Slithering into the Modern World
After reflecting on the changing of tides across Hangzhou, as we wonder where the Madame White Snake could be found amongst Hangzhou’s modernisation, we also look abroad to see how the Tale of the White Snake has ventured further afield dressed in new clothes to remain relevant to modern-day audiences.
Even the brave are fearful of snakes, with action hero Indiana Jones’ phobia of snakes leading to his famous exclamation, “Why’d it have to be snakes?”
Atale told in many forms over the centuries, The Story of the White Snake, still pervades modern society today. Passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation, the folklore dates back to the Tang Dynasty long before the written word preserved the saga. One of the legend’s most well known tellings was by late Ming Dynasty writer Feng Menglong in the form of a vernacular short story. The classical transformation myth, tells of two powerful snakes that were transformed into human beings when the beautiful scenery surrounding the West Lake in Hangzhou entranced them. 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 sea. An infectious tale slithering its way into the hearts of many, the basic storyline of the tragic love story remains consistent but the channels have varied from poetry, films and television shows, operas and even comics. The influence of the Chinese myth crossing borders to be re-invented
nd overseas was witnessed on stage. Chinese-American Zhou Long won a Pulitzer Prize for musical composition in 2011, as his opera Madame White Snake amazed crowds when it was performed by the Boston Opera.The Pulitzer board described the work as,“a deeply expressive opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale to blend the musical traditions of the East and the West.” Straying away from the traditional Beijing Opera style, the performance employed western opera tropes and was sung in English.The work allowed western audiences to experience the magic of the tale, but was also brought to China for mainland audiences to witness the wonder with Chinese subtitles. While the white snake usually plays a leading role in the adaptations
2011 年 4月，由北京国际音乐节委约美籍华裔作曲家周龙创作的歌剧《白蛇传》捧回了国际性大奖——第95届普利策音乐奖。这是中国作曲家首次获得该奖，由此奠定了中国原创歌剧在世界舞台上的位置。
现为堪萨斯城密苏里大学音乐学院教授的周龙 1983 年毕业于中央音乐学院，《白蛇传》是他的第一部歌剧，2010 年 2月在波士顿歌剧院全球首演。周龙将东西方的审美“重组”，结合欧洲歌剧和中国戏曲之长，并注入京剧中特有的唱腔，用英语加以表现，以不拘一格的创作手法，用西洋歌剧的形式讲述了一个中国故事。
of the traditional tale, the green snake has also been re-imagined as a powerful crime-fighting superhero sidekick in graphic novels. In traditional retellings, the green snake is portrayed as a younger sister like figure. In the comic “New Superman”, graphic artist Gene Luen Yang (an American born Chinese) tells the story of a regular teenager from China who suddenly wakes up with superpowers leading him to be recruited by the government to fight crime. One of the characters Peng Deilan (or Wonder-Woman) has naturally strong powers as she is said to be the green snake from the Chinese fairy tale. Like a snake shedding its old skin, to reveal a shiny new-fandangle coat, the core of the story about values integral to the human condition remains, but the exterior is revitalised to endure within modern society.
Across the world, the symbol of the ‘snake’ varies from benevolent to malevolent representations. In many western societies where Christianity is prevalent, the image of a snake is associated with evil and cunningness, drawing from the Book of Genesis when a serpent deceives Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, causing sin to enter the world. However in Greek mythology, the snake is a symbol for healing, as it is linked to the powerful god of medicine Asclepius. He is often represented holding a staff with a single snake wrapped around it, which was used to cure the sick. In Power of the Myth, academic and writer Joseph Campbell reflects on the powerful symbol of the snake to incite wonder and to also induce fear.
nd “Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail.That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again.The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again.There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life,” he explains. With their potential to bestow you with a venomous bite, generally snakes are to be avoided in popular culture. Snakes don’t often get a good wrap on the movie screens. In Harry Potter, the house of Slytherin represented by the symbol of a snake, attracts the most cunning and evil wizards. Even the brave are fearful of snakes, with action hero Indiana Jones’ phobia of snakes leading to his famous exclamation,“Why’d it have to be snakes?” As an Australian whenever I travel overseas, one of the first remarks made by many curious foreigners is, "Don't you have so many dangerous animals in Australia that can kill you? Snakes and spiders!" Perhaps they believe I need to fend myself from killer snakes every day of my life.Although they have the potential to attack, the curious creature is perhaps a misunderstood reptile, just minding its own business in the wild. Over the years Madame White Snake has been transformed from a villain to a heroine and vice versa. In television adaptations she is portrayed as wise, gentle and full of love for her husband.The adaptations, appropriations and reinventions will continue for many generations with still today new films inspired by the white and green snake continuing to be announced.
Soprano Ying Huang in the title role of Zhou Long's Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Madame White Snake. Clive Grainger Opera Boston
New Super-man featuring Peng Deilan