Featured in Dozens of Operas, Films, TV Series and Books, What Makes the Legend of the White Snake so Compelling?
The Legend of the White Snake (known also as ’Madame White Snake’) is a well-known legend from China. This fascinating tale is said to have been originally transmitted orally before being transformed into a famous piece of literature.
The earliest attempt to have the story written down is said to have been made during the Ming Dynasty by Feng Meng Long in his work ‘Jing Shi Tong Yan’ (translated as ‘Stories to Caution the World’). In this collection of folktales, the story of the White Snake is entitled Bai Niang Zi Yong Zhen Lei Feng Ta (‘The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda’). The tale has since been adapted into a number of Chinese operas, television series, and films.
Key Characters in the Legend
Whilst there are several different versions of the legend, it is usually set in Hangzhou during the Southern Song Dynasty. The principal characters of the tale are Bai Su Zhen, Xu Xian, Xiao Qing and Fa Hai. Bai Su Zhen is known also as Madame White Snake, and is a white snake spirit, whilst Xu Xian is her human love interest whom she later marries. Xiao Qing is a green snake spirit who is Madame White Snake’s friend / sister, and Fa Hai, a Buddhist monk, is the antagonist of the story.
Mural of the Legend of the White Snake. ( Hangzhou Weekly )
Bai Su Zhen and Xu Xian Fall in Love
In one version of the story, Bai Su Zhen and Xiao Qing took on human forms, and left their home on Mount Emei to visit the West Lake of Hangzhou. Whilst they were on the famous Broken Bridge, a man by the name of Xu Xian passed by them, and Bai Su Zhen immediately fell in love with him. Xiao Qing devised a trick to bring Bai Su Zhen to Xu Xian’s attention. By making it rain, the two of them took shelter under a tree. Seeing the two women, Xu Xian approached them, and offered them his umbrella. As the rain continued, he told them to keep the umbrella, and that he would come back for it the next day.
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Legend of the White Snake, Long Corridor, Beijing. ( Public Domain )
He was told by the women that they lived in a red mansion nearby, and to seek them the following day. Although this house was non-existent, the snake spirits used their magic to make it appear. Xu Xian fell in love with Bai Su Zhen, and the two of them eventually got married. The couple then moved to Zhenjiang, where they opened a medicine shop. Their happiness, however, was not to last, as a monk from the Jin Shan Temple by the name of Fa Hai came to know of this marriage between a human and a spirit. Fa Hai sought Xu Xian out, and warned him about his wife.
Fa Hai Fights the Snake Spirits
Bai Su Zhen was exposed by Fa Hai as a snake spirit. In some versions of the story, the monk told Xu Xian to have his wife drink a certain wine which would turn her back into her original form, in order to convince him that he was telling the truth. Xu Xian follows this advice, sees his wife’s true form, and dies of fright. Devastated, Bai Su Zhen steals a magical herb from Kunlun Mountain, and revives her dead husband. Xu Xian then travels to the Jinshan Temple, where he is forced by Fa Hai to become a monk.
Diorama at Haw Par Villa, Singapore, depicting the battle between Bai Su Zhen and Fa Hai. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Bai Su Zhen and Xiao Qing set out to rescue Xu Xian. During the fight between the snake spirits and Fa Hai, Xu Xian manages to escape from the temple. Bai Su Zhen was eventually captured, and imprisoned in the Leifeng Pagoda, though not before giving birth to a son.
This child was raised by Xu Xian, and eventually succeeded in obtaining the first place in the imperial examination. In some versions of the legend, Bai Su Zhen’s son offered sacrifices to his mother in front of the Leifeng Pagoda. This act of filial piety touched the gods so much that they caused the pagoda to collapse, thus freeing Bai Su Zhen. In other versions, it was Xiao Qing, who, after attaining immortality, succeeded in defeating Fa Hai, and in freeing Bai Su Zhen.
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Retelling the Story
The legend of the White Snake has had many great adaptions in literature and live performances. This tale became a classical theme of a variety of forms including: story, ballads, precious scrolls, fiction stories, historical novels, script form storytelling, dramas, as well as movies, plays, cartoons, and even comics. The story has expanded all throughout China and many other surrounding countries like Japan, Korea, Vietnam and even parts of India. It is easily one of the biggest legends to come from China.
Top image: Long Gallery - Legend of the White Snake. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
By Wu Mingren
Chinatownology, 2015. Madam White Snake 白蛇传. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chinatownology.com/madam_white_snake.html
cultural-china.com, 2014. Legend of the White Snake. [Online]
Available at: http://traditions.cultural-china.com/en/13Traditions53.html
cultureofchinese.com, 2013. Madam White Snake. [Online]
Available at: http://cultureofchinese.com/traditions/folklore/madam-white-snake/
Shepard, A., 2005. Lady White Snake. [Online]
Available at: http://www.aaronshep.com/stories/062.html
Shepard, A., 2017. Lady White Snake. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ladywhitesnake.com/
Zhou, R., 2015. The Legend of the White Snake. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/beijing-opera/white-snake-legend.htm
Your comments on my (ongoing) hermeneutic of the White Snake (legend) and its recent avatars in Chinese movies, TV serials, etc. would be most welcome:
This reminds me a lot of the legend of Melusina, who was a water-snake/mermaid. She married a human husband (a nobleman I believe) who discovered her real nature after which she fled. The legend is Celtic/British in origin, however it is fascinating that another version of it is also present in Asia.
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world ~ Oscar Wilde