0. THE LOVERS.
There was once a bard and a king, a lover of words and a lover of swords, that came to meet one another in the kingdom they both ruled. They were kind sovereigns, adored by their acolytes and their subjects, and they knew the other through the adulation that the winds had carried for them both.
A good man, the king thought, and so invited the bard to join him in his court.
A good man, the bard thought, and thus followed him into the varnished teak of the royal palace, rising within its branches to chambers not far from the king’s own.
Not long after, the king married a court lady. Together, they had a daughter named Amaravati, a girl of honeyed eyes. The bard followed the king into love, falling for a traveling dancer. Together, they left the palace behind and had a son named Ambikapati, a boy of honeyed words.
For twenty long years, the king and the bard only knew the other through the letters they each penned.
As for the princess and the young bard, they hardly knew the other at all.
There was but a young cowherd Niúláng and his old cow, standing in the morning-dewed field. He wept as he herded his milkless buck into the wide expanse of grass, just to spend a little more time with his only friend, and lamented the lonely existence he would soon experience.
The old ox spoke then. “Well, whether I depart from old age or for meager coin, we best find you a maiden so you may live the rest of your days with peace and companionship.”
Stunned, Niúláng croaked out to the ox that had never spoken to him before, “Then, so be it.”
Someplace high above earth, the Queen Mother, Goddess of the Heavens watched over all with her omniscience. Yet escaping her all-knowing gaze, six of her granddaughters badgered their seventh and youngest sister, the weaver girl Zhīnǚ, to sneak out with them to the earthly realm.
“Be not at your loom, sister,” they wheedled, “Come see the world.”
“Then, so be it,” she sighed, dragged away from her work.
There was once a young girl in ancient China. Her name was Zhu Yingtai. Zhu Yingtai was everything a perfect daughter should be. She was kind and dutiful, and she would care for her parents deeply and all her actions were for them.
But Yingtai sought for something more. She wanted to make more for herself for once, but the only way she could do that was through schooling. Gathering her courage, Yingtai disguised herself as a man to be able to go to her education, and along the way met a colleague, a new friend, her Butterfly lover: Liang Shanbo.
1. THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS
Staring in the mirror, Zhu Yingtai adjusted her outfit as she started getting ready for school. This is my moment. This is my chance, she thought as the mirror glistened. Yingtai had always wanted to accomplish something for herself. To be someone other than the perfect embroidery-making daughter her parents longed for her to be. She wanted to be something more and she could do that by going to the Confucius Academy. The only problem with that was to go to the academy, she had to be a man.
So Zhu Yingtai begged and pleaded with her parents to let her go to the academy in disguise. Finally, her parents relented, as long as when her schooling was done she would return. Her parents’ concern became a constant noise in her ears. Accepting this agreement, Yingtai hurried off on the long path to the academy.
Walking along, Yingtai had never been more elated. The skies were a crystal clear blue, the birds were singing and nothing could stop her now. Well, nothing until Zhu Yingtai ran into a young man on the path also heading to the school.
She’d never met the man before but there was something about him that drew her in. Butterflies filled her stomach. All the noise and worries faded away and a clear melodic song began to fill her ears. His name was Liang Shanbo. Little did Yingtai know was that Shanbo would be both the best and worst thing that has ever happened to her.
2. THE COWHERD AND THE WEAVER
The two of them stared at each other through the tall grass, each startled by another pair of eyes. Little butterflies lifted off between them, fluttering momentarily and shaking off their pollen-burdened legs. Zhīnǚ’s eyes flickered down to Niúláng’s arms, where he cradled close the robes she had left at the bank of the river.
“No, this…” He dropped her clothes, but her hand flashed out to grab them. “That sly old ox, he was the one who tricked me.”
An amused expression rose to her face. “Really? A mystical old ox told you to come steal my clothes? What a strange deity for you to meet!”
He ducked his head, cheeks flushed, and mumbled, “He said I was lonely, and persuaded me to find a companion before he passed on.”
Impressed by his honesty, her gaze softened. Zhīnǚ cast a glance back at her sisters, who were waiting for her to go back to the heavenly realm. Her voice was heavy as she spoke in a near-whisper.
