Lady White Snake, a Chinese Folk Tale

Image from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Several years ago, Jay and I visited China. At the Summer Palace, near Beijing, our tour guide took us to a long covered walkway beside a beautiful lake. The inside was entirely painted with colorful traditional scenes.

“During the Cultural Revolution.” she told us, “this walkway was painted white to hide its beauty, so that the Red Guards would not destroy it. After the bad times, the paint was washed away to reveal the pictures beneath.” She stopped beside one painting.

“This represents an ancient and popular tale called Lady White Snake.”

She paused to tell a haunting story. When I returned home, I looked for it online and found a hundred variations. Here is mine.

In ancient times, a snake and her companion studied diligently for centuries and centuries to become both good and knowledgable in the use of magic. They had even learned how to change into human beings. Lady White Snake was now an extraordinarily beautiful woman, but scarcely less so was her companion, Miss Green Snake.

But Lady White was not content merely to assume a human shape. She longed to experience the joys of human love. One autumn, when the leaves of the willow tree were changing color, the two were walking beside West Lake near the town of Hangzhou. A young man was standing, umbrella over his arm, waiting for the boatman to come and carry him across the lake. As soon as Lady White saw the handsome young man, such violent feelings of love consumed her that she had to lean on her companion for support.

Miss Green glanced at her friend and smiled. She used her own magic to cause it to rain. (After so many centuries of study, this and much more were easily possible.) Loud enough to be overheard by the young man, she said,“Please forgive me, Lady White, I’ve forgotten our umbrellas and we’ll soon be soaking wet, waiting for the boat to take us across the lake.”

The young man, whose name was Xu Xian, heard her and offered his own umbrella. During their short boat ride, Xu Xian and Lady White talked of many things. He was a student of healing potions and herbs. Once across the lake, they would soon have parted, for the rain had stopped, but Miss Green again caused the rain to fall and again, Xu Xian offered his umbrella.

“Only if you promise to come to tea tomorrow so we may return it to you,” said Miss Green. “You’ll find us easily enough. We live in the red mansion.” (The mansion that she would create before morning.)

The next day, the lovers talked for hours in the red mansion until Miss Green grew impatient. “Look at the two of you. Can’t you see love on your faces? Marry straightaway; marry today.” And with only minor blushing and downcast eyes, they did as she suggested.

Miss Green bid them farewell for a time and, for many months, their lives together were happy. They opened a shop selling medicines. Lady White already knew which herbs cured every disease, how best to prepare them, and how often the patient must swallow them down. If someone could not afford to pay, they offered their services with a generous heart, free of charge, so they were soon beloved by almost everyone in the town. Soon Lady White was expecting a child, which added to their happiness.

In every tale, there must be a villain. In this case, it was Fa Hei, abbot of the Golden Mountain pagoda. He too had studied diligently, but his heart was filled with envy and spite. He was determined to learn more about these female strangers and spent long days reading arcane signs. When he was certain, he approached Xu Xian.

“What have you done, you fool? Do you know whom you have married? You think her a pretty woman? No. Lady White is a venomous snake who has disguised herself to seduce you and soon will devour you whole. You have not been chosen as husband but as a tasty morsel when her deadly hunger returns.”

Xu Xian was outraged at the abbot’s suggestion. He felt certain his wife was loving and good and entirely human. But Fa Hei persisted and pointed out the indications and read from the ancient texts.

Finally Fa Hei said, “If you are so sure of your wife, test her at the Dragon Boat Festival.”

It was the the custom at that time to drink wine infused with bitter realgar to fend off all spirits. Fa Hei gave Xu Xian a package wrapped in silk.

“Here is wine and realgar. Let her drink and prove herself true.”

Xu Xian angrily defended his wife, “Lady White could drink a thousand cups and withstand every enchantment that you cast upon her.”

But, truth be told, in his heart a spot of icy doubt was growing.

When the Festival came, Xu Xian longed to throw the wine in a ditch and trust his wife. He dreaded hurting her with the outrageous, nonsensical claims of Fa Hei. Nevertheless, Fa Hei was known for his scholarship. Could he be right? No, never!


