He saw her on the Broken Bridge along West Lake: a maiden in a white gown next to another in green. He didn’t know what compelled him to approach her — perhaps her unearthly beauty, perhaps some greater force. No matter the cause, he went up to her just as it began to rain. He gave her his umbrella, along with his name:

Xu Xian.

Then the rest became legend.xuxian_bainiangzi

For Chinese people, “The Story of the White Snake,” is a famous story about love, deception, and the supernatural. It tells the story of this maiden that Xu Xian meets: Bai Suzhen, the white snake spirit who changes into a human to visit the mortal realm. She falls in love with Xu Xian, and they try to develop their relationship while the Buddhist monk, Fa Hai, tries to break them apart. In the end, he succeeds, trapping the white snake under Leifeng Pagoda for all of eternity.*

leifeng pagoda hangzhou

Or at least until it collapsed in the 1900s

Sound harsh? That’s nothing compared to its earliest written version, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty. Since it was part of the collection: Stories to Caution the World, the story did not see Bai Suzhen as anything more than dangerous.

Now, the story’s changed, adapting to different media — opera, theater, television, cinema, and even music, such as the song: “法海你不懂爱” (fa hai ni bu dong ai, or “You Don’t Understand Love, Fa Hai.”) It’s a true Hangzhou story, with much of the action happening at famous spots: The Broken Bridge, Leifeng Pagoda, and along the shore of West Lake. It’s also a dramatic story of dishonesty, epic battles between armies of demons and monks, and flying spirits manipulating the weather (or did you think that it was pure chance that Bai Suzhen was trapped in the rain without an umbrella?)


Fahai is like the ancient version of the friend you bring to keep people from hitting on you

Not that Xu Xian knew any of that when he met the woman on the bridge.

Long before he finally sees her become the white serpent with its cavernous red mouth, long before she rallies an army of demons to save him from Fa Hai’s monastery, and long before she is banished to Leifeng Pagoda, he sees a pretty maiden and falls in love.

It’s a pity that good folktales are never so simple.

For a good look into the story’s nuances, search for the 1993 movie version called “青蛇” (qing she, or “Green Snake” who was the white snake’s companion to Hangzhou), or find the 2006 television series “白蛇传” (bai she zhuan) filmed in Hangzhou.

Or, simply wait on the Broken Bridge on a rainy day, and keep an eye out for the white snake.

*In another version of the story about White Snake and Xu Xian, Xu eventually defeats the monk and saves his bride. They decide to quit the magic for a while and open a medicine shop on Hefang Street. That shop would soon become the most famous in all of Hangzhou.

Categories: Life, Stories

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