Legend of the White Snake

The brave and free love between an immortal and a human being

By Google Arts & Culture

The White Snake's cave (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

Legend of the White Snake, also known as Madame White Snake, is a famous Chinese folktale dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The script was set during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1733–1735) in Qing Dynasty and became widespread all over China after the Emperor’s review. Over the centuries, the story has been retold in novels, and adapted to operas, shadow plays and movies.

Once upon a time, a white snake and a green snake living in a remote mountain became immortal and obtained super powers after centuries of practices.

Broken Bridge (From mid-Qing to late-Qing dynasty)CAFA Art Museum

They transformed into two beautiful ladies and wanted to visit the human world. They first came to the scenic West Lake located in Hangzhou in Eastern China. When they were walking on the famous Broken Bridge, they ran into a very handsome young man with an umbrella under his arm. 

Xu Xian in Xiaosheng appearance (young male character in Chinese opera) (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

Lady White Snake fell in love with him. 

Madame White Snake with an umbrella (2015) by Wang TianwenCAFA Art Museum

Just then, it started to rain and the gentleman lent his umbrella to the ladies. He told them his name is Xu Xian. The second day, they met again and the two ladies thanked Xu Xian with a meal. After knowing each others' backgrounds, lady Green Snake told Xu Xian that lady White Snake was in love with him. He was thrilled to learn about that as he also had feelings for her. 

The White Snake in wedding dress (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

Very soon, Xu Xian and lady White Snake got happily married. 

Bamboo table and chairs in the pharmacy (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

The young couple moved to Zhenjiang and opened a herbal medicine shop. The business was flourishing with their hard work. However, everything changed after a monk called Fahai visited their store. 

The Buddist monk Fahai (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

Fahai told Xu Xian that his wife was not a human being but a devil snake. Xu Xian didn't believe him, then Fahai suggested Xu Xian to give his wife a special drink and verify it. 

Bai Suzhen (Lady White Snake) transforms into a giant snake (Qing Dynasty)CAFA Art Museum

One day, Xu Xian tricked his wife to drink a wine mixed with the liquid, all of a sudden, she turned into a giant white snake. The poor young Xu Xian collapsed to the floor and died of shock. 

Heavenly mountain with magic herbal (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

The sad Lady White Snake decided to steal a magic herbal from a heavenly mountain in order to save her husband's life and their marriage. 

The Deer boy and White Crane boy (2015) by Wang TianwenCAFA Art Museum

The Deer boy and White Crane boy fought against Lady White Snake in order to prevent her from stealing the magic herbal.

The Old Man of the South Pole (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

The old man of the South Pole (also known as Shouxing) gave Lady White Snake the magic herbal out of sympathy.

The Green Snake and White Snake practicing for the battle at the Jinshan Temple (2015) by Wang TianwenCAFA Art Museum

Xu Xian revived but monk Fahai took him to the Jinshan Temple (Gold Hill Temple) and kept him from meeting with the White Snake. The White Snake got angry and declared war with monk Fahai.    

Dragon King of the Eastern sea and his carp minister (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

They asked for help from the Dragon King of the East sea in order to fight against the strong Fahai.

Shrimp soldiers and crab generals (the army of the Dragon King in the Eastern Sea) (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

The Dragon King sent his army of sea goblins.

One of the shrimp soldiers and crab generals (the army of the Dragon King in the Eastern Sea) (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

Flood in the Jinshan Temple (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

The White Snake and the Green Snake used their powers to flood the temple. The sea army helped them a lot to fight against Fahai.    

One of the Heavenly Kings in the battle of the Jinshan Temple (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

However, Fahai asked for help from heavenly gods and defeated the White Snake.    

White Snake and Green Snake on a lotus leaf (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

The two sisters started to escape on a lotus leaf.    

The White Snake after the defeat of the battle at Jinshan Temple (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

The White Snake was pregnant at that time, that's one of the reasons she lost the war with Fahai - she was weak.    

Xu Xian (2015) by Wang TianwenCAFA Art Museum

One day, Xu Xian managed to escape from the temple and found lady White Snake. She revealed all of her story and admitted that she is a snake. Xu replied: "Human or not, I will love you always."    

Lady White Snake with a golden bowl on her head (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

However, the couple's happy life was interrupted again by monk Fahai. He arrived with a heavenly warrior with a golden bowl and lady White Snake suddenly got captive by the golden bowl.    

Leifeng Pagoda (Early twentieth century)CAFA Art Museum

After giving birth to her son, the poor lady White Snake was imprisoned under Leifeng Pagoda by the West Lake for centuries...

When spreading in different regions, the story of Legend of the White Snake might have been subtly modified to adapt to the needs of local cultures. What we are seeing here is the version of the Shaanxi shadow puppetry, a time-honored folk art also called “Wanwan Qiang” that has been circulated in Hua County and Weinan.

Credits: Story

Story written by WU Jian'an, contemporary Chinese artist, professor at Central Academy of Fine Arts, China.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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