Residence: Ningbo, China
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2013
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English
An international student at USC, the informant grew up in Ningbo, China, one of the country’s oldest cities and now a seaport city in the northeast of the Zhejiang province. “Madame White Snake,” or “Legend of the White Snake,” (as it is sometimes called) takes place in her hometown region, and thus she grew up with the romantic legend as part of family and regional culture. The informant appreciates the legend for its incorporation of romance and beauty as well as sadness into an altogether inspiring story. She is particularly drawn to Madame White Snake as an example of a strong Chinese female character “who boldly strives for her true love against all oppositions.”
Additionally, the informant noted that Madame White Snake’s son, who eventually finds success and saves his mother, provides a motivational anecdote for her to perform well in school; she feels that perhaps through being a good student she, too, can one day become an important figure and protect her family.
First off I must say that I heard a couple of different versions of Madame White Snake that now they get jumbled (is that how you say in English? Jumbled?) in my head! (laughs). But, this story begins with Lü Dongbin, one of China’s sacred wise men, who sells a kind of live-forever potion to a young Chinese boy, Xu Xian. Xu Xian does not feel so good after a couple days, and he throw up the potion into the Hangzhou West Lake.
Now, Madame White Snake―actually right now she is still just, uh, snake, like, spirit―drinks the potion that will make her live forever, and she is so, so happy about this because this is her wish! (Informant claps her hands together) Now the white snake remembers Xu Xian and hopes to repay him someday. But, at the same time, an evil spirit in the lake is jealous of white snake, who now has all this, uh, magic power and life. One day, the white snake transforms into a woman to save a green snake from a beggar by the lake who has trapped it, and they become very close like best friends or sisters.
Many, many years pass (I think it is something like eighteen or twenty) the two snakes transform into women to travel to Hangzhou. The white snake is Bai Sue Zhuan and the green snake is Xiaoqing. They meet Xu Xian, but now he is all grown-up and handsome! And you know what? They meet at the same spot on the bridge where he threw up all the potion! Xu Xian gives the women his umbrella because it is raining, and that is how he and Madame White Snake, or sorry, Bai Sue Zhuan cross paths again. They fall in love, get married, and move to Zhejiang province (where I live!). They open up a medicine shop there.
The evil spirit is still jealous about the white snake’s (who is now Bai Sue Zhuan, remember) long life, and he uses strong magical powers to transform into a Buddhist monk. In this, uh, new form of body, gives Xu Xian some wine during the Dragon Boat festival and tells him to give it to his wife. But, the wine is really actually turns Bai Sue Zhuan back into the white snake, and this scares Xu Xian so much that he collapses and dies. Bai Sue Zhuan is very sad, but also determined to bring him back! The two women climb up a very big, cold mountain to pick a herb medicine that will bring her husband back to life.
Now, the story seems like happy ending because Xu Xian wakes up and still loves Madame White Snake, even though he knows about her animal body. (The informant changes expression to a cunning smile) But. . .evil spirit tries again! He kidnaps Xu Xian and bring him to uh, uh, temple. Madame White Snake and Xiaoqing fight back, and Madame White Snake uses powers to bring a tidal wave and flood to the temple. She and her husband reunite, but she is so weak because she is also pregnant with a son and the fight with the evil spirit took too much energy. She gives birth to the boy, but the evil spirit comes back and she cannot win. So, he takes her to Leifeng Pagoda, do you know it?
For many, many years, Madame White Snake’s son grows up and becomes very smart and a very good student. Actually, he earns first place in the Imperial examination and is best in his classes. He was away for a long time, but misses home now and wants to come back to his parents. The evil spirit is still alive, but Xiaoqing tracks him down and kills him! The son helps, too, because he offers to sacrifice himself to save his mother. God is so moved that he breaks down Leifeng and so this time, finally, Madame White Snake is freed from Leifeng to join her son. The sad part is that her husband Xu Xian has already died, so the family cannot be reunited, but instead she lives with her son and loyal friend Xiaoqing.
The informant’s enthusiasm for the story was evident; her facial expression mirrored the drama in the plot and she would pause right before each plot twist. Additionally, the informant admires Madame White Snake for her perseverance in the face of adversity, and in fact each of the characters overcome some kind of challenge or another. Xu Xian struggles with the discovery of his wife’s true identity, and Xiaoqing and the son must work together to defeat the evil spirit and destroy the Leifeng Pagoda. The legend revolves around the ideas of perseverance and determination, as well as selflessness―chiefly, the son’s sacrifice, but also we see the two women brave a long and arduous journey to revive Xu Xian. Loyalty is another value emphasized in this legend, as not only does Madame White Snake remember her debt to Xu Xian from their first encounter at the West Lake, but also Xiaoqing remains staunchly loyal to Madame White Snake through thick and thin.
Also notable is that the division between good and evil is markedly apparent, as it can be in many folktales and legends. Even when Madame White Snake makes the one “mistake” of not revealing her identity to Xu Xian immediately, good coalesces with good and Xu Xian finds it in his heart to forgive and love her. Even with no contact with his mother throughout his childhood and adolescence, the under-developed character of the son displays zero hesitation in his self-sacrifice; in short, the story’s characters appear inherently instilled with good or evil before the story even begins.