Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Madam White Snake.


It’s early March 2020 and everywhere I look I see something about the coronavirus.  And since the virus started in China, incidents of racist actions and attacks against Asian and Asian-American people seem to be on the rise.

You know what?  At least right here, right now, let’s turn things around.  Let’s focus on something positive and creative from China.

We’re going to talk about one of China’s “Four Great Folk Tales”.  For those who don’t know, China’s Four Great Folk Tales are “The Butterfly Lovers”, “Lady Meng Jiang Wailed Over the Great Wall”, “The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl” and “Madam White Snake”.  That last one is the one we’re going to focus on.
The story of “Madam White Snake” is also often called “The White Snake”.  I’m using the former name here because there’s also a Grimm story with the same title and I don’t want to confuse the two.  There are a couple of different versions.  Here’s a condensed version that has many of the most common elements:

One day, Lu Dongbin of the Eight Immortals disguises himself as a tangyuan vendor at a certain bridge.  There he meets a boy named Xu Xian who buys some tangyuan from him.  Now, it turns out that the tangyuan are actually immortality pills.  After eating them, Xu Xian discovers he doesn’t get hungry for the next three days.  Wanting to know why, Xu Xian goes back to the vendor.  Lu Dongbin laughs, carries him back to the bridge and holds him upside down and forces him to vomit the immortality pills into the lake.  Now, in the lake is a white snake who has been practicing Taoist magical arts.  Upon eating the spewed-up pills, she gains 500 years worth of magic power.  One day, the white snake sees a beggar who has caught a green snake and wants to kill it and cut out its gall to sell (snake gall can be used as a sort of medicine in Chinese medicine).  The White Snake transforms herself into a woman and buys the green snake, saving her life.  The green snake is grateful and begins to regard the white snake as a sort of elder sister.  Years later, the white snake and green snake take on the forms of two women named Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing respectively.  There, they meet Xu Xian again who has grown into a man and become a physician to boot.  In time, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian fall in love.  They marry and open a medicine shop.  Now, in this area there is a monk named Fahai who has somehow realized that there is something supernatural about Bai Suzhen.  One day during the Duanwu Festival, Fahai convinces Xu Xian that he should give Bai Suzhen some realgar wine (a wine that humans can drink but does not agree with demons).  Bai Suzhen drinks the wine and, feeling ill, unconsciously turns back into the form of a large white snake.  Seeing her true form, Xu Xian dies from shock.  Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing then travel to a distant mountain to retrieve a magical herb that can heal any wound and even revive the dead.  Thus revived, Xu Xian realizes his wife’s devotion and love despite her supernatural nature and embraces her, vowing to continue loving and cherishing his amazing wife.
This isn’t the end of the story, though.  This story is practically a saga unto itself.  Fahai keeps coming back to try and split up the two lovers.  The tale even carries over to another generation, Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen’s son Xu Mengjiao.  There are different versions of the story too.  Some say that Fahai was just a monk who thought it was unholy for humans and spirits (spirits, demons, etc.  There are a lot of English substitution words for what Bai Suzhen actually was) to comingle like they did.  Others say that Fahai was a terrapin or tortoise that was practicing magic like the White Snake had and was jealous that she had 500 years of magical power given to her by seeming chance.
When I pick these stories for Folk Tale Secret Stash, I usually hedge my bets toward something that I feel will be easy for Western audiences to get into.  This one is almost the opposite of that.  With mentions of certain obscure forms of food and wine, real locations and specific references to Chinese medicine and Taoist magical practices, this story can seem VERY Chinese.  So, why did I pick this specific story?  Well, one thing is exposure.  But I’ll get back to that later.  The other is that there comes a point where we can’t be afraid of those kinds of details anymore.  If my aim is to expand the fairy tale canon beyond the standard European tales, which it is, we’ll need to get to the point where we can see the epic love story beyond all the details and cultural references.
As for the exposure thing, well, it’s one of the most popular folk tales in all of China.  How big is this tale?  Really big.  Big enough that the media stemming off of it has spilled over into the U.S.  Seriously, stuff based on this tale is around.  A loose animated prequel to the story was brought over by GKIDS in a limited theatrical run and has just been released on blu-ray.  A serialized drama based on the tale, The Legend of White Snake, is currently available on Netflix.  A far looser adaptation, The Destiny of White Snake, is viewable on Amazon Prime Video.  There’s even a Jet Li movie titled The Sorcerer and the White Snake  which I’m pretty sure got an American release if only on home video.  So, it’s been around in some form, but if you’re not the type to peruse Asian media you might not have seen it.

So, that’s the story of “Madam White Snake”.  Personally, I like it.  I think it has a unique heroine and I like the grand scale love story that plays out.  And it’s at least a nice break from the panic surrounding the recent virus outbreak.  Will it become part of the new Cosmopolitan fairy tale canon I hope takes root in the Western world?  Maybe not.  This one might still be playing too much on hard mode for most Americans at least (I can’t speak for Europe).  But I always have hope.