Legend of the White Snake

"Madam White Snake" redirects here. For other uses, see Madam White Snake (disambiguation) and Legend of the White Snake (disambiguation).
Legend of the White Snake

Image from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China, depicting the legend
Traditional Chinese 白蛇傳
Simplified Chinese 白蛇传

The Legend of the White Snake, also known as Madame White Snake, is a Chinese legend which existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation. It has since been presented in a number of major Chinese operas, films and television series.

The earliest attempt to fictionalise the story in printed form appears to be The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda (白娘子永鎭雷峰塔) in Feng Menglong's Stories to Caution the World (Chinese: 警世通言), which was written during the Ming dynasty.

The story is now counted as one of China's Four Great Folktales, the others being Lady Meng Jiang, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, and The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid (Niulang Zhinü). [1]

Basic story

Legend of the White Snake, Long Corridor, Beijing

Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, disguises himself as a man selling tangyuan at the Broken Bridge (斷橋) near the West Lake in Hangzhou. A boy called Xu Xian (simplified Chinese: 许仙; traditional Chinese: 許仙; pinyin: Xǔ Xiān; Jyutping: Heoi2 Sin1) buys some tangyuan from Lü Dongbin without knowing that they are actually immortality pills. He does not feel hungry for the next three days after eating them, so he goes back to ask why. Lü Dongbin laughs and carries Xu Xian to the bridge, where he flips him upside down and causes him to vomit the tangyuan into the lake.

In the lake, there is a white snake spirit who has been practising Taoist magical arts in the hope of becoming an immortal after centuries of training and cultivation. She eats the pills and gains 500 years' worth of magical powers. She therefore feels grateful to Xu Xian and their fates become intertwined. There is another terrapin (or tortoise) spirit also training in the lake who did not manage to consume any of the pills; he is very jealous of the white snake. One day, the white snake sees a beggar on the bridge who has caught a green snake and wants to dig out the snake's gall and sell it. The white snake transforms into a woman and buys the green snake from the beggar, thus saving the green snake's life. The green snake is grateful to the white snake and she regards the white snake as an elder sister.

Eighteen years later, during the Qingming Festival, the white and green snakes transform themselves into two young women called Bai Suzhen (Chinese: 白素貞; pinyin: Bái Sùzhēn; Jyutping: Baak6 Sou3-zing1) and Xiaoqing (Chinese: 小青; pinyin: Xiǎoqīng; Jyutping: Siu2-cing1), respectively. They meet Xu Xian at the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou. Xu lends them his umbrella because it is raining. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen gradually fall in love and are eventually married. They move to Zhenjiang, where they open a medicine shop.

In the meantime, the terrapin spirit has accumulated enough powers to take human form, so he transforms into a Buddhist monk called Fahai (Chinese: 法海; pinyin: Fǎhǎi; Jyutping: Faat3-hoi2). Still angry with Bai Suzhen, Fahai plots to break up her relationship with Xu Xian. He approaches Xu Xian and tells him that during the Duanwu Festival his wife should drink realgar wine, a wine associated with that festival. Bai Suzhen unsuspectingly drinks the wine and reveals her true form as a large white snake. Xu Xian dies of shock after seeing that his wife is not human. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing travel to Mount Emei, where they brave danger to steal a magical herb that restores Xu Xian to life.

Diorama at Haw Par Villa, Singapore, depicting the battle between Bai Suzhen and Fahai.

After coming back to life, Xu Xian still maintains his love for Bai Suzhen despite knowing her true identity. Fahai tries to separate them again by capturing Xu Xian and imprisoning him in Jinshan Temple (金山寺). Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing fight with Fahai to rescue Xu Xian. Bai uses her powers to flood the temple and drowns many innocent people. However, her powers are limited because she is already pregnant with Xu Xian's child, so she fails to save her husband. Xu Xian later manages to escape from Jinshan Temple and reunite with his wife in Hangzhou, where Bai Suzhen gives birth to their son, Xu Mengjiao (Chinese: 許夢蛟; pinyin: Xǔ Mèngjiāo; Jyutping: Heoi2 Mung6-gaau1). Fahai tracks them down, defeats Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in Leifeng Pagoda.

Twenty years later, Xu Mengjiao earns the zhuangyuan (top scholar) degree in the imperial examination and returns home in glory to visit his parents. At the same time, Xiaoqing, who escaped when Bai Suzhen was captured by Fahai, goes to Jinshan Temple to confront Fahai and defeats him. Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda and reunited with her husband and son, while Fahai flees and hides inside the stomach of a crab. There is a saying that a crab's internal fat is orange because it resembles the colour of Fahai's kasaya.

Modifications and alternate versions

The white snake was simply known as the "White Lady" or "White Maiden" (Chinese: 白娘子; pinyin: Bái Niángzǐ; Jyutping: Baak6 Noeng4-zi2) in the original tale in Feng Menglong's Jingshi Tongyan (警世通言). The name "Bai Suzhen" was created in a later era.

The original story was a story of good and evil, with the Buddhist monk Fahai setting out to save Xu Xian's soul from the white snake spirit, who was depicted as an evil demon. Over the centuries, however, the legend has evolved from a horror tale to a romance story, with Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian being genuinely in love with each other even though their relationship is forbidden by the laws of nature.

Some adaptations of the legend in theatre, film, television and other media have made extensive modifications to the original story, including the following:


Operas and stage plays

Pai Niang Niang, created by Joseph Koo and Wong Jim. Premiering in 1972, it marked the start of the musical theatre industry in Hong Kong.
White Snake, Green Snake (2005), created by Christopher Wong
The Legend of the White Snake, created by Leon Ko and Chris Shum




See also


  1. Idema (2012), p. 26.
  2. Boston Globe: "Curtain rises on ancient Chinese myth," March 1, 2010, accessed March 2, 2010
  3. "Oregon Shakespeare Festival" website , accessed March 4, 2012
  4. Eolin, Sara. "Daphne Guinness Exhibit at FIT" September 13, 2011 in Aero Film Blog. http://aerofilm.blogspot.com/2011/09/fashion-week-has-settled-upon-new-york.html
  5. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1960,
  6. Union City, CA: Pan Asian Publications, 2001.

References and further reading

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