The evening of the Festival, Xu Xian still battled his doubts. Finally he thought to prove himself right. If she drank just once, he could expose Fa Hei as a scheming charlatan. Even a single swallow would prove Fa Hei wrong. And the happy life he had known would return. He offered her the wine. He pressed it upon her.

Lady White turned pale. She resisted. “You know I’m pregnant. This is not good for the baby.”

But Xu Xian persisted, tormented by his poisoned thoughts.

“I am strong,” she thought. “I can handle a tiny sip.” And she raised the cup to her lips and let one drop pass down her throat. It scorched her lips and throat and she felt like retching. She ran to the bedroom, saying as she closed the door,

“I am ill. You must leave me alone for awhile.”

In the bedroom, despite herself, she lost control. When Xu Xian ran after her, he saw not the beautiful Lady White, but an eight-foot long white snake coiled upon their bed, an ugly, loathsome creature, head raised, eyes fixed upon him, ready, he feared, to strike. He imagined himself sliding down that dreadful gullet. He felt the horror of imagined betrayal. In that dreadful instant, Xu Xian fell dead on the floor.

Soon Lady White resumed her human shape. She saw her beloved husband, lover, father of her child lifeless. Wild with grief, she flew to Kunlun Mountain. Only there could she find a cure for death. A magical plant, the galanga, grows under a giant tree on an island in the center of a lake on top of the mountain. The mountain is guarded by the keepers of this herb: the brown deer and the white crane. They led their battalions against her in a battle which raged for days. All her magic was pitted against the powerful guards. Boldly she fought, sword in either hand, leaping from rock to rock. She grew tired, weaker because she was soon to give birth to her child. Her body crumbled in exhaustion. From the clouds appeared the ancient god of the mountain. He had seen her courage and resolve. He pitied and pardoned her. He granted her a single stem of the galanga herb to take home.

And there, slowly, Lady White was able to draw out the magic of the herb. Slowly her husband was restored to life. And in those long days her child was born.

When Xu Xian saw his wife again, he trembled. Was she truly a vile beast that had tricked him into loving her—as Fa Hei claimed? How else explain that dreadful form he had seen lying on his bed?

Lady White struggled to explain away the change. He had not seen her because she had hidden under the bed when the white snake appeared. It had been sent by Fa Hei to trick them. Xu Xian wanted but wasn’t quite able to believe her.

Sadly he took up his child and went to consult Fa Hei.

“Fool! Do you doubt your own eyes and your own reason?” Fa He’s words lashed Xu Xian. “Have you never heard of the deceitful cleverness of the serpent?”

Xu Xian still wavered, so Fa Hei imprisoned both man and son in the pagoda. “For your own safety,” he said. “Because you cannot see the evidence of your eyes. Because you would mock the laws of nature.”

Lady White called Miss Green to her side. She was determined to free her husband and child. United they stood against the cruelty of the powerful Fa Hei.

“What wickedness separates those who love each other?” Lady White demanded.

Fa Hei retorted, “What perversion leads a snake to desire the love of a man?”

Battle lines were drawn. Fa Hai called upon the forces of the skies, and Lady White on the creatures of the sea, the crabs and the fish and the giant sea creatures, to come to her aid. She caused the waters to rise to swallow up the pagoda of Fa Hei, but he used his own magic to raise the ground below the pagoda again…and again…and again.

Her magic was not sufficient to destroy the hard-hearted Fa Hei and the cruel forces that supported him. “You will never,” he vowed to Lady White, tempt Xu Xian, or any man, again. From this moment on, you will spend the millennia buried under Thunder Peak Pagoda. And Lady White vanished beneath the ground.

Miss Green fled to her home but never stopped trying to free her friend. She studied the art of battle and recruited a huge army of animals. Centuries later, she was finally victorious over the forces of Fa Hei, and Thunder Peak Pagoda crumbled into dust. Lady White was free at last.

By this time, of course, Xu Xian, a mortal man, had lived the remainder of his life, grown old, and died. And his son had died too.


copyright by Margaret French

Angeline Tubbs, the Witch of Saratoga

Intro: In an earlier post I mentioned the strange story of Angeline Tubbs, the witch of Saratoga. Here is the entire story. Some of it is true.

