The topic of Disney’s Mulan came up in a conversation between the informant and me, and the informant said that she knew the story that inspired the movie. I asked her to share that story as well as other Chinese or Taiwanese stories she knew and recorded the conversation for collection purposes.
Informant: A long time ago, there was this monk that was really proficient in his Buddhist studies. So, people who are proficient in the Buddhist studies, in Chinese culture they believe these people will reincarnate carrying the knowledge of the previous life with them. So this monk, one day he went to the market and saw that a butcher was about to kill a white snake. And white snakes in Chinese culture usually symbolize, I’m not sure, but they symbolize something… not bad. Maybe luck. So he saved the white snake from the butcher and released the snake. And in traditional Chinese folklore, they believed that if something lived for a long time, like even a tree or a grass or an animal, if they lived for a long time, they eventually developed intelligence, like a human. So this white snake lived a long time and, um, was able to, like… It became intelligent. And so she wanted to, it was a female, she wanted to return the kindness that this monk bestowed on her in saving her life. So she followed the monk, and the monk had a student. And she fell in love with the monk’s student. So she morphed into a human, a woman, and the student fell in love with her. And she also loved the student. So they married, but they married after the monk died. So the monk already died when they married. And they had a child, and they were really happy, until the monk reincarnated. Um, so he came back to find his student, only to find out that his student was married to, um, the white snake, the human form of the white snake. So, um… We can call it a phantom, though “phantom” usually implies that there isn’t a material form. So um… The actual term is “yaoguai,” which is like a phantom, but with actual form, physical. So he found out that his student married this phantom, and he was worried that the phantom might be a bad phantom, because there are bad and good phantoms. And so he told his student that his wife was actually not a human, but a huge white snake. And so, and then he told him… I think he gave him a tool, that if he used the tool to look at his wife at night, he would see that his wife was… He would see the girl’s original form. So the guy went back and saw that his wife was actually a huge white snake, and he was like terrified! So I think he went back with his son, and he abandoned his wife and his child and went back with his teacher, with the monk. But I think they were still in love with each other. And then, um, the white snake wanted to save… Well… She wanted to retrieve her husband, so she kind of flooded the temple where the monk was, and so the monk thought she was a really bad phantom. And the monk was stronger than the white snake, so in the end he defeated her and kind of entrapped her under a tower, um, and said that she couldn’t ever come out again unless this tree before her tower bloomed with flowers. But, um, that tree never bloomed, so it’s like impossible. You’ll never come out again. But! Time passed, and, um, their child went… He studied really hard, and he went to take this national test, in which he got number one. And then if you scored the top, then you get a flower, like a fake flower, from the emperor. So this child got the fake flower and then went back to the tower to visit his mom and hung the fake flower on the tree. And, um, and then this was kind of like the tree bloomed with a flower. And so his mom got released, and the family reunited happily ever after.
Me: So where did you hear this story for the first time?
Informant: I don’t know. I think this was just a really old folklore that, like, people just generally tell each other. Like maybe in kindergarten story time. Or maybe my parents told me as a bed time story, or something like that.
Me: And what, like, do you think is like the message behind the story?
Me: Or is there one?
Informant: Maybe be good. There are good phantoms who try to save people’s lives. Or it might be that like, um, life living as a monk without a wife might not be, uh, the happiest thing to do. Like you maybe want a wife or a child or a family, instead of keeping on studying, studying, studying for lives after lives after lives.
Me: Oh my god… Studying for lives after lives after lives…
In this story, the pair of lovers, the snake and the monk’s student, only meet accidentally when the snake tries to find the monk for saving her life. The monk, who earlier saves the snake, later opposes her when she enters a relationship with his student. The story shows interesting changes in relations between people through this case. The phantom’s getting released from the area under the tower despite its improbability demonstrates the futility of trying to keep lovers apart when their feelings for one another are strong. Her release also furthers the theme of chance, as she had to depend on her son receiving a flower as a gift and hanging it on the tree to be released.