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