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The Legend of the White Snake: A Chinese Mélusine Story

By Minjie Su

A husband ‘accidentally’ glimpses into his wife’s bedchamber only to discover that the lady whom he believed to be fair, noble, and undoubtedly human – is in fact a (partial) snake. This unfortunate discovery, though hushed for a short period, eventually leads to the lady’s departure. The husband, full of remorse, renounces the earthly world in hope of redemption.

Fragment of relief depicting the Legend of the White Snake in Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou – photo by Jakub Halun / Wikimedia Commons

More or less, this is the storyline of the legend of Mélusine, the most famous literary version of which is written by Jean d’Arras in 14th-century France. This is also the storyline of the legend of the White Snake, or ‘Madam White’, a centuries-old Chinese tale that has been passed down through oral tradition, writing, drama, opera, and modern media.

Unlike the half-human, half-faerie Mélusine, Madam White is born a snake, who lives under water and achieves the ability of metamorphosis through practice of magic. The story is best known nowadays as a great love romance between a man and an otherworldly lady, yet it has its roots in the folkloric belief of the seductive snake-maid. In Chinese folklore, magical snakes always metamorphose into beautiful women – but more of a femme fatale type than innocent faeries.

The connection between dangerous beauty and snake perhaps lies in the latter’s slippery figure, a feature of the body that is transformed into a feature of the mind. These snake women are both cunning and lethal: taking advantage of their surpassing beauty, they sometimes haunt the mind of men, sometimes lure them into their lair; no matter how they choose to do it, their prey always dies a horrible death.

This may well be the fate of Xu Xuan, Madam White’s human husband, if he is not rescued by a powerful Buddhist monk. The first written version of the White Snake legend is found in a collection of novella composed in the first quarter of the 17th century. Including forty different stories, the collection is titled ‘Stories to Caution the World’ and the White Snake tale ‘Madam White Imprisoned under the Thunder Peak Tower’ (some editions also translate the novella as ‘Eternal Prisoner under the Thunder Peak Tower’ or simply ‘The White Snake’).

As the titles imply, the story adopts the customary portrayal of the evil snake woman, though a sense of sympathy can be felt. The novella starts with the introduction of the Buddhist monk, Fahai, and develops around several mini episodes that threaten to reveal Madam White’s true form. She manages to elude them all until confronted by Fahai. Forcing her into revealing her serpentine form, he imprisons her under the Pagoda by the lake and dictates that she will never be freed, unless ‘the lake dries up, the tides never rise, and the Pagoda collapses’. The story ends with Xu’s renunciation of the world and his verses against sexual desire and lust.

Despite Xu’s last word of warning and the whole story’s precautionary message, Madam White is a rather ambiguous figure, especially when compared to her consistently evil sisters. The potential danger of the snake wife is only made manifest in Fahai’s words, but one cannot help but wonder why Madam White does not devour Xu immediately after their marriage. Surely it is only natural for her to do so, if she is indeed one of those snake women as Fahai makes of her. Why does she repetitively try to dissuade Xu from believing the rumour that she is a monster, thus keeping their marriage intact?

Image from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China, depicting the legend – Wikimedia Commons

About 150 years later, in the last quarter of the 18th century, the legend is picked up again and transformed into a full-fledged novel. Madam White, now given a proper personal name, re-enters the stage of the protagonist of the story and is portrayed as a brave woman who values love over immortality. The author’s change of tone is felt from the very beginning of the tale: whereas the 17th-century version starts with Fahai, the ‘good guy’ of the story, the 18th-century one starts with the bond between the White Snake and Xu, though by modern standard their marriage is more of an act of gratitude and repayment instead of love. Granted, Madam White is still morally questionable and does not always play her game by human rules, especially when she poisons the well to boost her husband’s pharmacy.

The emphasis, however, is shifted to her devotion to Xu, as well as her sympathy towards humankind. The once righteous Fahai, now entering the scene as a troublemaker who simply cannot just mind his own business, tricks her into revealing her true form to Xu. Xu almost dies from the horror, but Madam White revives him and makes him believe the snake was but an illusion. Enraged, Fahai wages war against Madam White and holds Xu as hostage, Madam White commands water to rise from the lake to drown Fahai’s temple. She would have defeated the monk, if she did not feel sympathy towards the innocent townsfolk involved in her war.

In the end, she surrenders to Fahai’s power and becomes imprisoned under the Pagoda, but not before her short reunion with Xu and the birth of their son. Fahai decrees that she will never been freed unless the palm tree before the Pagoda blossoms, a condition even less likely to be fulfilled than the dried-up lake and fallen tower. Twenty years later, Madam White’s son wins the highest degree in the imperial examination. On his visit to the Pagoda, he accidentally puts his flower-decorated hat (granted by the Emperor) on the palm tree, thus freeing his mother.

The legend, therefore, is transformed from a cautionary tale to a tale that celebrates love. The transformation of the legend is accompanied by the transformation of the focus: the centre shifts from the monk to the Snake; just as the Snake transforms from something venomous into a creature of beauty, the grotesque of the monstrous gradually gives way to the emotion and feeling of the otherworldly.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter at @minjie_su 

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