Legend of the White Snake
|Legend of the White Snake|
Image from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China, depicting the legend
The Legend of the White Snake, also known as Madame White Snake, is a Chinese legend which existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation. It has since been presented in a number of major Chinese operas, films and television series.
The earliest attempt to fictionalise the story in printed form appears to be The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda (白娘子永鎭雷峰塔) in Feng Menglong's Stories to Caution the World (Chinese: 警世通言), which was written during the Ming dynasty.
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 (simplified Chinese: 许仙; traditional Chinese: 許仙; pinyin: Xǔ Xiān; Jyutping: Heoi2 Sin1) 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 (Chinese: 白素貞; pinyin: Bái Sùzhēn; Jyutping: Baak6 Sou3-zing1) and Xiaoqing (Chinese: 小青; pinyin: Xiǎoqīng; Jyutping: Siu2-cing1), respectively. 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 (Chinese: 法海; pinyin: Fǎhǎi; Jyutping: Faat3-hoi2). 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 (金山寺). 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 (Chinese: 許夢蛟; pinyin: Xǔ Mèngjiāo; Jyutping: Heoi2 Mung6-gaau1). 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.
Modifications and alternate versions
The white snake was simply known as the "White Lady" or "White Maiden" (Chinese: 白娘子; pinyin: Bái Niángzǐ; Jyutping: Baak6 Noeng4-zi2) in the original tale in Feng Menglong's Jingshi Tongyan (警世通言). The name "Bai Suzhen" was created in a later era.
The original story was a story of good and evil, with the Buddhist monk Fahai setting out to save Xu Xian's soul from the white snake spirit, who was depicted as an evil demon. Over the centuries, however, the legend has evolved from a horror tale to a romance story, with Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian being genuinely in love with each other even though their relationship is forbidden by the laws of nature.
Some adaptations of the legend in theatre, film, television and other media have made extensive modifications to the original story, including the following:
- The green snake (Xiaoqing) is portrayed as a treacherous antagonist who betrays the white snake, as opposed to the traditional depiction of her as the white snake's close friend and confidant.
- Fahai is portrayed in a more sympathetic light as opposed to the traditional depiction of him as a vindictive and jealous villain. His background story is also different in some adaptations.
- Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda because her son's filial piety moved the gods of Heaven.
- A retcon, or revisionist, version of the story relates that Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian were actually immortals who fell in love and were banished from Heaven because celestial laws forbade their romance. They are reincarnated as a male human and a female white snake spirit respectively and their story begins.
Operas and stage plays
- The story has been performed numerous times in Peking opera, Cantonese opera and other Chinese operas.
- Stage musical adaptations in Hong Kong include:
- Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater performed a modern dance interpretation of Madam White Snake in the 1970s.
- In 2010, an opera based on the legend, Madame White Snake, with music by Zhou Long and a libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs, premiered in a production by Opera Boston. It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
- In 2012, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, staged an adaptation by Mary Zimmerman.
- The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇傳), a 1939 Chinese film made by Xinhua Studio. It was the earliest adaptation of the legend.
- The Legend of the White Serpent (白夫人の妖恋), a 1956 Japanese film made by Toho in collaboration with Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio. It was noted for being the first Toho special effects film to be in colour.
- The Tale of the White Serpent (白蛇傳), the first coloured anime feature film released in Japan in 1958. The U.S. release title was Panda and the Magic Serpent. It was also one of the rare instances where Xiaoqing is represented as a fish demon and not a snake demon. It was also the only known film based on the legend to be dubbed in German (German release title: Erzählung einer weißen Schlange).
- Madam White Snake, a 1962 film produced by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio. This version is a Huangmei opera directed by Yueh Feng, with music by Wang Fu-ling on a libretto by Li Chun-ching.
- Snake Woman's Marriage (白蛇大鬧天宮), a 1975 Taiwanese film directed by Sun Yang.
- Green Snake (青蛇), a 1993 Hong Kong film directed by Tsui Hark, starring Maggie Cheung, Joey Wong, Vincent Zhao and Wu Hsing-kuo.
