The Butterfly Lovers – An Excerpt From a Chinese Legend

Great Wall of China, © Sébastien Laading, Google Maps

Zhu kept her tiny hands hidden in the sleeves of her Zhiduo. It was the price she’d agreed to pay in order to gain an education denied her gender. For three years, she’d worn her hair bound in the traditional masculine topknot. For three years she’d kept her face buried in her books, so that no one could glimpse her snow-blossom cheek and guess her secret. But when Liang came by, it grew more difficult to hide her affections.

They’d met on the journey out, forming an instant attachment that went beyond friendship or even brotherhood. And what it was now, Zhu could no longer deny. At the risk of losing her friendship, she had to let him know.

A mated pair of mandarins floated by, paddling in unison. Zhu slipped her tiny hand from her sleeve and gestured at the pair. “Let us be as they are,” she said.

150 words

This has been an edition of What Pegman Saw. To read more stories inspired by the prompt, or to submit your own, click here.

I confess this story doesn’t have much to do with the Great Wall. I was hoping to find a Romeo & Juliet type-tale where the wall got in the middle. I never found one, but I did come across the story of the Butterfly Lovers, a Chinese legend that has a slightly happier ending than Romeo & Juliet.


  1. This is lovely Karen. So sweet and hopeful. I hope your version of the story ends more cheerfully than the original though. Such a moving detail, those tiny, hidden hands too. Lovely

    1. Thanks Lynn, glad you liked it.

  2. Reminds me of the 1983 film “Yentl” which is based on Jewish folklore.

    1. Interesting! Definitely a similar theme.

  3. I love this. It made me think of Mulan, too, especially the topknot. Well done.

    1. Yes! Mulan too. It was interesting to me to discover those two stories have ancient roots in China, going back nearly 2000 years.

  4. Lovely! The comparison between the soon-to-be lovers (she said with a hopeful heart) and the butterflies.

    1. 🙂 Thanks Lish. Thanks for reading!

      1. It’s always a pleasure reading your stories.

  5. I loved your story, Karen. You tell it beautifully, and with such tenderness.

  6. Such a lovely, beautiful story.

  7. The quiet, measured tone and the beautiful imagery are all of a piece – I can almost see the story as a traditional Chinese painting. Most centrally, Zhu is a woman who knows her own mind. Fabulous story Karen.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  8. No matter how tiny, there is hope here, a hope for a love that will not be denied, that cannot be denied, a love that is patient and strong, a love that is bigger than both of them. Lovely story, Karen.

    I am struggling again today, and yesterday with one for FridayFictioneers. I tried 10 stories starts/end and in the end gave up. Sigh. It is an interesting time.

    1. Oh no, I’m sorry to hear of your struggle! Creative battles are the worst–we can be our own worst enemy. Hoping you find your way through it soon. Always love your stories.

      Thanks for reading & commenting.

  9. […] over, leave again…  This is what you get.  A quickie history lesson!  Thanks, always, to Karen and Josh for hosting this lovely […]

  10. Definitely a mix of Mulan and Yentl! Lovely, Karen. I really enjoyed this.

    1. Thanks for reading, Dale!

  11. […] always, to Karen and Josh for hosting this challenge. Great […]

  12. Dear Karen,

    Everyone has already taken the words from under my fingers. 😉 Lovely tale. And they’re Chinese. What more connection to the prompt do you need? Right? Of course, right! I hope Liang shares Zhu’s feelings. Beautifully told.



    1. Thanks Rochelle. Liang does share Zhu’s feelings, but I’m afraid the legend doesn’t end entirely happily. Glad you liked it!

  13. I love your rendering of the old legend. I have read it. I like your ending better, though.

    1. Why do all those ancient love stories end so badly? Thanks for reading and commenting Jelli.

      1. A warning, maybe. It is said that Love can be either the most beautiful rose, or the most painful thorn. Love can slice your soul, or heal it. It’s the nature of it, I suppose.

  14. She seems so sweet! I hope she gets what she want. Reminded me of Mulan a little bit.

  15. Wow! So much said in 150 words!

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