Madam White Snake is a Chinese legend/folklore, which existed as oral traditions before any written compilation. It has since become a major subject of several Chinese opera, films and TV series. The earliest attempt to fictionalize the story appears to be “Madame White Snake Jailed Eternally in the Leifeng Pagoda“ in Jing Shi Tong Yan by Feng Menglong during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644).
The story in “Jing Shi Tong Yan” was a story between righteous and evil with Fahai out to save Xu’s soul from the demon Bai. Over the centuries however the story has evolved from horror to romance with Bai and Xu genuinely in love with one another. There are many modifications to the story later.
There are many versions of the legend of “Madam White Snake” but generally, the story is set during the Southern Song dynasty.
It tells of a powerful female white snake demon, Bai Suzhen, and a green snake demon of lesser powers, Xiao Qing, that take on human form and become two beautiful women. They set home in human world and meet the scholar Xu Xian at the Broken Bridge. White snake eventually fell in love with him and marries him.
One day, Xu Xian visited a temple to pray for his family’s well-being and met the antagonist of the story, a Buddhist monk named Fa Hai who sensed the ‘devil scent’ on Xu Xian and warns Xu Xian that he married a snake demon and advises him to press her to drink some wine because it would change her in her real form.
Xu Xian follows that advice and because the white snake is pregnant and her magical powers are weakened, she turns on her snake form. When he saw her in her true form, he dies of fright. White snake was devastated and stole the magical herb from Mount Kunlun to save him.
Meanwhile, Fa Hai seize Xu Xian and forcefully separate him from White snake and captured him to Jin Shan Temple. White snake decided to launch a flood attack against Fa Hai for him to release Xu Xian. Both White snake & Green snake defeated Fa Hai and was reunited at the Broken Bridge with Xu Xian, who managed to escape from Jin Shan Temple.
However, Bai Su Zhen was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Lei Feng Pagoda by Fa Hai after giving birth to a son.
Green snake has been trying to attain immortality so as to be able free White snake from Lei Feng Pagoda. Meanwhile, Xu Xian raised their child who eventually emerged as a top scholar in the imperial examinations. The new imperial scholar paid respects to his mother at the Lei Feng Pagoda.
Green snake finally succeeded in attaining immortality and attacked Lei Feng Pagoda and crumbled it. Bai Su Zhen was able to be reunited with her husband, her son and Green snake after defeating Fa Hai in the end.
Madam White Snake can be interpreted as a reflection of the tension between social norms and individual desires. Xu Xian and Bai Su Zhen’s love affair was one that did not confirm to social norms and Fa Hai represents the force that attempts to uphold social hierarchy and maintain social norms. Fai Hai’s attempts and eventually success in separating them implies the priority or victory of society over individuals.
On the other hand, individuals are rewarded when they confirm to social norms as reflected in Xu Xian’s son who emerged as the top scholar in the imperial exams. As an imperial scholar and who exhibited filial piety, the son achieved two important goals that every Chinese parent could wish for in their son.
As a result, Bai Su Zhen was rewarded through her release from the Lei Feng pagoda but the social norms continued to prevail; she was rewarded with immortality but remain separated from her beloved husband and son.
Madam White Snake’s tragedy is a popular story and has inspired operas, plays and even movies. The story even propelled many places to fame and they continue to be the most popular tourist sites in China, such as Lei Feng Pagoda, located at the West Lake in Hangzhou.
Movie & TV drama
The Legend of the White Snake Maiden is a Taiwanese production made in 1993 starring veteran actresses Zhao Yazhi and Cecilia Yip Tung.
1993 movie Green Snake starring Maggie Cheung & Joey Wong, directed by Tsui Hark.
Legend of the Snake Spirits (青蛇与白蛇) Singapore 40-episodes TV series in 2001 directed by Shu Quin Lai with Fann Wong, Christopher Lee and Yuyan Zhang
The story has been performed numerous times in various operas, such as Beijing opera, Cantonese opera and other Chinese operas.
白蛇传 bái shé zhuàn Legend of the White Snake
金山寺 jīn shān sì Golden Mountain Monastery
雷峰塔 léi fēng tǎ Lei Feng Pagoda
中国京剧 zhōng guó jīng jù Peking opera
粤剧 yuè jù Cantonese Opera