She came from England as a girl of fifteen. Engaged to be married, she was, to a British officer.  He came to fight the rebels in America, and she was beside him on the long voyage over and during the hardships of wartime.

She was beautiful then, with piercing black eyes and long flowing hair.  And summer or winter she wrapped her red shawl round her. Maybe it was her British officer who gave it to her.

After the Battle of Saratoga, he jilted her.  When the British troops marched south towards Albany, she was left behind in a foreign country. She walked alone from Stillwater, where the battle had taken place, through the forest to Saratoga Springs. Back then it was not a city, just swampy, rocky places, with wolves and bears all around and never a man to protect her or a woman to keep her company and give her comfort.

She lived off what is now route 9, north of Saratoga, at the bottom of a hill they call Mount Vista–or Angeline’s Hill.  She built herself a miserable hut, not fit for any decent creature to live in.  And she trapped and shot wild animals and ate them for food.  Summer or winter, sun or rain, she scrambled up the hills and over the rocks like a wild goat.  And she kept stray cats for company, twenty or more.

Some say she was never the same after she was jilted.  She was certainly not a beautiful woman when the townspeople of Saratoga knew her.  She was a wrinkled crone with a hooked nose.

Some said she had been arrested early on and sentenced to be hanged. They said the hanging failed, and the noose left its dreadful brand on her forever, robbing her of beauty. But no newspaper I could find said it ever happened.

Some said she was touched in the head.  Others claimed she was a granny woman, a witch.  But she said nothing at all.

She was in Saratoga when George Washington visited High Rock Springs though he never came to call on her.  And she was in Saratoga when Gideon Putnam, the founder of the city, built his tavern.

Mrs. Putnam, Gideon Putnam’s daughter-in-law, befriended her.  But most respectable people shunned her and laughed at her and pulled their little children away from the muttering old woman in the red shawl.  Once the townspeople mocked her and laughed at her when she came to a prayer meeting, and she ran away, shamed.

When she got too old to trap and hunt, she started coming to town to beg or tell fortunes for a few pennies.  Lots of the fortunes came true, some said.  And those same people believed she truly was a witch.

One time, William Stone and the Reverend Francis Wayland stopped at Crabb’s House at Bear Swamp, east of town.  Crabb had drawn the signs of the zodiac on the floor with a piece of charcoal.  He was standing in the middle holding a skull in one hand and a witch hazel rod in the other. He had little fires burning all around him.  Nearby, Angeline Tubbs was on her hands and knees cutting open a frog.

Old Crabb was saying, “You see?  You see?  It’s plain as day if you know what to look for.  That there quivering in the frog’s hind leg?  Well, that’s the sign we was waiting for.  You’ll live as long as every last one of your cats.  And if I was you, I’d take good care of them, cause when the last one dies, you die too.  And I ain’t got nothing more to say except you owe me what you promised.”

William Stone wrote about it in his diary in 1826, so I expect it must be true.

And Angeline Tubbs grew old and older and older still.

She saw the town grow rich, and she saw the wealthy tourists in their fancy carriages.

Seems like she cared nothing for the scorn of the townspeople.  Once a traveling photographer took a picture of her, called it “The Witch of Saratoga.” She sold copies of it to the tourists and earned herself a little money.  But whether she was ashamed or proud, no one knew.  No one asked.

Folks often claimed they’d seen a woman on Mount Vista, Angeline’s Hill, standing tall on the very edge of a cliff, arms stretched out, hair streaming in the wind, red cloak flying in the middle of dreadful storms, lightning all around her. She seemed to be talking with the spirits of the storm.  And the woman was surely Angeline Tubbs, herself.

One by one, her cats died, all twenty or more.  And when the last cat died, she died too.  Not in her own home, but in the poorhouse, in 1865.  By her own accounts, she was 104.

