Once there was an old man named Meng who lived with his wife in the southern part of China. One spring, Meng sowed a seed of calabash in his yard. The bottle gourd grew little by little – its vines climbed over the wall and entered his neighbor Jiang’s yard. Like Meng, Jiang had no children. Jiang became very fond of the plant. He watered it and took great care of it. With the tender care of both men, the plant grew bigger and bigger and showed a beautiful calabash in autumn. Jiang plucked the calabash and the two old men decided to divide it by half. However, when they cut it, they found a pretty little girl lying inside. They decided to raise the child together and named the girl Meng Jiang – a combination of both their names.
As time went by, the little girl grew up to become a beautiful young woman. Smart and industrious, she looked after Meng and Jiang’s families, washing the clothes and doing the house work. One day while playing in the yard, Meng Jiang saw a young man hiding in the garden. The young man’s name was Fan Qiliang. At that time, Emperor Qin Shihuang made the announcement to build the Great Wall. Many poor young men were caught by the federal officials to work on the wall. Fan Qiliang escaped to Meng’s house to hide from the officials.
Meng and Jiang liked this handsome, honest and well-mannered young man. They decided to wed their daughter to him and the young couple got married several days later. However, three days after their marriage, officials suddenly broke in and took Fan Qiliang away to build the wall in the north of China.
Meng Jiang missed her husband and cried nearly every day. She sewed warm clothes for him and decided to set off to look for him. Saying farewell to her parents, she started her long journey. She climbed over mountains and went through the rivers. Walking day and night, slipping and falling, Meng Jiang finally reached the foot of the Great Wall at the present Shanhaiguan Pass.
Upon her arrival, she eagerly asked about her husband. However, Fan Qiliang had already died of exhaustion and was buried into the Great Wall. Meng Jiangnu collapsed to the ground – she cried and cried. Suddenly, with a tremendous noise, a 400 kilometer-long section of the wall collapsed over her bitter wail. Emperor Qin Shihuang, who happened to be touring the wall at that exact time, he was enraged and ready to punish the woman who caused this misfortune.
The Emperor became attracted by her beauty. Instead of killing her, the Emperor asked Meng Jiang to marry him. Suppressing her anger, Meng Jiang gave him three conditions: first, the Emperor had to find the body of Fan Qiliang, the second was to hold a state funeral for him and the last one was to have the Emperor attend the funeral in person. Emperor Qin reluctantly agreed. After all the conditions were met and the Emperor was ready to take her to his palace, Meng Jiang suddenly jumped into the nearby Bohai Sea.
In memory of Meng Jiang, later generations built a temple at the foot of the Great Wall in which a statue of her is located.
Because to Christianity’s prominent inﬂuence in Western society, the book of Genesis have left a lingering demonization of snakes in the Western culture. However, serpents act as important symbols in many world cultures and not all of them symbolize evil. In Ancient Greece, nonpoisonous snakes often roamed freely in temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine as they interpreted snakes’ ability to shed their skin as a type of regeneration and thus a symbol of healing. The Norse god Jormungand, known as the Midgard Serpent, is also considered a cosmic serpent as he circles the world with his body. In the Hindu tradition, Shesha is a cosmic serpent and the king of all Nagas. Shesha holds the universe in his hood. Nagas occur in Buddhist lore too. One story tells of a Naga named Mucalinda sheltering Buddha from a storm as he meditates in a forest.
Chinese mythology is endearing as every story tells us that all things may grow and change. A stone may become a plant. A plant may become an animal. An animal may become a human. A human may become a god. The Legend of Madam White Snake is counted as one of China’s Four Great Folktales, the others being Lady Meng Jiang, Butterfly Lovers and the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The Legend of Madam White Snake has expanded all throughout China and many other surrounding countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, even parts of India. In fact, t is easily one of the biggest legends to come from China.
The earliest attempt to fictionalize the story in printed form appears to be The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda by Feng Menglong, which was written during the Ming dynasty. The story propelled Lei Feng Pagoda to fame – it continues to be one of the most popular tourist sights in China.
