In 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. “Literature and art should be powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy,” Mao said on his cultural policy. Far from merely parroting the cultural policies of neighbouring Stalinism, Mao’s approach to art had deep roots: Confucius wrote in the fifth century BCE that a country “should begin its educational and moral development first with poetry, then with Li (ethics), and finally with Music.”

The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, written in 1959 by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang while they were still students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, deals with all three of poetry, ethics and music. The work follows a folkloric story of doomed lovers set in the Eastern Jin dynasty, which ran 266–420 AD. Although the details differ according to the retelling, the core elements of the story involve the conventions of a genre called caizi-jiaren, or “scholar-beauty”: romantic stories that often feature women disguising themselves and living as men for the sake of education.

In the Butterfly Lovers story, the female hero is Zhu Yingtai, who disguises herself as a man and travels to Hangzhou to study for a man’s education. On her way she meets fellow student Liang Shanbo, and the two take to each other to the extent of immediately taking an oath of brotherhood. Towards the end of their studies Zhu Yingtai attempts to legitimize their loving relationship by inviting Liang Shanbo back to her family to meet and marry her “sister”— who is, of course, herself. Unfortunately, Zhu Yingtai’s father has already promised her to another man. When Liang Shanbo discovers both that the man he loved is a woman, and that he cannot marry her, he dies of heartbreak. As Zhu Yingtai takes part in her own wedding procession towards her fate of marrying a man she does not love, she passes Liang Shanbo’s grave, which opens with a clap of thunder. She dives into it to join him, and their spirits emerge from the ground as a pair of butterflies.

The same elements of the story that make it appealing to a Western audience (it is frequently described in the English-speaking world as “Chinese Romeo and Juliet,” though given the respective ages of each tale it would probably be more accurate to characterize Romeo and Juliet as “English Butterfly Lovers”) made it appealing to the Communist Party as a suitable artistic focus for Chinese artists. The Party aimed to liberate Chinese women from the feudal traditions of arranged marriage, bound feet and lack of access to education— with, of course, the aim of liberating them into serving the Party as workers and soldiers as well as mothers and wives. Zhu Yingtai, committed to both education and the integrity of her love, was a suitable protagonist. New adaptations of the story were in vogue; in 1946, an all-female opera company in Shanghai called the Xuesheng Company staged the tale with a focus on “the theme of free love and marriage.”

Three years later, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao worked together to produce a concerto on the subject— one which was close to Chen Gang’s heart. “I felt that I shared the fate of the female protagonist, that we breathed together,” he later wrote. Indeed, he already had several things in common with her: he falsified his age, instead of his gender, to enter school, having aged himself up from 14 to 18 to take the entrance examinations to university. He also understood lost love: shortly before the composition of the concerto he had been labelled a “rightist son” opposed to the ideals of his fatherland, sent to labour in the countryside, and lost his relationship with his first love as a result.

The concerto tells the story of the lovers in seven sections, with the violin representing Zhu Yingtai and the cello as Liang Shanbo. The first movement portray’s Zhu Yingtai’s childhood and her oath of fraternity with Liang Shanbo; the second, their three years of schooling together; the third, the pain of their parting and the invitation to marry Zhu Yingtai’s “sister”; the fourth, the protagonist’s struggle against her father’s choice of husband; the fifth, a duet between the two lovers after the revelation of Zhu Yingtai’s identity; the sixth, the anger and heartbreak of Liang Shanbo’s grief and Zhu Yingtai’s subsequent suicide; and the seventh, the two souls’ transformation into butterflies.