The Fairy Tale

Lit­er­ary Roots and Vari­a­tions

That's China - - In Search Of White Snake 寻找白娘子 -

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

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