Lu Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, disguises himself as a man selling tangyuan at the Broken Bridge near the West Lake in Hangzhou. A boy named Xu Xian buys some tangyuan from Lu Dongbin without knowing that they are actually immortality pills. After eating them, Xu Xian does not feel hungry for the next three days. He therefore goes back to the old man to ask him why. Lu Dongbin laughs. He carries Xu Xian to the bridge where he then flips him upside down and causes him to vomit the tangyuan into the lake.
Swimming in the lake is a white snake spirit who has been practicing magical arts for centuries in the hope of becoming an immortal. She eats the pills and gains 500 years’ worth of magical powers. She feels grateful to Xu Xian and, from that moment on, their fates become intertwined. There is also a tortoise spirit training in the lake who did not manage to consume any of the pills. He becomes very jealous of the white snake.
One day, the white snake sees a beggar on the bridge who has caught a green snake to 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. Grateful, the green snake 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 and Xiaoqing respectively. They meet Xu Xian at the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou. Xu Xian lends them his umbrella because it is raining. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen fall in love and are eventually married. They move to Zhenjiang, where they open a medicine shop.
In the meantime, the tortoise 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. As realgar wine is associated with the Duanwu Festival , Xu Xian give the wine to Bai Suzhen who unsuspectingly drinks it and reveals her true form as a large white snake. After seeing that his wife is not human, Xu Xian dies of shock. 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 nature. Fahai tries to separate them again by capturing Xu Xian and imprisoning him in Jinshan Temple. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing fights Fahai to rescue Xu Xian. Bai Suzhen uses her powers to flood the temple. However, despite drowning many innocent people, 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 again, defeats Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in Leifeng Pagoda. Xiaoqing flees, vowing vengeance.
Twenty years later, Xu Mengjiao earns the zhuangyuan (top scholar) degree in the imperial examination and returns home to visit his parents. At the same time Xiaoqing, who had spent years refining her powers, 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. However, instead of being reunited with her husband and son, Bai Suzhen attained immortality and ascended to the heavens.
Madam White Snake is commonly interpreted as a reflection of the tension between social norms and individual desires. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen’s love affair was one that did not conform to social norms at the time and Fahai represents the force that attempts to uphold social hierarchy and maintain social norms. Fahai’s attempts and eventual success in separating them implies the priority of society over individuals. A contrast is provided in the story by Bai Suzhen’s son who emerged as the top scholar in the imperial exams. He represents individuals who are rewarded when they confirm to social norms. As a result, Bai Suzhen was rewarded through her release from the Lei Feng pagoda but the social norms continued to prevail – she was rewarded with immortality but remain separated from her husband and son.
As is the case for any stories with the kind of legacy that the Legend of Madam White Snake seem to have, where they started to be told orally until they were written down some hundred years later, characters and plot points have been added, altered and erased as the story moved from one culture to another. In a version written by Philostratus in 2nd-century Greece, the White Snake character introduces herself as a common Phoenician woman, while in a version recorded in Kashmir she is the daughter of a Chinese king. Some might consider such narrative inconsistencies and the tale’s unwritten beginnings problematic, especially when trying to locate an authentic text or ascribe artistic value to recorded retellings. But the absence of an authoritative text is perhaps one of the reasons for its perpetual value.
One of the earliest recorded ancestors of the White Snake story found in China appeared in an anthology of classic folk tales published in 981 CE. The story is categorized as a late period Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) romance and titled “Li Huang” after its main character. In this version, Li is a married man who comes to Chang’an, the Tang capital, to find a job. He meets a “fairylike” lady dressed in white by a vendor cart, buys clothes for her and follows her home for a repayment. He eventually marries and spends three pleasurable days with her. When he returns to his home, Li Huang becomes ill and his body melts into his sheets. His servant leads his family toward the lady in white’s house, but when they arrive, they find only an empty garden with a locust tree bearing checks to repay Li. Locals report that a white serpent was commonly seen by the tree.