The Legendary Origin of the Violin Concerto ‘Butterfly Lovers’

A monument to Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, Asia's 'Romeo and Juliet.'

The Violin Concerto 'Butterfly Lovers' is based on the tragic love story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, sometimes known as the 'Chinese Romeo and Juliet'. (Image: Walber via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most famous Chinese works of orchestral music is the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto. It is based on the legendary tragic love story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai and is also called “Liang Zhu” in Chinese, which is a combination of the family names of the central protagonists. This work has been recorded and performed more than any other Chinese concerto in the world and is known as the soul of Chinese national symphonic music.

Here, we explore the many interlacing stories, themes, circumstances, and personalities behind this inspired musical masterpiece created by Chen Gang.

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The communist regime strikes, tearing a talented family apart

In 1957, Chen Gang’s father, the renowned and popular musician, composer, and song writer Chen Gexin was branded a “rightist” by the communist regime and was sent to the dreaded Baimaoling labor camp in a ravine in Anhui Province.

Chen Gang, being the eldest son, was also dubbed a “rightist’s filial son”. Consequently, he was ferociously criticized and was forced to endure great pain and humiliation. The second son, Chen Keng, who was a mathematical genius originally studying at Fudan University, was forced to Jiangxi to feed pigs. The third son, Chen Dong, was still young and suffered emotionally as he was forced to endure life without his father and without his brothers. The daughter, Chen Xiaoli, became silent and kept a low profile. Chen Gexin’s wife, Jin Jiaoli shouldered all the burdens and responsibilities and led a life of great hardship.

It was under such extremely difficult circumstances that Chen Gang, who was then at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, was allowed by the Communist Party Committee of the Conservatory to create a musical work to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the communist regime and the “New China”.

At the time Chen Gang began composing Butterfly Lovers, his father had just been branded a 'rightist' by the communist regime and sent to a labor camp.
At the time Chen Gang began composing ‘Butterfly Lovers,’ his father had just been branded a ‘rightist’ by the communist regime and sent to a labor camp. (Image: Andrea Migliarini via Dreamstime)

It is hard to imagine what kind of mood he was in when he wrote this immortal violin concerto Butterfly Lovers. Perhaps it was because he had suffered such excruciating pain that he was able to create a sound that shook the soul and a melody that was full of tears and appeals, into which Chen Gang poured so much of his unspoken thoughts and struggles.

Chen Gexin, who was far away in the labor camp in Anhui, heard Butterfly Lovers on the radio and was very excited about it. He asked Chen Gang to send him the score as soon as possible. But however much Chen Gang wanted to send the work to his father, who was also his first teacher, it could not be done in that bitter era.

The heartbroken farewell between Liang and Zhu

At the same time, Chen Gang’s own love life was also shaking as if in a storm. The pure love between Chen Gang and his sweetheart could not break through the barriers of the secular world. The girl’s family consistently opposed her relationship with a rightist’s son, despite the girl’s deep feelings.

On a dark night in Beihai Park, in a scene of complete silence, a heartbroken Chen Gang had to say goodbye to his beloved. At that moment, the melody of Butterfly Lovers suddenly rang out from the park’s loudspeakers, and the situation resembled the parting of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. It became the haunting sound ending his first love.

Chen Gexin, the singer-songwriter of old Shanghai

Chen Gang’s world-renowned talent is inseparable from his famous father, Chen Gexin. In the 1930s and 1940s, Chen Gexin was a well-known musician in old Shanghai. Shanghai Nights, Rose, Rose, I Love You, The Blossom of Youth, Forever Smiling, Wishing You Happiness and Prosperity, Dream Lover, and many other beautiful songs were all written by Chen Gexin.

In the old Shanghai period, Chen Gexin was so well known and respected for his talent that at least one-third of the songs appearing in movies featuring the popular singer Zhou Xuan were composed by him. Moreover, the influence of his works has continued to this day. Teresa Teng, Anita Mui, and others have sung Chen Gexin’s works in concerts, and they always sing with deep affection. Chen Gexin wrote more than 200 songs during his life, among which Rose, Rose, I Love You was also a big hit when sung by Frankie Laine in English and it remains popular all over the world.

Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng posing in New York City.
Teresa Teng, Asia’s ‘eternal queen of pop,’ is one of many famous artists who sang Chen Gexin’s works in concerts. (Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia)

Chen Gexin: Musical genius and patriot

The young Chen Gexin was gentle and elegant, handsome and refined, and although he lived very frugally and did not have flashy clothes, he still exuded a scholarly aura and extraordinary talent. While teaching in Shanghai, he won the love of a female student named Jin Jiaoli, who was the daughter of a wealthy businessman and the school beauty.

However, their mutual love was opposed by Jiaoli’s family. She bravely broke through the barriers and married Chen Gexin anyway. From then on, they lived a simple and happy life, and Jin Jiaoli supported Chen Gexin’s music career with all her heart.

During this time, Chen Gexin was not only passionate about music, but was also an enthusiastic young man, concerned about the well-being of his motherland. In 1941, he was imprisoned by the Japanese, but he did not give in despite all kinds of torture, and he was finally released. This trying experience did not depress him, but enriched his heart and inspired him to write more songs. Behind the seemingly romantic themes of the music he wrote at that time, there are hidden metaphors expressing Chen Gexin’s hope for victory in the Sino-Japanese War and his yearning for a free and better life.

Happy life in Hong Kong

After the Chinese victory in the Sino-Japanese War, Chen’s family moved to Hong Kong where he continued working on his compositions. The family lived a comfortable and happy life together, but a subsequent decision completely changed not only his own fate, but the fate of his entire family.

In 1950, at the invitation of Shanghai left-wing literary figure Xia Yan, Chen Gexin gave up his privileged life in Hong Kong and returned to Shanghai, full of longing and hope for the “New China” under communist rule. In his wildest dreams, he never thought that the decision to return would doom all his family members to a tragic fate.

Branded a ‘rightist’ by the regime

In 1957, Chen Gexin was branded a “rightist” and condemned to the savage conditions of Baimaoling labor camp in the ravine of Anhui. In 1961, Chen Gexin, who had endured inhuman mental and physical torture, died of starvation, malnutrition, and illness in the labor camp.

Closeup shot of barbed wire.
Chen Gexin, who had endured inhuman mental and physical torture, died of starvation, malnutrition, and illness in the labor camp. (Image: Krzysztof Kosterna via Dreamstime)

Meanwhile, his loyal, courageous, and heroic wife Jin Jiaoli walked all the way to Baimaoling in the snow, as she did many times before to visit him, and the sight that awaited her was harrowing. She was horrified at the state of her beloved husband’s remains. The wild animals were allowed to dig up his body from a shallow grave, and were left to dismember and rip his remains apart. She retrieved 206 of Gexin’s bones. She gently placed his bones in a small wooden box and walked with them on that long, sad journey back home.

Lasting legacy

Following that ordeal, in the long years to come, she was accompanied only by the songs left to her by her husband and Butterfly Lovers by her son Chen Gang, which summarized the family’s longing and pursuit of a free and better life. In the end, their dreams turned into beautiful butterflies and flew away.

Jin Jiaoli came from a very well-off family. She could have had an easy, carefree life. But she gave all that up for the love of her life. We can only hope that the kindliness, endurance, and loyalty that this amazing lady had for her husband and family and for the Chinese nation will one day be recognized by all Chinese people along with people of goodwill everywhere. Perhaps, in the future, some musical genius yet to come will compose “The Symphony of Gexin and Jaoli.”

Translated by: Chua BC

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