The Fairy Tale
Literary Roots and Variations
The Snake Wives
'Snake’ has fascinated Chinese mythologists for thousands of years. The Goddess that is believed by the Chinese people to have mended the sky has a human head and the body of a snake. In a fictional story written in the Tang Dynasty, the ‘snake’ took the form of a beautiful girl for the first time in China’s ‘snake mythology’. In the story, a man called Li Huang came back home after spending three days of soul-shattering ecstasy with a beautiful girl, feeling exhausted and smelling fishy all over. In Yi Jian Zhi, written by Southern Song official and writer Hong Mai, the story of the ‘snake demon’ is not as creepy as its Tang prototype. The county magistrate of Danyang in Jiangsu Province has a beautiful wife who never lets him see her while she is taking a bath. Drunk and curious, he takes a peek and sees her snake body in the tub. Terror-stricken, he tries his best to live with the secret, but grows dispirited and frail and eventually dies of fear.
West LakneVdS Zhenjiang
It has been widely believed that the West Lake in Hangzhou in the Song times was the original scene of the ‘snake legend’, but northerners in China have good reasons to disagree. One of the irrefutable facts that could trigger skepticism about the geographical roots of the story is that it was the northerners, not people in the Jiangnan regions of China, which made the realgar wine betraying the beauty sisters’ serpentine features in the tale. And whether there was a spring near the West Lake and one big enough to inundate a temple is also doubtful. Famous folklorist Wang Xiang (1915-2012) argued that Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province was a more plausible origin of the fairytale. His reasoning is partly based on the long-standing ‘white snake’ cultural landscape of Zhenjiang, where various Duanwu Festival activities are closely related with the details in the tale of the two ‘snake beauties’.
Jinshan Temple in a traditional Chinese painting
Leifeng Pagoda, Hangzhou