The white snake as the new woman of modern China

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Introduction The Nobel committee suggests that the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Mo Yan, “with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary” (, December 10, 2012). The same can be said about the metamorphosis of the White Snake in modern China. Originated from folk storytelling, this eternally enchanting snake-woman occupied and is still occupying a central position in the cultural transformations of modern and contemporary China. This chapter charts the metamorphosis of the White Snake in print, on stage, and on the screen from the late imperial era to the mid-twentieth century, and from the Cold War to the postmodern transformations of the contemporary Sinophone world (Shih et al. 2013). The metamorphosis of the White Snake has had much to do with the modern girl (modeng xiaojie/moga) discourse and real life new women (xin nüxing/shin josei) throughout the republican, socialist, and post-socialist eras (Stevens 2003: 82-103). It demonstrates the intrinsic connections between identity and performance, between intellectual discourse and social practice, and among sexuality, revolution, and commercialism. The legend of the White Snake (Baishe zhuan) is regarded as one of the four great folk tales of China, the others being “The Weaver and the Cowherd” (Niulang zhinü), “The Butterfly Lovers” (Liangzhu), and “Lady Mengjiang” (Mengjiangnü). The prototype of the White Snake folk tale can be traced back to the seventh-century Tang chuanqi tale “Li Huang,” in which a young man was bewitched by a white snake and as a consequence his body melted into water and he died a horrible death. The tale took shape when its structural elements-a young man, two beautiful maidens, a one-night stand in a mansion, bewitchment, metamorphosis, and the exorcising of the snake spirit-were developed in the sixteenth century, making it the youngest tale among the four great tales (Idema 2012: 25-46; Tian 1980: 137). Most versions of the tale recount how a white snake spirit disguised itself as a beautiful woman and went to the West Lake in Hangzhou to experience the beauty of the human realm (renjian). She formed a sexual relationship with a handsome young man, Xuan Xian (Xu Xuan) and experienced human love and happiness. In the meantime, her transgressive sexuality and violation of the boundary between human and non-human attracted the attention of Fa Hai, a Buddhist monk with the power to recognize and exorcise spirits. Feng Menglong's seventeenth-century vernacular tale “Lady White Forever Imprisoned under Leifeng Pagoda” (“Bai niangzi yongzhen Leifengta') was one of the most popular retellings of the tale, highlighting the “lust, caution' parable embedded in the tale by repudiating the lustful nature of the snake woman and her destructive power while upholding the monk Fa Hai as a defender of social norms and natural human relations (Feng 1956; Idema 2009). The legend subsequently went through a major transformation during the Qing Dynasty, when a chuanqi version entitled Leifeng Pagoda (Leifeng ta) and a tanci version entitled Tale of a Righteous Spirit (Yiyao zhuan) rewrote White Snake as an endearing character and recast Fa Hai as the destructive power separating lovers and families (Fang 1995; Chen et al. 1869). Other versions have since incorporated both the lustful and loving natures of the White Snake, rendering her the embodiment of the exotic and the erotic in the legend's countless renditions in no less than a dozen local dialects and operatic forms throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in China. In Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, and the Chinese diaspora, from the late imperial to contemporary times, the metamorphoses of the White Snake has told a complicated story about gender and class; sexuality, revolution and commercialism; folk, popular and propaganda culture; romantic nationalism; and transnational cultural and ideological formations. A chapter such as this will not do justice to such a vast subject matter. Instead of closely examining a range of key moments and texts surrounding the subject at hand (which I reserve for a separate book-length study), I will instead attempt a historical overview as a first step towards that goal, with a special focus on the transgressive female sexuality and its global connection as embodied by the image of White Snake and the actresses and female writers who embody her presence in real life. My goal is to use this preliminary overview to suggest a larger picture, in which the enduring White Snake theme came to be intricately connected with the reality and representation of the “modern girl' and the “new woman' throughout the modern and contemporary transformations of the Sinophone world (Edwards 2000: 115-147; Sang 2008: 179-202; Weinbaum et al. 2008). Questions of imagination, technology, and power are important to our understanding of the White Snake phenomenon in modern China. Imagination concerns how we collectively produce, project, and promote social feelings and aspirations in modern times. Can local storytelling express global aspirations? Technology dictates how we best tell a story, locally and globally, in words and in images, and across multiple media. Finally, the power relationship among the state, the market, and the public reminds us that we need to actively engage all three in a continued negotiation. These questions should be kept in mind as we situate the metamorphosis of the White Snake in modern China in the context of its global connections, multi-media experiments, and structural limitations and possibilities.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Modern Chinese Women and Gender Politics
Subtitle of host publicationThe Centennial of the End of the Qing Dynasty
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781135020064
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 selection and editorial matter, Chen Ya-chen. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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