but there was once a young lady who was very unhappy because she was not allowed to go to school. At that time in China, young children were home-schooled by their parents or hired mentors. Then the young men went off to school while the young ladies stayed home and did their needlework. For their safety and good reputation, the unmarried daughters from a typical Chinese family were kept out of the public.

According to the famous Chinese legend, 粱山伯与祝英台 (Liáng Shānbó yǔ Zhù Yīngtái), which was first recorded during the Tang Dynasty, this young lady, named 祝英台 (Zhù Yīngtái), pestered her parents to let her travel to a distance city, to attend school. She managed to convince them that she could disguise as a young man and not be found out. On the way to school she befriended a young man named 粱山伯 (Liáng Shānbó). So began a cute tale with a tragic ending. This story was featured in many Chinese stage plays and movies, the most notable of which being the blockbuster, “Love Eterne”, starred by the beautiful 乐蒂 (Lèdì) and the very talented 凌波 (Língbō) a few decades ago. It was reported that quite a few people in Southeast Asia watched this entertaining musical more than one hundred times. (At that time, there were no DVD’s to rent. You had to go to a movie hall and stand in a long line to watch a popular movie.)

When viewing this musical movie, you will need to rely on the subtitles to understand the songs because the rhyming lyrics contain a mix of colloquial Chinese and Chinese idioms, as well as many allusions to Chinese classics that may be challenging even for an advanced student of Chinese. Do pay attention to the sparse conversations and see if you can catch a few familiar words or phrases. Also take notice of the actors’ costumes, which reflect the clothing style of that era.

When used as a conjunctive, the word (yǔ) has the same meaning as (hé), i.e. “and” or “together with”. (hé) is used in everyday speech, while (yǔ) is mostly found in written documents.

In a well-to-do Chinese family, there would typically be an old master, 老爷(lǎoyé), the lady of the house, 夫人 (fūrén), one or more young masters, 少爷(shàoyé), one or more young misses 小姐( xiǎojie), the servants, 仆人 (Púrén), nowadays called 男佣(nánōng), and the maids, 婢女(bìnǚ), nowadays called 女佣(nǚyōng). 佣人(yōngrén) is a general term for servants.

In Chinese movies, the master of the house is often depicted as an authoritative figure whom everyone must obey and please. Therefore, a standard line for the 夫人 (fūrén) is:

Bùyào rě lǎoyé shēngqì.
Don’t make the old master angry.

生气 (shēngqì) means to get angry.

Alas, after spending 3 years at school with 山伯 (Shānbó), young 英台 (Yīngtái), fell in love. When her parents sent for 英台 (Yīngtái), under the pretense that her mother got ill, 山伯 (Shānbó) saw her off part of the way. Unaware that her parents had promised her to a local rich dude, 英台 (Yīngtái) dropped hint after hint that 山伯 (Shānbó) should come to her house and woo her twin sister, who “looks exactly like me”. Except for actually revealing her true identity, what did she not try to entice him to come to visit her family? At one point, she sang:

Mǔdan huā, nǐ ài tā.
Peonies, you love them.

Wǒ jiā yuán li mǔdan hǎo.
The peonies in my garden are gorgeous.

Yào zhāi mǔdan shàng wǒ jiā.
To pick nice peonies, you must come to my house.

Notice that is the non-human third person pronoun that means “it” or “they”.

When 山伯 (Shānbó) laughed off the silly notion of visiting the (Zhù) family merely for the sake of a few flowers, 英台 (Yīngtái) cited a variation of the following well-kown Chinese adage:

Yǒu huā kān zhé, zhí xū zhé.
When there are flowers to pick, go ahead and pluck them.

Mò dài wú huā kōng zhé zhī.
Don’t wait until the flowers are gone, and you’r left with only branches to pick.

From the above English translation, you have probably figured out that (zhāi) and (zhé) both mean to pick, to pluck, or to snag.
(mò) is a classical Chinese word that means the same as 不要 (bùyào), or “don’t”.
(kān may, can) is also a classical Chinese word that mostly appears in set phrases. Its modern equivalent is the auxiliary verb (néng may, can).
(dài) is an abbreviation of 等待 (děngdài), which means “to wait”. In everyday speech, people usually just say (děng) instead of 等待 (děngdài).

If you have not yet found out from the lyrics of “Lover’s Tears” the Chinese terms for separating or parting, here are a few commonly used ones:

分别 (fēnbié) means to leave each other, or to differentiate.
分离 (fēnlí) means to separate.
分手 (fēnshǒu) means to part company with someone.

So, the friends parted. When 山伯 (Shānbó) found out that his pal was actually a co-ed, it was too late. 英台 (Yīngtái) was getting ready to marry the other dude against her own wish. 山伯 (Shānbó) soon died from depression and illness. The sorrowful 英台 (Yīngtái) defied her father and visted her beloved’s grave. Her pitiful wailing moved the heavens, and the tomb suddenly split open. 英台 (Yīngtái) jumped in. When the dust settled, two butterflies were seen soaring together out of the gave. Hence the English translation of the title of this story, “The Butterfly Lovers”.

Next time you see a 蝴蝶 (húdié, butterfly), remember what happens when you let a girl go to school.

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