Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Legend of the White Snake

Shu Shian meets Xiao-Ching and Lady White.
The Year of the Snake always calls to my mind the legend of the White Snake. There are many versions of the story, but the one I heard as a child goes like this:

There once was a white snake who lived in the West Lake, beneath the Broken Bridge. She was captured by a peddler and sold to a young apothecary named Shu Shian, for the organs of snakes were useful as medicine. Shu Shian, however, took pity and released her instead.

She meditated long and transformed herself into a human woman, rescuing a little green snake from the fate that almost befell her. The green snake becomes her companion and also learns to take human form. Longing to repay her debt of gratitude, the white snake set out with the green snake, calling themselves Lady White and Xiao-Ching, to find Shu Shian.

They met on the shore of the West Lake during the Clear Brightness Festival. Shu Shian fell in love with Lady White and married her. Together they opened an apothecary, which became very successful thanks to Lady White's magic, Shu Shian's skill, and Xiao-Ching's cunning. They never turned away a patient, treating for free those who could not afford medicine.

One year, during the Dragon Boat Festival, a monk named Fa-Hai saw Lady White and recognized her true nature. He warned Shu Shian that his wife is not what she seemed. When Shu Shian refused to believe this, he instructed him to burn sulfur incense in his house and give his wife sulfur wine to drink, as is customary during that festival.

Not knowing any better, Shu Shian convinced his wife to drink the wine, causing her to revert to the form of gigantic white snake, which literally frightens the man to death. Lady White traveled with faithful Xiao-Ching to find a magical mushroom (yeah, yeah) that brought her husband back to life.

However, Fa-Hai came to confront Lady White for killing Shu Shian. He defeated her, in part because she was weak from her journey and being pregnant, and imprisoned her beneath the Thunder Peak Pagoda. There she delivered a son named Shu Meng-Jiao. Heartbroken, Shu Shian became a monk himself, leaving the child to be raised by his family.

When Meng-Jiao grew up, he passed the civil service exam and became an official, which was a pretty big deal in ancient China. Thus empowered, he went to the Thunder Peak Pagoda and wept endlessly for his mother's release The gods were so moved by Meng-Jiao's filial piety that they commanded Fa-Hai to reunite Lady White with her son.

I have also heard versions of the story where Xiao-Ching defeated Fa-Hai and compelled him to release her mistress, or where Lady White herself took down her foe with a magic flood. In each case, though, Lady White is the hero--one with a sidekick, no less!

Snakes are usually regarded as dangerous pests in Chinese stories, and women as weak or treacherous. Instead, Lady White and Xiao-Ching epitomize honor, courage, and loyalty. I guess I just like the stories that turn stereotypes on their heads? Or maybe there's something about snakes...

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