Review: Butterfly Lovers is the perfect ensemble coming-of-age drama

“Whether one be male or female, rich or poor, royal or commoner, they should all be able to fly freely.” – The Butterfly Lovers

With a diverse set of characters that grow with each other as they try to find their way in a hierarchical feudal world that is rapidly in decline, the Peter Ho and Dong Jie version of The Butterfly Lovers 梁山伯与祝英台  is one of my to-go feel-good dramas (I stop at some point for obvious reasons). It’s refreshing to see a series where every person is full of wide-eyed wonder at the world they’re learning about and will soon be facing. Foils at every major decision point for the lead couple shows the complexity of the decisions they are forced to make and truly show why Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai are soulmates. 
Alternatively, if you like the possessive male lead who is mean to everyone but the female lead and has a troubled childhood that you can pity him for, then supporting male lead Ma Wencai (Chen Guanlin) has you covered. I’m 100% convinced the canon couple are soulmates in this drama, but I can see why this version’s Ma Wencai has a huge following.

This dance that Dong Jie choreographed on the day of shooting is one of my favorite TV dances. It’s simple but it’s so beautifully shot.

Zhu Yingtai: Shanbo, was I wrong?  (after learning her friend who she had helped to elope had become a prostitute)

Liang Shanbo: No, you didn’t do anything wrong. If I were you, I would’ve also helped her escape. If someone were to blame, it’s the man she eloped her with.  Why did he   strip her of her dignity and force her to work in the red light district?  When it comes down to it, if it weren’t for the strict feudal system and the oppressive social order,  you two wouldn’t have had to make this choice in the first place. 

Set during the turbulent Wei-Jin era, The Butterfly Lover is a  romance of daring youths trying to find love and order in a world that is trying to maintain its restrictive feudal system dominated by a few aristocrats while war and famine ravages the land.    The story opens with the rebellious Zhu Yingtai, a member of the medieval Chinese aristocracy, who helps her brother’s bride elope.  She then convinces her parents to let her go to school as a man.  There, she becomes roommates and best friends with fellow student Liang Shanbo.  They’re joined by a cast of ambitious and sometimes troubled young scholars and workers at the academy.

The series explores each of the main characters’ decisions through the use of foils at every moment, treating every decision with understanding rather than judgment. One woman chose to rebel against the conventions of love and found true love, one chose to elope and found herself tricked into an abusive relationship. One chose to not settle and found her true love, another chose to give someone else a chance and found hers. Ultimately, though, it’s not their individual decisions but the oppressive social order combined with turbulent times that results in tragedies in the story.

Zhu Yingtai dons a wedding garment a total of four times in the drama, each time showing a side of the tragedy of the times but also the audacity of hope of the characters.

Guest lecturers, including historical figures like Xie Daoxun and  Tao Yuanming, are brought in to aid the students and the story.  When famed female scholar Xie Daoxun guest lectures at the school, the students are asked to comment on The Ballad of Mulan.

Liang Shanbo: “While The Ballad of Mulan shows Mulan’s loyalty and filial piety, it ignores her self-determination. Yingtai, you continue.”

Zhu Yingtai : “In the ballad, Mulan didn’t join the army because it was what she desired, but because ‘A dozen volumes of battle rolls, Each one with my father’s name. My father has no grown-up son, And I have no elder brother.’ Her intelligence, bravery, loyalty, and filial duty are admirable, but unfortunately she still returned to ‘ I adjust my wispy hair at the window sill, And apply my bisque makeup by the mirror.’ Why must women be holed up inside their rooms instead of being free to be themselves? “

In the series, this is the attitude that every character takes. No one is passive, but are all actively trying to rebel against their fate.  From servants to nobles, one person after another chose to fight against class,  family, gender, marriage, and the feudal system. The Butterfly Lovers a romance of two people, but also a beautiful ode to the human spirit fit for the timeless tale of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.

From servants to nobles, one person after another chose to fight against class,  family, gender, marriage, and the feudal system.  

The stellar cast co-stars Chen Ziyan, Zhan Xiaonan, Xie Yuanzhen, Chen Cheng, Kou Zhenhai,  Wang Qianyou, Qu Xin, Wan Hongjie, Che Yongli, Jiang Hong, Cai Xinqiong, Wang Xiaokun, Ming Hui, and Zhang Tianqi. Literally everyone named is perfectly cast and give memorable performances.

The series is written by Zhang Yingjun (The Magic Blade) and directed by Chen Chun-Liang (Justice Pao).

Zhu Yingtai: You have kept this red wedding veil with you. Do you like her?

Liang Shanbo: Yes, I do like her. I like her living life to the fullest. I like her free spirit. I like  her audacity to fight against the injust. Although I don’t know what she looks like, she is a perfect human being. One can’t help but want to bless her and wish her a joyful life.

Zhu Yingtai: You don’t lust after her beauty, but respect her spirit.

Liang Shanbo:That’s exactly what I mean. You truly are my soulmate.

Zhu Yingtai: Will you keep this wedding veil  forever?

Liang Shanbo:No, I hope this spirit can soar freely. It deserves her own happiness. Whether one be male or female, rich or poor, royal or commoner, they should all be able to fly freely.

Famous scholar Xie Xundao makes a guest appearance to discuss the Ballad of Mulan
梁山伯与祝英台 _ 亓元 _ 寒棚夜话 - 2019-03-30T013517.153


4 thoughts on “Review: Butterfly Lovers is the perfect ensemble coming-of-age drama

  1. Why the Cproducer didnt make the new version of this drama? Ee have tons of condor heroes.. it would be great to get this one too. With many popular new actors nowadays, why not?

    • There actually was recently and it was produced by actor Nicky Wu. It wasn’t very well-received, I think.
      The problem with remakes and adaptations these days are that production companies are putting too much faith on the success of the original work or precedent depictions that fared well that they don’t work hard on the script or miscast the leads, in some cases.

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