- The Sorcerer and the White Snake (白蛇傳說), a 2011 3D film, starring Jet Li, Huang Shengyi, Raymond Lam and Charlene Choi.
- The Legend of Lady White Snake: A Tribute to the Spirit of Alexander McQueen, a short film starring Daphne Guinness, directed by Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, with creative direction/styling by GK Reid, produced by Markus Klinko & Indrani, Daphne Guinness and GK Reid. Written by Indrani, inspired by the ancient Chinese legend, with a poem by Neil Gaiman, the film is set in contemporary New York City. Previews of the film are featured in the Daphne Guinness Exhibition at the Museum of the Fashion Institute from September 16, 2011 through January 6, 2012.
- Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔), a 1977 Taiwanese television series.
- Legend of the White Snake (白蛇傳), a 1985 Taiwanese television series.
- The Serpentine Romance (奇幻人間世), a 1990 television series produced by Hong Kong's TVB, starring Maggie Chan, Maggie Siu and Hugo Ng.
- New Legend of Madame White Snake / The Legend of White Snake (新白娘子傳奇), a 1992 Taiwanese television series starring Angie Chiu, Cecilia Yip and Maggie Chen.
- The Legendary White Snake (白蛇後傳之人間有愛), a 1995 Singaporean television series starring Geoffrey Tso, Lin Yisheng, Terence Cao, Lina Ng, Ding Lan, Liu Qiulian and Wang Changli.
- My Date with a Vampire (我和殭屍有個約會), a Hong Kong television series produced by ATV. The series made extensive use of the story, reusing it in the first season (1998) and a modified version in the second season (1999).
- Madam White Snake / Legend of the Snake Spirits (白蛇新傳), a 2001 Taiwanese and Singapore co-produced television series starring Fann Wong, Christopher Lee, Zhang Yuyan and Vincent Jiao.
- Madame White Snake (白蛇傳), a 2005 Chinese television series starring Liu Tao, Pan Yueming, Chen Zihan and Liu Xiaofeng.
- The Legend of White Snake Sequel / Tale of the Oriental Serpent (白蛇後傳), a 2009 sequel to Madame White Snake (2005), starring Fu Miao, Qiu Xinzhi, Shi Zhaoqi, Chi Shuai and Cecilia Liu.
- Love of the Millennium (又見白娘子), an upcoming Chinese television series as a sequel to New Legend of Madame White Snake (1992), starring Zuo Xiaoqing, Queenie Tai, Ren Quan and Shen Xiaohai.
- In the West, there have been children's picture book adaptations of the legend, written by Western authors and illustrated by Chinese artists, including:
- The novella The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffmann Price is based on the story.
- The legend is a major part of the fantasy novella "Fighting Demons" by S. L. Huang.
- In 2009, Dantes Dailiang made use of the Chinese lyrics of the Legend of White Snake for his song La muse aux lèvres rouges (红唇之缪斯女神), recorded in his LP Dailiang.
- In 2012 the Swatch company launched a model named The legend of white snake in honor of the Chinese new year, the year of the snake. The watch's hands are white and green snakes.
- Idema (2012), p. 26.
- Boston Globe: "Curtain rises on ancient Chinese myth," March 1, 2010, accessed March 2, 2010
- "Oregon Shakespeare Festival" website , accessed March 4, 2012
- Eolin, Sara. "Daphne Guinness Exhibit at FIT" September 13, 2011 in Aero Film Blog. http://aerofilm.blogspot.com/2011/09/fashion-week-has-settled-upon-new-york.html
- Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1960,
- Union City, CA: Pan Asian Publications, 2001.
References and further reading
- Idema, Wilt L. (2009). The White Snake and Her Son: A Translation of the Precious Scroll of Thunder Peak with Related Texts. Hackett Publishing. ISBN 9781603843751.
- —— (2012). "Old Tales for New Times: Some Comments on the Cultural Translation of China's Four Great Folktales in the Twentieth Century 二十世紀中國四大民間故事的文化翻譯" (PDF). Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies. 9 (1): 25–46.
- Mao, Xian (2013). Cowherd and Weaver and other most popular love legends in China. eBook: Kindle Direct Publishing.
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