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March 26, 2017

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Home » Sunday » Now and Then

Legend of the White Snake

LOVE IS a constant theme in many of the world’s great stories, and this is certainly true with China’s Four Great Folktales, namely, “Lady White Snake,” “Butterfly Lovers,” “Lady Meng Jiang” and “Weaver Girl and the Cowherd,” all of which are tragic love stories.

Most Chinese folktales extol “free love,” or true love that happens between a man and a woman without any outside interference. This is because in feudal China, marriage was not decided by love, but by parental arrangement. Free courtship was usually condemned as a form of promiscuity.

Despite the fact that “free love” was desired by many young couples for thousands of years, few were allowed to pursue it. And those who did get a taste of it usually ended up in tragedy.

The famous Chinese folktale, “Lady White Snake,” is just one such story.

The folktale has been dated to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). It was retold for generations as part of an oral tradition. The first written version of the tale, namely “Madame White Snake Locked for Eternity in Leifeng Pagoda,” appeared in “Jingshi Tongyan” (“Stories to Caution the World”), a widely acclaimed collection of vernacular tales compiled by Feng Menglong, a writer and poet of the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In the following centuries, the story was embellished into numerous variations, but generally, it remained set against the backdrop of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), when Chinese rulers moved the country’s capital from the north to Hangzhou, a scenic city in east China.

The basic story goes that once upon a time, a white snake and a blue snake dwelling in a remote mountain in southwest China became immortal and obtained great spiritual power after centuries of ceaseless self cultivation and discipline. At this point, the first thing they desired was to sample the joys of the human world.

One day, they came to Hangzhou to visit its famed West Lake. The white snake appeared as a beautiful gentle lady and the blue snake as her pretty maid.

They were immediately entranced by the breathtaking scenes there.

“I’m so glad that we left our home in the cold and dreary mountain and came here,” said Lady White Snake as she and her companion strolled along the bank of the lake.

When they came to the famous Broken Bridge, the two snake ladies spotted a very handsome young man there carrying an umbrella under his arm. Lady White Snake fell in love with him instantly.

Just then, it began to rain and the two ladies rushed to take shelter under a nearby willow tree. The young man noticed their plight and came forward to introduce himself and offered them his umbrella.

“Ladies, I’m Xu Xian,” the young man said. “It seems this tree isn’t going to keep you dry for long, please use my umbrella.”

He then hailed a boat to take the three of them back to town. On the boat the two ladies introduced themselves to Xu and the three had a pleasant chat. When the boat approached the landing the ladies asked for, the rain stopped.

To create an excuse to see the young man again, Blue clandestinely pointed a finger to the sky and immediately the rain started once again.

Just as Blue hoped, Xu insisted that the two ladies take his umbrella home and he would come for it the following day.

Happy family

When they met again, the two ladies thanked Xu profusely and entertained him with a sumptuous meal. After several cups of wine, the young man told his host that his parents passed away when he was very young and now he worked as an assistant at a shop for herbal medicine.

The two ladies were delighted to learn the background of Xu and pleased by his words and manners. So, when Lady White Snake excused herself for a moment and left the room, Blue told Xu that her mistress would like to know if he would like to marry her because she’d fallen in love with him after their encounter the day before.

The young man was pleasantly surprised and said he would like nothing better, but with the little he earned as a shop assistant, he wouldn’t be able to support the three of them.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Blue. “My mistress has inherited a big fortune from her family.”

That night, after going through a traditional wedding ritual, Xu and Lady White Snake became husband and wife.

After getting married, the new couple moved to Zhenjiang, a city in a neighboring province. They opened their own herbal medicine shop there and soon their business began to flourish thanks to Xu’s hard work, his wife’s unusual expertise in medical treatment and Blue’s assistance.

Months later, Xu was overjoyed to learn that his wife was expecting a baby.

But their happy married life was then shattered after a local monk called Fahai paid a visit to their shop.

Fatal conclusion

The monk told Xu that his wife was actually a demon snake, not a human being and taught him how to make his wife drink some realgar wine to show her true form.

At first, Xu was outraged by the monk’s news and didn’t believe it. Then, however, curiosity and suspicion got the better of him and he decided to give it a shot to see if his wife was really a snake. So, one day, Xu tricked his wife to drink a cup of wine mixed with the soft orange mineral. Almost immediately, his wife turned into a long white snake.

Seeing this, the young man collapsed to floor and died of shock.

To save her husband and their happy married life, the white snake took great risk to steal a magic mushroom from Heaven to bring Xu back to life. But soon afterward, Xu was confined by Fahai in the Golden Mountain Temple on the bank of the Yangtze River.

To get her husband back, Lady White Snake and her sworn sister Blue launched a war against the monk and used all their spiritual power to flood and destroy the temple. But, because of her condition, Lady White Snake wasn’t in her best form. She was eventually defeated by an army of heavenly warriors called up by Fahai.

After the white snake gave birth to her baby son, she was imprisoned under Leifeng Pagoda by the West Lake.

Centuries later, Blue came back to the West Lake after she obtained new and higher spiritual power. She burnt down Leifeng Pagoda and set Lady White Snake free. But it was way too late to bring back the latter’s true love and the happy marriage she once enjoyed.

Over the centuries, the story of Lady White Snake has been retold in novels, ballads, poems, stage plays, movies and TV series. This tradition will probably continue for as long as people still long for true, free love.


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