It was years later, in 1932, when the gilded age was a memory and only local historians remembered Angeline at all, that a man named Ben Carradine spent time in Yaddo, that special retreat for writers and other artists just on the edge of town.  By the little lake thereabouts in the early evening, he was terrified to see two ghostly spirits, one a young woman and the other a man walking beside her in a bright-red military jacket.  The young woman looked dreadfully unhappy.  Others there just laughed at Ben Carradine for being a darn fool, thinking he saw ghosts.

Years later, in the spring of 1955, he was visiting Saratoga once again from his home in Ohio.  He was driving north of town and stopped to admire a sunset.  He even got out of his car and started to climb a hill, Angeline’s hill.  Halfway up, a fast moving thunderstorm moved in.  He sought shelter under an overhanging rock.

He was in darkness in the rain when a flash of lightning lit the top of the hill on which he’d sought refuge halfway down.  A lone figure was standing on the stone ledge at the top, silhouetted against the sky.  She stood erect, arms stretched out to the raging sky.  Her long hair and wet cloak streamed out behind her. And he heard her piercing scream above him.  Another lightning bolt illuminated the woman.  She screamed again and again as the lightning flashed, the thunder cracked, the rain fell, and the wind howled.  Finally the clouds moved away, the screaming stopped, and the woman vanished.

You may believe that Ben Carradine was just a crackpot would-be writer, that he probably invented the whole thing.  Maybe so. But many of us in Saratoga suspect that Ben Carradine had seen the ghost of Angeline Tubbs, a woman more at home with the raging elements than in the town that failed to comfort or protect its own lost soul.

Copyright by Margaret French

What to Read When Lady Chatterley’s Lover Has Been Expurgated

When I was growing up, the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence was banned most everywhere. But by the time I went to McGill University in the early sixties, the battle for freedom of the press was won forever, or so I thought.

In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the novel was not obscene on the grounds that it had “redeeming social or literary value.” On November 2nd, 1960, Penguin had won the case brought against it in Great Britain. On that day, all 200,000 copies of their edition had sold out. In the next few years, millions more would be sold.  The ban had even been lifted in Canada.

I had not exactly read any of Lawrence’s novels, but I planned to read them all–in their entirety.

Imagine the collective undergraduate shock when the McGill newspaper reported the scandalous news that the prissy librarian in  Royal Victoria College, the women’s residence where I lived, had taken scissors to the novel. The racy parts were all gone!  Who did she think she was to presume to protect the innocence of the young ladies living in RVC?  We were, after all, sophisticated adults, a few of us even old enough to vote. Censorship?! Outrageous!

Royal Victoria College was a large building with a huge statue of Queen Victoria dominating the front steps. It had once been the women’s college affiliated with men-only McGill. Because it had once been a self-contained college, it had great facilities–like its own swimming pool and its own small library.

I  worked in that very library. It was a great job. I loved not having  to brave Montreal winters to go to work, and I loved hanging out in a library, always have. Shelving and checking out books were easy enough, and I worked only evenings–after our uptight librarian went home for the day.

One evening I happened upon an unusual new acquisition.  Surely our librarian would never have chosen to add that particular book to the collection if she had realized what it was about. After all, she had expurgated Lady Chatterley’s’ Lover! Our little library  had acquired a copy of the classical Hindu book, the Kama Sutra. The cover was dull. It looked like some kind of spiritual/theological/mythological bone-dry book from India. But when I started to flip the pages, I realized it was a book of sexual positions.

Although I was pure as the driven snow at the time, I checked out the book and read it cover to cover.  Could human bodies even do such things?! I mentioned it to my friends, all of them. Over a period of many months, every girl I knew checked out the book, evenings, after the librarian had gone home. I doubt it spent even one night on a cold library shelf.

Without a doubt, most of us read the book because we believed it had been acquired by accident by our librarian. We wanted to thumb our noses at her and anyone else who would tell us what we could or could not read. Without a doubt, the book was infinitely more delicious because that year the librarian of Royal Victoria College had cut out pages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.


PS. In 1965 Tom Lehrer, a singer and writer for That Was the Week That Was, a television show satirizing social and political issues. recorded a song you may enjoy. It’s called  “Smut.”  It includes the lines

“Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately?
I’ve got a hobby: rereading Lady Chatterley.”


Copyright by Margaret French