THE LEGEND OF WHITE SNAKE

The Legend of the White Snake is a a love story about a man and a white snake. The first short tale was found during the Tang Dynasty (618 AD). That’s a cautionary, vigilant and tragic story of a man in love with a lady in white. The scenes of West Lake and Leifeng Pagoda were added and the central theme was established during the Song Dynasty (960 AD). The earliest attempt to fictionalize the story appears to be “Madame White Snake Jailed Eternally in the “Leifeng Pagoda” in Jing Shi Tong Yan by Feng Menglong during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644).

The legend of White Snake is one of the most popular tales of China, with countless versions in folklore, literature, and drama. The story is counted as one of China’s Four Great Folktales, the others being Lady Meng Jiang, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, and The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid (Niulang Zhinü).

Synopsis

Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, disguises himself as a man selling tangyuan at the Broken Bridge (斷橋) near the West Lake in Hangzhou. A boy called Xu Xian buys some tangyuan from Lü Dongbin without knowing that they are actually immortality pills. He does not feel hungry for the next three days after eating them, so he goes back to ask why. Lü Dongbin laughs and carries Xu Xian to the bridge, where he flips him upside-down and causes him to vomit the tangyuan into the lake.

In the lake, there is a white snake spirit who has been practising Taoist magical arts in the hope of becoming an immortal after centuries of training and cultivation. She eats the pills and gains 500 years’ worth of magical powers. She therefore feels grateful to Xu Xian and their fates become intertwined. There is another terrapin (or tortoise) spirit also training in the lake who did not manage to consume any of the pills; he is very jealous of the white snake. One day, the white snake sees a beggar on the bridge who has caught a green snake and wants to dig out the snake’s gall and sell it. The white snake transforms into a woman and buys the green snake from the beggar, thus saving the green snake’s life. The green snake is grateful to the white snake and she regards the white snake as an elder sister.

Eighteen years later, during the Qingming Festival, the white and green snakes transform themselves into two young women called Bai Suzhen (Lady White) and Xiaoqing (Lady Green). They meet Xu Xian at the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou. Xu lends them his umbrella because it is raining. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen gradually fall in love and are eventually married. They move to Zhenjiang, where they open a medicine shop.

In the meantime, the terrapin spirit has accumulated enough powers to take human form, so he transforms into a Buddhist monk called Fahai.). Still angry with Bai Suzhen, Fahai plots to break up her relationship with Xu Xian. He approaches Xu Xian and tells him that during the Duanwu Festival his wife should drink realgar wine, a wine associated with that festival. Bai Suzhen unsuspectingly drinks the wine and reveals her true form as a large white snake. Xu Xian dies of shock after seeing that his wife is not human. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing travel to Mount Emei, where they brave danger to steal a magical herb that restores Xu Xian to life.

After coming back to life, Xu Xian still maintains his love for Bai Suzhen despite knowing her true identity. Fahai tries to separate them again by capturing Xu Xian and imprisoning him in Jinshan Temple. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing fight with Fahai to rescue Xu Xian. Bai uses her powers to flood the temple and drowns many innocent people. However, her powers are limited because she is already pregnant with Xu Xian’s child, so she fails to save her husband. Xu Xian later manages to escape from Jinshan Temple and reunite with his wife in Hangzhou, where Bai Suzhen gives birth to their son, Xu Mengjiao. Fahai tracks them down, defeats Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in Leifeng Pagoda.

Twenty years later, Xu Mengjiao earns the zhuangyuan (top scholar) degree in the imperial examination and returns home in glory to visit his parents. At the same time, Xiaoqing, who escaped when Bai Suzhen was captured by Fahai, goes to Jinshan Temple to confront Fahai and defeats him. Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda and reunited with her husband and son, while Fahai flees and hides inside the stomach of a crab. There is a saying that a crab’s internal fat is orange because it resembles the colour of Fahai’s kasaya.

This legend has changed drastically from its beginnings. In the earliest versions, Lady White truly was a man-eating demon, and the Buddhist and Taoist priests who intervened were heroes. Over time she was portrayed more sympathetically, and popular sentiment came to side squarely with the lady and her quest for love. Nowadays in China, political interpretations are also common—but the story can be approached from many angles.