Friday, September 19, 2008

Legend of the White Snake

Legend of the White Snake is a Chinese legend, which existed as oral traditions before any written compilation. It has since become a major subject of several Chinese , films and TV series.

The earliest attempt to fictionalize the story appears to be "Madame White Snake Jailed Eternally in the Leifeng Pagoda" in ''Jing Shi Tong Yan'' by Feng Menglong during the Ming Dynasty.

Basic story

At its most basic, the story tells of a young scholar who falls in love with a beautiful woman, unaware that she is a white snake who has taken on human form. A monk intervenes in order to save the scholar's soul and casts the white snake into a deep well at the Leifeng Pagoda.

Over the centuries the story has evolved from horror story to romance with the scholar and the white snake-woman genuinely in love with one another, but such a relationship is forbidden by the laws of Heaven. There have also been variations on the telling of the story: like the scholar adopting the white snake as a pet while still a schoolboy; or himself being banished from Heaven and becoming a mere human on Earth.

An added character is a green snake who has also been turned into a woman and serves as the white snake-woman's soul sister and confidante.


The story is set in the Southern Song Dynasty.

A female white snake demon, Bai SuZhen, dreams of becoming a goddess, so she takes on human form and goes to the human realm. There she meets a green snake demon, Xiao Qing, who causes disasters in the area she lives. Bai SuZhen holds her captive at the bottom of a lake, though she promises the green snake that she'll come back in three hundred years to free her.

After three hundred years she keeps her promise and frees her. They bond as sisters. Then they meet a sorcerer called FaHai who believes that every demon should be eliminated. But FaHai also knows that Bai SuZhen is already in the process of becoming a goddess. He can't eliminate her immediately so he vows that he will if he sees them again.

Bai and Qing rested in a half world called Ban Bu Duo where they try to do good things by bringing rain to a places that hasn't had any water for three years. But Qing caused a great disaster which almost flooded the whole town! Bai, sadly, loses her chance of becoming a goddess, but Guan Yin informs her that she may have another opportunity.

However Bai and Qing have accidentally brought a scholar Xu Xian and his friend to the demon world. Bai has to protect them from the demons. After the battle with the Leader of the underworld, Xu Xian confesses his feelings for Bai, claiming that from the first time he saw her it was like love at first sight. But in order for a human to go back to the human world they have to be knocked by ghosts who will make them forget everything. Xu Xian knows about this so he avoids getting knocked and is about to go into the other realm when FaHai tricks him into being knocked.

Now Xu Xian is back into the human world but has forgotten everything. Since he and his friend went through the portal separately they land in separate places. There Xu Xian meets many new people.

Soon after Bai takes the final step to becoming a goddess which is to collect human tears. Bai sees Xu Xian with another girl and assumes that they are a couple. The former green snake, Xiao Qing, figures that Xu Xian got knocked by the ghosts, but also realises that when Xu Xian and Bai meet, Xu Xian will again fall in love with Bai. They got married, opened a medicine shop and lived happily.

But since demons and humans aren't supposed to marry, the town was struck by a plague and it was soon on the verge of becoming extinct. Bai, Qing and FaHai finally agreed to a truce and obtained the magical herb needed to help the population.

Later Bai gets pregnant, but Fahai continues to try to eliminate her and Qing.

On the fifth day of the fifth month, the Dragon Boat Festival is held. On that day demons revert to their true selves. Bai thus decides to take Qing and Xu Xian back to Ban Bu Duo, but Xu Xian falls for FaHai's tricks yet again and Bai shows her true self, scaring Xian literally to death! Bai retrieves the herbal medicine and brings Xian back to life.

But after giving birth to a son Bai can't control herself anymore and is forced to tell her husband the truth about her origins. Xian kindly accepts her, but Fahai then attacks the weakened Bai and holds her to eternal captivity in the Leifeng Pagoda.


In “Jing Shi Tong Yan”, Madame White/Madame Bai did not have a name. 'Bai Suzhen' was only later created.

The story in “Jing Shi Tong Yan” was a story between righteous and evil with Fahai out to save Xu's soul from the demon Bai. Over the centuries however the story has evolved from horror to romance with Bai and Xu genuinely in love with one another, but such a relationship is forbidden by the laws of heaven.

Modifications to the story included:

1. Redemption of Bai
* After Bai is trapped underneath the , Qingqing escapes and leaves for further meditation. She later returns and defeats Fahai, thus setting Bai free. Fahai retreats to the stomach of a crab, which is why the internal fat of the crab is of color, which resembles the color of Fahai’s Taoist quilt.

2. Redemption of Bai
* Bai gives birth to Xu’s son before she is trapped. Qingqing takes the baby to Xu’s relatives, who raise him to become a top scholar. The son returns to the to pay his respects. Bai is released because of her son’s filial piety.

3. Reincarnation
* In a retcon version of the story, Xu and Bai are amongst the god and goddess, but they break the law in heaven and must repay by living through human lives. The human Xu saves a white snake that is Bai, and they meet again to begin the story of ‘Madame White Snake’.


*The story has been performed numerous times in Peking opera, Cantonese opera and other Chinese operas.

*''The Legend of the White Serpent'' , Japanese film made by Toho in collaboration with the Shaw Brothers. Ryo Ikebe and Shirley Yamaguchi starred in the film directed by Shiro Toyoda.

*''The Tale of the White Serpent'' , the first coloured anime feature film in Japan, released in the United States as ''Panda and the Magic Serpent''..

*''Madam White Snake '', also from Shaw Brothers. This version is a huangmeixi opera. Both its Bai and Qingqing actors killed themselves a few years after the film was released. Feng Yueh directed. The music is by Fu-ling Wang on a libretto by Chun-ching Li.

*In the West there have been children's picture book adaptations of the legend, written by Western authors and illustrated by Chinese artists. They included:
::''Legend of the White Serpent'' by A. Fullarton Prior, illustrated by Kwan Sang-Mei, published by Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, 1960;
::and ''Lady White Snake: A Tale From Chinese Opera,'' by Aaron Shepard, illustrated by Song Nang Zhang, Pan Asian Publications, Union City, California, 2001.

* The novella ''The Devil Wives of Li Fong'' by E. Hoffmann Price is based on the story.

*There are at least 3 stage musical adaptations in Hong Kong. The first one is "Pai Niang Niang" created by Joseph Koo and Wong Jim, premiered in 1972. This production marked the start of musical theatre industry in Hong Kong. Another two included "White Snake, Green Snake" in 2005 created by Christopher Wong and "Legend of the White Snake, The" created by Leon Ko and Chris Shum of the musical movie Perhaps Love's fame.

*''Green Snake'', a 1993 movie directed by Tsui Hark, told the story from the point of view of green snake Qingqing; this movie starred Joey Wong as Bai and Maggie Cheung as Qingqing.

*''New Legend of Madame White Snake'' , a 1993 Taiwanese TV series, is the most accepted, popular and thought classic edition in China Mainland.

*In 2001 a TV drama series '''' starring Fann Wong, which further modified the plot.

*Actresses such as Yoshiko Otaka, Yu So Chow, Lin Dai and Joey Wong had been involved in various movie adaptations of the story.

*In 2006 a drama series '''' starring Liu Tao as Bai , Chen Zi Han as Qingqing, Pan Yue Ming as Xu Xian, Liu Xiao Feng as Fa Hai and a character who was included in the drama as another love interest for Xu Xian Lian Qiao played by Liu Xi Yuan

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