Wallace Chan's "Whimsical Blue" Tells the Story of China's Butterfly Lovers

Whimsical Blue by Wallace Chan. Photo credit: Jewels du Jour. Whimsical Blue by Wallace Chan. Photo credit: Jewels du Jour.

by Angela Magnotti Andrews

This exquisite butterfly was named Whimsical Blue by its creator, Wallace Chan. Its body is crafted from three carved pieces of bright blue tanzanite. In place of metal prongs, two marquise-cut diamonds anchor the gemstones in place.

The central azure portions of Whimsical's wings, sculpted from pieces of lapis lazuli, appear as liquid motion. Iced with tiny sapphires set in platinum, the wings are tipped by crystal-clear sculpted jadeite. Fluidly sculpted veins carved from aqua- and violet-colored gemstones appear to have been painted onto the seams of the butterfly's wings.

Wallace Chan declares that every one of his jeweled wonders tells an important story of Zen traditions or Chinese legends. This magnificent butterfly brooch belongs to a collection which Mr. Chan calls Fluttery. According to Natalie at Jewels du Jour, together the exquisite butterfly brooches represent the story of China's most famous lovers, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.

Compiled from various versions of the artfully tragic Chinese love story, this writer offers you her own rendition of LiangZhu, the Butterfly Lovers.

The Butterfly Lovers

Shanbo Meets His Destiny

Liang Shanbo was a young man of noble character. One scorching day, he traveled alone to Hangzhou to study at the Wangsong Academy. Sweltering in the heat, he stopped to rest. There, beneath the soothing canopy of a willow tree, Shanbo met his destiny.

What he thought was a young man sat nearby in the shelter of the willows. The stranger, actually a young woman, Zhu Yingtai, introduced herself as a young man, Zhu Jiuguan. "I am on my way to Hangzhou to study at the Wangsong Academy," she said.

"Ah, I too have left my family to study under the great master," replied Shanbo.

A vibrant energy filled the space between them as they talked. Recognizing the life flowing between their souls, the two declared their fealty. Breathing in the scent of incense, they swore an oath.

They called upon the gods passing by in the sky as their witness: Shanbo was to be the elder brother, Yingtai the younger brother, just as if they were born from the same womb, the same mother, while they pursued their literary studies in the city of Hangzhou. {Idema, p. 73}

The Pomegranate Branch

For the next three years, the two were inseparable. Legend has it that they studied together, shared meals, and even shared a bed. Yet, in those three years, Yingtai "never allowed [Shanbo] to touch her with hand or foot." {Idema, p. 73}

Shanbo's curiosity overtook him many times. He would ask, "Jiuguan, why do you never take a bath even in hottest summer? And why do you never take off your clothes at night?" {Idema, p. 73}

Yingtai related a story of childhood illness during which her garments required a substantial number of buttons and buttonholes, which deterred her parents from giving her regular baths. Satisfied with this story, Shanbo accepted what was set before him without question.

Over the years, it became harder and harder for Yingtai to keep her secret. The ties that bound them grew, and so did her love for him. His gentle ways, his honesty, and his nobility called to her womanly soul. It was only thoughts of the pomegranate branch that kept her from revealing her secret.

The years passed, and their examinations were soon upon them. One night upon their bed, Yingtai was awakened by a dream of her father beckoning while her mother wept. In the dream, her parents stood near a newly sprouted pomegranate bush.

Her waking thoughts returned immediately to that summer three years prior. Early discussions with her father about tradition and the expectations of a faithful wife filled her mind.

She remembered how she had convinced him to allow her to continue her studies as a man. She recalled also the vow she made, to guard her family's honor and her own purity with her life. As a token of her commitment, Yingtai broke a branch off the flowering pomegranate bush and planted it among the flowers on the terrace.

She made the following vow: "If I, Yingtai, while traveling far away from home to pursue my studies, maintain my reputation and my virtue, may this branch grow roots and sprout branches and have flowers year upon year; but if I do anything unbecoming and dishonor my family, may this branch wither and die." {Idema, p. xxvii}

A Knock on the Door

A knock on the door pierced her reveries. A letter sparked urgent response. "Please, return home at once," it read.

Torn between the anxiety of her dream, the urgency of the letter, and her deep-seated love for Shanbo, she prepared to leave her friend for the first time in three years. "I will walk you partway on my way to examinations," Shanbo said.

Desperate to reveal her long-held secret and declare her love to Shanbo, Yingtai counted off the miles toward home with bold and daring attempts to reverse the spell of deception preventing Shanbo from realizing her true identity.

Mile after mile, Shanbo's guileless innocence left him perplexed, but no nearer to understanding the heart message of Yingtai. Making one last attempt to hold onto her one true love forever, she invited him to visit her home to make a love match with her "younger sister". In truth, this was Yingtai's promise of fealty to the husband of her heart, knowing that soon Shanbo would know the truth and take her to be his wife.

Stories of the City and Shanbo

Overjoyed that they would only be apart for a season, Shanbo promised to visit her father as soon as he earned enough for her sister's dowry. Yingtai returned to her parents home to find her parents well beneath the spreading branches of the flowering pomegranate bush.

Relief replaced anxiety, and life with her parents picked up where it had left off three years prior. She worked alongside her mother in the mornings and regaled her father with stories of the city and Shanbo in the evening. Though she kept private the full extent of her feelings, she made sure to tell of Shanbo's courage, nobility, and honorable pursuit of knowledge.

Meanwhile, Shanbo became magistrate of Yin County. Within one year he acquired enough reputation and money to visit his friend's home to request a union between their families.

I Tried So Hard to Tell You

"Zhu Jiuguan!"

