The Ever-Changing Story
by Nora Sørena Casey
A five-story-high pagoda stands on the West Lake of Hangzhou and, according to an ancient Chinese legend, trapped beneath it is a white snake that once took the form of a beautiful woman. When the tower was first constructed in 975 CE*, the white snake was known as a fearful demon. The pagoda stood until 1924, when the original structure collapsed. By the time the pagoda was rebuilt in 2002, the legend of the white snake celebrated her valor and love. Over the centuries details were lost, replaced or embellished, but two iconic elements of the tale endure: the white snake that appears as a woman and the relationship between this mythic female and a mortal man.
The legend was published for the first time in a folktale anthology from 981 CE, in which a man visiting the city has an amorous encounter with a woman in white. Upon returning home, he becomes ill, and that night his body melts into his sheets. When the man’s family seeks out the woman they learn that her home has always been uninhabited, except for a white snake that lives in the locust tree. The bizarre and tragic fate of the man and the alluring but deadly shape-shifting woman, were transcribed from a popular oral story of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). Part of the bianwen genre, translated as “stories of metamorphosis,” this was one of many tales told in the vernacular that introduced Taoist and Buddhist ideas of unity, opposition and multiple deities to the larger population.
The influences of religious philosophies helped to focus the details of this hazy legend. In the next major re-telling, the 16th-century Story of the Three Pagodas on West Lake, a young man named Xi Xuanzan visits Hangzhou’s West Lake during the Qingming Festival. He accompanies a young girl and an old woman to their house, where a beautiful woman in white invites him to their feast. It quickly becomes apparent that the women fall into the class of she-demons, alongside mythic figures like succubae or sirens, when he watches them slaughter a man and devour his heart and liver. After witnessing this, Xi Xuanzan is intimidated into becoming the woman in white’s new husband, and it is only with the young girl’s magical aid that he later escapes the same death. A Taoist priest intervenes to help Xuanzan and to restore the natural order, compelling the women and young girl to reveal their true shapes. The old woman becomes an otter, the young girl transforms into a black hen and the beautiful woman turns into a white snake. In spite of their protests (and the young girl’s reminder that she actually helped Xuanzan), the Taoist priest imprisons them all under stone pagodas on the West Lake. The lake remains central to this story as more than just a location—once considered the home of nymphs, lakes became associated with female demons in Buddhist mythology during the medieval period, in opposition to mountains, which were the home of ascetics.
Purloined coins, magical charms and lost umbrellas are just some of the new elements that develop the legend in Feng Menglong’s novella from 1624, Madame White Forever Confined under Thunder Peak Pagoda. A novella with a more realistic style, it adds details to the characters, setting and events to highlight social, civil and personal relationships. Instead of the young girl and older woman, a green-clad woman, who is a transformed green fish, serves the white snake (Madame White).
Little Green’s presence emphasizes a shift in the story towards a portrait of domesticity, with the most drastic change in the relationship between Madame White and the man, now named Xu Xuan [in Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation the character is called Xu Xian]. They get married, and unlike the deadly romance of earlier versions, this marriage serves as a binding agreement that keeps Madame White and Xu Xuan together, even as the community suspects the uncanny woman of stealing and shape-shifting. Menglong’s novella also adds complexity to the religious portrait: reflecting a shifting religious landscape, he introduces a Buddhist monk named Fa Hai, whose mission is to expose and imprison Madame White.
In portraying her as a sympathetic figure guided by human needs, this novella plants a seed that grows wildly throughout the next century. Madame White becomes female not only in form, but also in a cultural sense: wooing Xu Xuan with a home-cooked meal and using Green as an agent to arrange their marriage in accordance with tradition. But is it a love story? Madame White no longer devours her husband’s internal organs, but when he becomes suspicious and abandons her, she appeals not only to Xu Xuan’s love but to his duty as a husband to stay with her. A triangle emerges between Madame White, Xu Xuan and Fa Hai that sets up an opposition between duty to marriage and to religion. And ultimately, when Madame White and Little Green are trapped under the pagoda, Xu Xuan is allied with Fa Hai and lives happily ever after all on his own.
Feng Menglong’s work provided a written basis for many later authors who developed these themes with new events, characters and narrative forms of their own. When the story transitioned onto the Chinese stage during the 18th century, the tensions between characters led to new, dramatic plot points. Ill-will between the monk Fa Hai and the shape-shifting Madame White escalated to a full-out water battle in a 1738 play, while another had Madame White give birth to a son, making her not only a dutiful wife, but also a loving mother. Little Green transitioned from a servant to a major character, which sparked an actual transformation—she became a green snake in Fang Chengpei’s play from 1771 and never changed back.
The color of the snakes in the legend took on new significance when the story moved to the stage, as classical Chinese drama takes a representational approach to storytelling rather than a strictly realistic one, using elaborate costumes, makeup and a codified set of gestures to convey meaning. Ornate costumes were not only beautiful, but also sent a message: green is associated with healing and benevolence while white symbolizes the unknown and is used for spirits, ghosts and death. Strong make-up colors define the character types for the audience from the moment actors appear onstage; a red face indicates bravery while yellow make-up indicates duplicity. With minimal scenic design, characters may indicate a long journey by walking in a circle and announcing to the audience where they have arrived. This presentational speech combines with music, singing and physicality to create a rich and unique storytelling form.
The formal elements of these folktales and early plays embody a philosophy very different from America’s ideal of rugged individualism: they emphasize society, rather than the individual, and this can result in unromantic endings that audiences raised on the story of Cinderella may resist. By the 19th century Madame White was a compassionate and sympathetic protagonist, but more often than not these stories end with her imprisoned underneath the pagoda. The monk Fa Hai, who became increasingly arrogant and insensitive to White’s virtues, changed from a rescuer to an antagonist. Yet when he prevails the result is not a classic case of tragedy. In spite of the shift in personalities, the legend upholds Madame White’s confinement as the proper outcome.
Huang Tubi’s 1738 play incorporates a prologue and epilogue that contextualize what might strike audiences as an unsatisfying conclusion. These bookends resemble the Buddhist practice of storytelling with huatou, an opening statement that guides the student’s understanding towards awakening, and huawei, a closing statement that focuses the student’s contemplation of the finished tale. Tubi’s prologue explains how the story is guided by a Buddhist idea of balance. The protagonist Xu Xuan begins the play as an attendant to the Shakyamuni Buddha, but he is reincarnated as a human to fulfill his unfinished karma with Madame White. Fa Hai is instructed to contain White and Green and to bring Xu Xuan back onto the Buddhist path to Nirvana, but only after their karma is completed. Just as White and Xu Xuan’s meeting is destined to occur, so too is their separation.
As an oral story, the variations of Madame White’s tale told throughout China are innumerable and untraceable. Today, the list of novels, plays, storybooks, films and television series based on the story provide a more concrete testament to the ability of the legend to transform. A 2003 staging of The Legend of the White Snake opera dazzled audiences by employing lasers, dry ice and approximately 100 tons of water that were sprayed over the crowd for a battle scene, while an anime version inexplicably includes the adventures of two pandas. Different endings to the story have evolved to reflect the sensibilities of modern audiences. As individual characters have grown more defined, Madame White has been hailed for her increasingly empowered role. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the romantic story of an immortal and a young man fighting a prejudiced monk began as the legend of a heart-devouring shape-shifter.
*CE is an abbreviation for Common Era, an alternative naming of the calendar era, Anno Domini (AD)
“An Ever-Changing Story” originally appeared in the program for Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of The White Snake. Used with permission.
The White Snake Myth: an Abbreviated Timeline