In Search of White Snake

That's China - - Contents - Text by / Han­nah Lund


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.

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