Am I dreaming? Yingtai wondered. "Brother! Where are you?" she cried. Forgetting herself entirely, she ran out to greet him in her red dress with emerald sleeves. She bowed to him, completely ignorant of his absolute astonishment.

As she looked into his eyes, she came to her senses. "Oh! I tried so hard to tell you, Shanbo. I and my "little sister" are one."

After shaking off the shock, Shanbo took her lovely hands in his. "Then, you will be ever more pleased to learn that I have come to discuss with your father the matter of your "little sister's" hand," he declared.

Jubilant, she led him into her father's workshop.

You Shall Be Married

"Dear father, this is Shanbo. I have told you of his noble ways, and now I wish to tell you of my love for him. He has come to speak to you of a matter of great import to both of us. Last summer, under the branches of the pomegranate tree, I swore in my heart to be his wife. Until now, Shanbo knew nothing of my identity. He has come to ask you for my "little sister's" hand in marriage, but I've come to ask you to grant him mine," she entreated.

Her father's face fell. "Dear daughter, had I known of the oath you made beneath your sacred tree, I would have proceeded very differently this past year. I must tell you that our pride in your accomplishments is crowned now by the most significant match which I've made this past month between our family and the Ma family. In a year's time, you shall be married to Ma Wencai!"

Astonished and heartbroken, Yingtai collapsed in tears. Her parents and Shanbo tried to console her, to no avail. For several long minutes it seemed she would not recover.

However, calling upon her strict training, Yingtai pulled herself together finally and declared, "My dear father and mother, please listen to my words. I'll not imitate Wenjun who eloped with Sima Xiangru, I will not imitate the swallows in pairs in the high hall, I'll never be a tattered flower, never a damaged willow." {Idema, p. 73}

My Life is Doomed!

A heavy blanket of sadness fell upon Shanbo in those moments. His heart broke, and he returned home to share the events with his mom and dad.

"Love longing [has] morphed into a disease," he said. "My life is doomed!" {Idema, p. 42}

"See to it that when I cease to breathe that you bury me along the road to Ma Wencai's home," he asked of them. Then, deciding in his heart to claim her spirit as his own at Huángquán, Shanbo retreated into sorrow and death.*

Suddenly the blood in his heart cascaded downward. He couldn't open his mouth, nor could he open his eyes. His three souls had floated off to the realm of darkness, his seven spirits hastily rushed up to Heaven's Terrace, and his parents wept till they were overcome with grief. {Idema, p. 73}

Allow Me This One Request

Preparations for Yingtai's elaborate wedding ceremony commenced. In somber tones, mother and daughter made arrangements. The match would be a profitable one. The Ma family was prominent in the region, wealthy and respectable. Meanwhile, Yingtai yearned in her heart to see her true love once more before she left her family's home.

Her wish was met with a knock on the door. A letter with her name on it dashed all hope: "Our dear son died too young. His body is buried beneath the ground on the road into Peace and Joy village. Please, stop and pay your respects to a man who was as noble and faithful as they come."

She felt as if a steel sword were piercing her breast. Immediately her throat was blocked, she couldn't breathe. And with a sigh she collapsed on the dust of the floor. {Idema, p. 73}

Frightened, her parents roused her. "Father, please. We must make a stop along the route at the gate by the road. I will marry Wencai only if you allow me this one request," she pleaded.

An Ominous Sign

The day of the procession dawned sunny and bright, opposite the stormy sadness that engulfed the bride's heart. Determined to honor her family, she donned the beautiful golden dress and boarded the gilded sedan that would take her away from her home forever.

At the sacred place of Shanbo's burial, the procession halted. A quiet hush fell over the crowd as Yingtai stepped from her carriage. As she knelt beside the grave, dark clouds began to roll in from the west, an ominous sign. Yingtai took no notice as she took the customary wine of sorrow and respect.

In her heart she prayed this prayer: "I have come to the side of the grave in memory of you. If you are without any consciousness, then let me retire, but if you have consciousness, have this grave open up!" {Idema, p. xvi}

The mounting storm clouds emitted a loud rumbling, and a bolt of lightning struck the ground in front of Yingtai, splitting the tomb of Shanbo. Seizing her opportunity, Yingtai jumped into the gaping chasm.

The Butterfly Miracle

As she fell to her death, her astonished guests ran toward her from every side. Grabbing at her dress, they attempted to stop her descent. As the clouds began to part, rays of sunlight burst upon the frantic scene. With every touch, her dress was shred to pieces. The guests looked on in horror as the golden fragments of silk drifted slowly down upon the bodies of the two young lovers.

As they watched, their gasps of horror turned to astonishment as each morsel of fabric transformed into a golden butterfly. Catching an unseen breeze, the butterflies flew out of the tomb and headed toward the sun. The final two butterflies seemed to cling to each other in a fluttering dance, and the villagers exclaimed that it must be Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who at last had found true love.

Immerse Yourself in the Story

In all of China, the story of the Butterfly Lovers is celebrated for its exaltation of true love and the pursuit of wisdom. Legend has it that the two lovers were reunited in death in The Grave of the Faithful Wife at Ningbo, in the Zhejiang province of eastern China.

There, year-round visitors can experience first hand the story of the Butterfly Lovers at the Liang-Zhu Cultural Park, which features several key scenes from the legend. The Liang Shanbo temple, located five miles west of Ningbo, offers visitors a peak at the couple's heavenly bedroom, with their grave positioned right behind their wooden bed.

The region offers abundant ways to immerse yourself in the story that inspired Wallace Chan to create this magnificent butterfly brooch, a beauty which most recently took flight in 2012 into the collection of an anonymous bidder for the sum of $370,575.

*Huángquán, "Yellow Springs" in Chinese, is the mythological realm of the dead where love matches of the soul may be redeemed apart from the living traditions of men


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