In Search of White Snake
Lady White Snake immediately falls in love with a handsome human male who she sites on the Broken Bridge. As events unfold, disaster strikes when the white snake’s true form is revealed, causing the death of her husband who faints in fright. In a fable about unconditional love despite the harsh truths in life, the white snake embarks on a quest for a liferestoring cure, where she is faced with epic battles of sky and the sea.
Which led to my question: Where is the White Snake now?
Inavigated the thick crowds along Hangzhou’s Broken Bridge in Hangzhou, my Beluga-whale skin almost shimmering in the sunlight. Willow and camphor trees canopied the streets hugging West Lake, splaying green shadows across my path. Of all cities in China, Hangzhou called to me the clearest. Was it because I had done research on the bustling city, or because I had decided to follow Marco Polo’s path into the wild? No. See, as I moved along the Broken Bridge like a needle through silk, breathing in the heady osmanthus perfume, I was on a mission. You see, I was searching for the White Snake.
Before I decided to move to Hangzhou, I’d studied The Story of the White Snake (白蛇传 , baishezhuan) in university. I don't think it was the morals extolled in its earliest written versions (dating back to the Ming Dynasty) that appealed to me, nor the television series that my Chinese friends now tell me to watch. It was the story itself, of the white snake spirit arriving in a strange new world of humans and making a life for
nd herself that resonated with me. She met a man, Xu Xian, on the Broken Bridge. Tragedy (in some versions) trapped her under the Leifeng Pagoda. Of course, I knew it was a work of fiction, but it was also a story that had survived years of political torment and shifting cultural identities in China. In some corner of my mind, I wondered if there was a place amid the big city of Hangzhou for the White Snake.
About one month after moving to Hangzhou, I decided to visit Leifeng Pagoda, under which the White Snake was allegedly trapped. I was heady with anticipation, armed with very broken Chinese and a not-to-scale map made for tourists. Every time I asked for directions, passersby gestured further down the
road, saying “It’s a little far from here. Keep going and you’ll see it.” In the end, an old woman with a large canvas bag told me to follow her, and together we boarded a bus. It clanked along the streets, passengers wedged into the aisles and swaying with the dips in the road. Stops listed in then-illegible Chinese characters clicked by, and I turned to the old woman to watch her reaction. “Not yet,” she said, and the bus clanked on. Much of downtown Hangzhou blurred by. The neon signs for restaurants, karaoke bars and towering shopping centers overpowered my senses. At each stop, five or more people got off, and six or more people got on. I edged closer to the window and sought the skies so neatly reflected off of the windows. The apartment complexes eventually thinned, and were replaced with lush greenery. I leaned closer to the windows, excitement stirring once more. “Hey! Hey! Foreigner!” It was the old woman who had helped me from before, gesturing wildly to the door as the bus slowed to a stop. I squeezed my way through the crowded walkway, thanked her, and then got off. I don’t often look at pictures of destinations before
nd arriving, and so my imagination had painted an image of an old, many-tiered pagoda, like the kinds I’d seen depicted in old paintings. Instead, what greeted me at Leifeng Pagoda were images of the tower that had existed prior to its collapse in the 1920s inside of a newly-renovated tower with a double escalator leading toward its entrance. I followed the trickle of tourists inside. Brought to the lowest level, I and other visitors leaned into the thick glass surrounding the old, yellowed, cracked foundation stones. Amid the glimmers of one-yuan coins that had been tossed in for good luck, nothing but shadows remained. I wondered if it was sometimes better to view events or places at a distance, to let imagination aggrandize and fictionalize them. But what did this mean when we world-weary travelers decided to get up close?
Months later, I was strolling along the Broken Bridge, where the White Snake met Xu Xian, her lover. I had eaten a perplexing snack of dumplings and a milkshake, which was such a strange combination of
Western culture and Chinese tradition that I had to laugh. It was the wrong season to visit the Broken Bridge, as my friends had told me. The Broken Bridge was meant to be seen in the winter, when light snow obscured the path along the middle, giving it its name. On that day, summer had barely begun, the leaves thick and green. Light rain added a touch of mist to the hills on the other side of the lake, making those dark green masses appear to rise from the clouds. If a legend were to occur, I thought, now would be the time. Standing atop the Broken Bridge, it was easy to get the sense that I’d stepped further back in time, with willow trees on both sides of the bridge and the lines of neon restaurant signs hidden behind the silvery shroud of light rain. Like this, seen at a distance, I could pretend that I was the White Snake, waiting for my Xu Xian to present me with an umbrella. But of course, as I had discovered with time, this was not Hangzhou at all. Hangzhou was not an old story that remained frozen in place for me to peruse; it’s a vibrant city on the move. At that moment, I imagined her, Madame White
gnlidding Snake. I imagined her through Hangzhou in a long white robe, a relic of the old world caught in the new. Her fingers would curl around Xu Xian’s umbrella as she navigated the city sprawl, robe fluttering in the slight wind. Her lips might twist into a slight smile as she’d see a bill for a theatrical rendition of her story. She might summon Xiao Qing, the green snake, to go see it with her. As she strolled past three-story shopping centers, she might finger soft silks or pass them without a word. She might hum along with “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto” as she waited to cross the street. She might journey to Leifeng Pagoda and peer into the old foundations of her prison, or she might toss in a coin for good luck. She might return to the Broken Bridge in the hopes that Xu Xian would find her someday. Or, as she wended her way through a now-strange land, she might peer over her shoulder and disappear around a corner, the tail of her robe sliding along the concrete, skin shifting into white reptilian scales, out of sight. Perhaps not her old home, but a new one where she could begin another tale, as would I in my new home.
Like this, seen at a distance, I could pretend that I was the White Snake, waiting for my Xu Xian to present me with an umbrella.