Episode 59: Madame White Snake — part1

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Since it is around the DuanWu Festival or Dragon Boat Festival 端午节, it is the time to tell the story of Madame White Snake or The Legend of the White Snake 白蛇传. If you want to know the reason, you need to finish the whole story. We will answer this question in the end of the story, which will take four episodes to talk about. It is considered as one of China’s Four Great Love stories. We already talked about two other stories in our podcast which are Lady Meng Jiang who cried down the Great Wall and The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid. This story still can be found in today’s Chinese operas, films and TV shows.

From the name of the story, you probably guess that it is a story about a snake lady. Like we mentioned before, snake is always related with beautiful mostly evil female in Chinese mythology kind of like Medusa in Greek mythology. This story evolved through time and definitely showed how Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism affected China.

Stories with white snake ladies could be found in a lot of books before Madame White Snake. The earliest one, some people say, might be from a story in the book LiHuang 李黄from Tang Dynasty 唐朝, recorded in the book TaipingGuangJi 太平广记 from Song Dynasty 宋朝. The earliest story was about a scholar seduced by beautiful women which turned out to be snakes. And the man was haunted by them and died in a horrible way. Those beautiful but lethal snakes are kind of like the role of siren in the western culture. The sexim idea was conveyed in the story that women are troubles, especially the attractive ones. Even in the real history, some women were blamed as the reason of the end of a dynasty even it wasn’t the truth.

In the Song Dynasty 宋朝, the story changed a little in the book 夷坚 志. This time, the story is about a guy married a girl who never let him see her body when she was taking a shower. After ten years since they got married, the husband couldn’t control himself but peeped one day after getting too much booze. What he saw was a huge white serpent in the bathtub. He ran away horror. Although his wife told him that she would never hurt him and they were back to their normal life, in the end, the husband still died of depression due to his concern and suspicion.It is kind of like the story lady in the picture we talked before. You can check Episode 19 if you never heard about it.

The real origin of the story is from the book XiHuSanTaJi 西湖三塔记. However, the more completed and interesting story was written by Feng Menglong 冯梦龙 in the book Stories to Caution the World 警世通言 from the Ming Dynasty 明朝 published in the year 1624.

During Song Dynasty 宋朝, there was a official named Li Ren 李仁 in Hangzhou. His wife had a a brother called Xu Xuan 许宣, a 22 year old young man, lived with them in the same house. This is our main character. His past parents used to own a pharmacy and Xu Xuan was in charge of the businesses after they both pasted away. It was close to the time of Qing Ming Festival, we talked about this festival in our podcast episode 38. It is the day of death when people go to the cemetery to visit their past ancestors. Xu Xuan was out shopping candles and joss paper and went to the temple. After all the errands, he was wondering around when it started raining. Qing Ming Festival is on the beginning of April which is the raining season. So Xu Xuan got on a boat to go home.

When the boat just left the deck, he heard a voice from the bank, “please let us on board”. It was from a lady with white dress trying to catch the boat. Next to her was her maid who was wearing blue dress. So the boat went back and the two ladies were able to get on board. At this moment, Xu Xuan had the chance to take look at the lady wearing white dress closely. He had never seen such a beautiful woman before, even her maid was pretty as well. The Madame White Snake addressed that she was a widow and she was visiting her past husband cemetery during Qing Ming Festival. She thanked him for waiting for them on the boat and she was sorry that she forgot to bring any money when she rushed out this morning. But she invited Xu Xuan for a cup of tea at her place if he came to visit and would pay back the ferry fee. Since it was getting late, they said goodbye to each other and left.

白蛇传2

It was still raining.When Xu Xuan passed a store owned by his friend, he borrowed an umbrella and headed home. While he heard somebody was calling him, it was that Madame White Snake he met earlier again. She was dodging the rain under a roof and waiting for her maid to get an umbrella from home. Xu Xuan offered the umbrella to her and said he would visit her the next day to get back the umbrella. The Madame White Snake thanked him. That night, Xu Xuan was thinking about the Madame White Snake all night and could’t fall asleep. He was in love.

The next morning, he got up really early and couldn’t focus on doing anything but thinking about the lady. Following the address, he found the neighborhood. He asked people about the Madame White Snake, nobody knew about it. Until he saw the blue dress lady walking towards him. Followed her, he was at a mansion with red curtains and paintings by famous artists on the wall. The Madame White Snake invited him for tea and then three shots of liquor. The lady said, “please come back tomorrow to get back the umbrella” So Xu Xuan went back home.

白蛇传3

The next day, Xu Xuan came back. She prepared another three shots of liquor and started to confess her love for Xu Xuan. She said it was a love at first sight. She wanted to be with him as a married couple forever. Xu Xuan was flattered and you know it was love at first sight for him too. However, he wasn’t rich. He told the truth to the Madame White Snake that he didn’t have enough money to marry her. The lady said, “you don’t have to worry about money. I have savings.” Accordingly, she asked her blue dress maid to get some money to Xu Xuan along with his umbrella. It probably sounds normal today that the Madame White Snake offered the money. However, it wasn’t easy for a woman to do at that time of China. She would be definitely considered as an advanced feminist.

In ancient China, and I would say it is still common today that if a couple plan to get married, it is the groom’s family pay for the wedding and also probably a new house and some money for the newly married couple. In the west, I know in some countries including the U.S it is the bride’s family to pay for the wedding. It can be a huge amount of money for a man’s family to provide for the marriage and sometimes a burden for the family. A man’s parents may spend most of their savings of the whole life.

For Xu Xuan, as a young man, he didn’t have much savings himself and he didn’t have any parents but a sister. We mentioned a little culture background in our episode 53 & 54 that extended family usually live together in China and since Xu Xuan lived with his elder sister and brother in law, they as the elders in the households, had the responsibilities to pay for the wedding. The gesture the Madame White Snake expressed her thought that “I don’t care about the traditional customs. I love you and want to be with you. If you don’t have enough money, I would pay for the wedding and everything you need to convince your family.”

What will happen? We will continue in our episode.

Mentioned:

端午节 DuanWu Festival or Dragon Boat Festival

白蛇传 Madame White Snake or The Legend of the White Snake

太平广记 TaipingGuangJi

西湖三塔记 XiHuSanTaJi

警世通言 Stories to Caution the World

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