“It is lonely for me, too, even in the heavens, and even with my sisters.”
Niúláng’s eyes widened at her confession.
“Today is the first time in a long time that I was able to leave my loom in the skies,” she continued, words spilling forth unbidden now, “and that was only at the coercion of my sisters.”
Her smile brought a different flush to his face, one that she mirrored. “But I think I am glad to have left.”
As she turned to leave, Niúláng blurted, “Wait! Should we… will you stay?”
Zhīnǚ tilted her head, a coy smile on her lips. She shouted toward her sisters, “Go home without me, sisters! A man has seen me unclothed and uncouth, so I will be marrying him!”
Mouth agape, Niúláng watched her turn back to him and hook her arm through his. They left behind a chorus of confused cheers and hasty planning. Yet all they could hear was a low hum of the world around them and the synchronicity of their breaths, side by side.
But the sisters could only keep the Queen Mother at bay for so long. She would know, and their peace would not last.
3. AMARAVATI AND AMBIKAPATI
The bard sought his son afterwards, shoving into his rooms. “You fool,” he seethed, turning on Ambikapati as he went to shut the door. His terror had already begun to oxidize into anger, slipping into his voice even as he tried to press it from his words. “Do you know what the king will do if he learns of your feelings for the princess?”
Ambikapati had the good sense to look guilty for a moment. Then he shook his head and drew his shoulders close. “Father, I love her.”
“Love? You passed twenty just last autumn. You do not even know what love is.”
His cheeks flushed dark. “You knew love at my age. You wrote about it! Was all of that a lie?”
The bard passed a hand over his face. “This conversation is over. I forbid you from seeing Princess Amaravati.”
“And if I defy your orders?”
His father gave him a grave look. “Then pray that I find you before the king does.”
To his credit, the young bard did not immediately seek out his lover. Ambikapati remained within his rooms, considering how he might meet with her without the knowledge of the king. Alas, despite his efforts, a note – intended for the bard – passed through the hand of the princess’s maid and into the rooms of the king.
The next day, they were all gathered. Ambikapati prostrated at the foot of the king, his father beside him. The princess wept at her father’s shoulder, but he would show no mercy. He had decided on execution.
“My liege,” the bard implored. “Think of his trespass as my own and punish me instead. If I had raised him with the correct obeisance, this would never have come to pass.”
“I admire your love for your son,” the king said, “but I will not change my ruling. Any man that wishes to court my daughter shall come to me before they meet. Anything else is a stain on their character and that of the royal family.”
The young bard, who had stayed resolute until this moment, began to feel his eyes burn. He turned his face away from his father so he would not have to bear witness to his tears.
But the princess had spent the time after the dinner considering how to convince her father, and now she wiped her eyes and turned the king’s head to face her.
“Father,” the clever princess said, “I know his character to be the strongest of all in the nation. No suitor that ever follows will exceed him, and I will never marry. Is that what you would prefer?”
The king gave her a tired look. “Don’t be difficult, Amaravati. Surely you don’t plan to prove your lovestruck fantasies of his pure character?”
“My studies have required me to recite five stanzas of devotional poetry to the court as a certificate of my learning. If Ambikapati wishes to court me, he shall recite a hundred.”
“A hundred?” the king asked, unconvinced. “Without a word of romantic poetry? You expect too much from him. His father could not do the same at his age.” He regarded the bard and his son at his feet. They said nothing, focusing their own gazes on the floor. “If this is how you would like to deliver your beloved’s death sentence, so be it. Tomorrow we will gather in the court and he will attempt these trials.”
5. THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS
As the years went by Yingtai and Shanbo blossomed not only in their studies, but their relationship as well. The pair became inseparable, as if they were two strings intertwined together. But that string would soon snap.
Yingtai received word from her family that she would need to return home and marry, as her parents had been colluding with a matchmaker to stray her from the studies that took her far away from them in the first place. Adjusting her disguise, Yingtai made her way to Shanbo’s room.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Yingtai held her breath as she waited for her best friend to open the door. No longer would she get to study and leave her village behind. No longer could she make a name for herself. Her anger rushed through her like a rapid river with all that she would have to leave behind. But as the door opened, that river dried up and became empty.
