Slither­ing into the Mod­ern World

That's China - - That's China 城市漫步 - Text by Gemma Piali

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?”

Shape-shift­ing forms

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.

Sneaky snakes

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

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