For when Yingtai and Shanbo’s eyes met, butterflies fluttered in her stomach just like the first day the pair crossed paths. The melody, although soft, returned to her ears. But now Yingtai knew it wasn’t the same as feeling the excitement of making a dear colleague and friend. No, this feeling was one of love. Yingtai had fallen in love with the man she was about to leave.
“Yingtai? Don’t you know how late it is?” Shanbo questioned her as he yawned but as soon as he saw her sorrowful expression he became alert.
“What is it? Is everything all right, you can tell me, my friend,” Shanbo stated as he grabbed her shoulders.
Tears began to blur her eyes and Yingtai cried out, “I must leave the academy, Shanbo. My parents want me to return home and marry right away. All of this was for nothing.”
Yingtai confessed all her emotions to him — well, except for her love towards the man. She couldn’t tell him that, not now, not anymore. Shanbo began to feel a sense of dread in his heart rising up for his companion.
“No. No.” Shanbo shook his head. “This was not for nothing. If you hadn’t come here in the first place, I never would have found my best friend and I won’t let my best friend go now. I will visit you. I promise. As soon as I can, for as long as I can. I will share with you my lessons and the days here at the academy so you can still learn and study. Nothing can stop the success you deserve, just as nothing will stop me from being with you.”
6. AMARAVATI AND AMBIKAPATI
To preserve Ambikapati’s focus, Amaravati entered the court behind a screen. She rose to the throne behind her father and then settled behind the screen for the trials. Ambikapati forced his thoughts away from her and towards the matter of the trial. The princess had truly devised the perfect challenge for a young man who had spent much of his youth studying devotional poetry under the tutelage of his father, a man who had only fallen in love with such things in his late adolescence. It was a challenge he had never even thought she might know of, considering he had never performed anything but love poetry for her.
When the bell chimed, he rose to his feet and began the hundred stanzas. As was custom of poetry citation, he began with an invocation to the goddess of learning. He kept his gaze on the golden idol carved into the throne, avoiding the king’s gaze even as he recited poem after poem flawlessly. He sang of the bounties of the earth, and the gods hidden behind the star-scattered weave of the dark night sky.
As he came to the 99th stanza, Amaravati rejoiced behind the sheer cloth screen. In her studies, she had never had to perform devotional poetry. Thus, she had counted Saraswati’s invocation as the first stanza. At its conclusion, she slipped past the screen to congratulate her beloved.
Upon seeing her, the young bard grinned in elation. Love poetry sprung to his lips unbidden, even with that last stanza unsung.
7. THE COWHERD AND THE WEAVER
Onward the Queen Mother dragged Zhīnǚ, with Niúláng not far behind. The stars whirled around them all, and when he could almost reach Zhīnǚ’s trailing silks, red like the day they met, the Queen Mother whipped around in a fury.
Brandishing her mighty golden hairpin, she slashed open the fabric of the sky, and a river of stars spilled forth, a fathomless line. Stalled by the sparkling rapids, Niúláng watched in despair as Zhīnǚ floated away, weightless and ephemeral, beyond his reach forever.
8. THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS
He was gone. Shanbo was gone and there was nothing she could do about it. So slowly as she walked to his grave, it seemed the world was mourning with her. The rain poured down, crying, across the dark gray sky. Not a single soul surrounded her.
Finally reaching Shanbo’s grave she bent down and began to light incense in honor of the man she loved more than anything. She begged and pleaded for anything to bring her back to him. Just like before, it seemed like her wish was granted from the powers above. With a great big bang in the sky, a sharp lightning bolt struck Shanbo’s grave and cracked it open. Taking her chance, Yingtai flung herself in. There was nothing but silence.
Hearing the news, her parents quickly rushed to go and rescue her, but Yingtai was long gone. Nothing lay in the black abyss below. Distraught, her parents didn’t even notice the two gentle butterflies floating out of the grave and fluttering to a new lovely song. Yingtai has succeeded in her transformation. From now until the end of time Yingtai soared with Shanbo at her side, forever with her lover.
Illustrations by Van Tran