A long time ago, in the waters of China’s famous West Lake, there lived a spirit. She took the form of a white snake, and for many years she practiced the most secret Taoist arts. She was an expert in the ritual form of fighting known as Tai Chi, in medicine, and in meditation. All these she practiced in the cool, watery world of the lake with her friend, the green snake. Occasionally, the snake spirits would look up through the crystal clear surface of the water to the the land. They saw green hills, the blossom of the trees, temples, wooden houses, pagodas, bridges, cheerful lanterns, and young people in love, walking arm in arm. To them, the world of the humans seemed quite enchanting.
After many years leading the Taoist life, the snakes had gathered enough spiritual energy to transform their shapes. They decided to visit the human world in the form of two lovely young women. Naturally one wore a white dress, and the other wore a green one. But they did not choose the best day to venture ashore. As they were crossing the famous broken bridge – it is not broken at all, by the way, just named so – the rain started to fall.
A young boy, whose name was Xu Xian ( Su Sheng), saw that the two ladies were shivering in their thin summer dresses. Like a true gentleman, he lent them his umbrella.
“But surely you need it for yourself? asked the lady in white.
“Don’t worry about me,” replied the boy. “I’ll hurry home and I’ll soon be dry. Keep it for now. You can meet me here tomorrow.”
At the same time the following day the girls met the young lad again by the broken bridge. They returned his umbrella, and the three passed the evening together. They strolled along the wooden sidewalks, looked into the shops, and visited the temple. An old priest with a long white beard gave them tea. The girl in green whispered to the boy, “My friend likes you very much, will you ask her to marry you?” And the boy – who had few prospects on the world – replied, “I would like to very much, but my family is very poor. What shall we live on?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the green girl, ”My friend is very clever. She shall find a way to make sure that everything works out.”
And so the boy asked the girl in the white dress to marry him. She blushed – as was proper – and accepted his proposal. A week later they held a simple ceremony and a modest wedding feast. Little did the boy know that his charming new wife was, in fact, Madame White Snake.
Madame White Snake put her knowledge to profitable use in the world of the humans. She taught the boy about medicines. They collected herbs and insects, prepared remedies and sold them in the markets. Soon they were rich enough to open their own shop. If people were very poor and unwell, they did not charge for their help. The better-off gladly paid a handsome price to be rid of diseases or to heal wounds quickly. They were doing well, and were very happy.
The Dragon Boat Festival came. Xu Xian did not know it, but this noisy summer celebration was a dangerous time for his wife. While the red boats, decorated like dragons, raced over the water, the people drank white wine to drive away the spirits. If anyone had a wooden carving of a dragon, they placed a white paper snake in its mouth to ward off the venomous creatures. This did not make Madame White Snake feel comfortable. She was, after all, both a spirit and a snake. In the evening, the celebration was still raucous. The drums were beating, cymbals clashing, and firecrackers popping. Xu Xian stood on the raised wooden veranda of their shop and looked over the crowds at the lake where the dragon boats were carrying lanterns across the water. His wife hid inside, saying that the noise was too much for her. While he stood alone taking in the scene, a monk in long robes climbed up the steps and stood next to Xu Xian. When the din died down a little, he said : “I have come to give you some important news. Listen to me well. I know who your beautiful wife really is. She has the form of a woman, but in truth she is a snake spirit from the lake.”
‘What is this nonsense?” asked Xu Xian.
“If you do not believe me,” said the monk, “Take a cup of wine in-doors to her. She will be afraid to drink it, because wine is powerful against spirits.”
Xu Xian, seeing no harm in the idea, went inside and insisted that his wife try to buck herself up and join in the celebration. “Come on, Just drink a little cup of wine with me,” he urged.
She should have pleaded that she had a headache, and that she was not feeling well, but Madame White Snake did not want to disappoint her husband. She thought that perhaps she had developed enough power to withstand the effect of the wine. She took a sip from the cup and then another. She quite liked it And then she drank a third little sip and – Alas! – she felt her power weakening – an instant later she turned back into a snake. Her poor husband was so shocked that he fell down on the spot. An hour later, the green snake came looking for her friend and found that the boy was already dead.
“But sister,” she said, ”you must know of a medicine that can bring him back to life.”
“There is only one,” replied Madame White Snake. “There is a special mushroom that grows on the mountain of Kunlun. Unfortunately, it is guarded well by the Old Man of the South and his soldiers.”
The two friends slithered silently out of the town, taking care that nobody should see them. The made the long and arduous journey up the mountain, and near the top they found the place where the immortal mushroom grew. At first they worked their charm on the guards – but the soldiers were unmoved . Then Madame White Snake tried to slip past them, but she was caught by her tail. The Green Snake became a soldier in armour. Madame White Snake transformed herself in the same way – and for a while they danced around the guards with their swords – but it was clear that there was no way that they could reach the mushroom.
At last, in despair, Madame White Snake called out :”Oh Old Man of the South, I only need a little piece of the immortal mushroom to save the human boy whom I love.”
And the Old Man heard her and he appeared out of the mists and said:
“Since you come for love not profit, you may take a piece of the mushroom.”
The two friends raced back to the West Lake where they again transformed themselves into beautiful ladies. Madame White Snake placed the piece of the mushroom under the tongue of Xu Xian and he gradually opened his eyes and saw the beautiful but pale face of his wife.
“My love, I had the most terrible dream,” he said. “I thought you were a snake.”
His wife was already prepared for this. She had transformed her white belt into a snake, and she pointed to it across the floor.
“It was not wholly a dream,” she said, “There is the snake you saw. But it is a harmless one, and will not bite you.”
The good boy sat up, and in a short while he felt like he was his old self again. Little did he know that he had been dead for a whole day. But in his mind, he could not quite rid himself of the vision of his wife changing into a snake. He believed her story of course, but he also felt there was something not quite right.
They carried on their life as before, and in time Madame White Snake became pregnant. It was at this time that the evil monk tried once again to separate the happy couple. He sent a message to Xu Xian asking him to visit him at his temple on the Golden Mountain. Xu Xian still had bad dreams about the time his wife had changed into a snake. It as for this reason, that he made the journey to the temple. When he arrived, the monk met him and said:
“I told you before that your wife was a snake. But I failed to convince you. You did not even believe the evidence of your own eyes. Now I tell you that the mother of your future son is a snake, and he himself will be a spirit. Do you doubt my word? Does this information not trouble you?’
Xu Xian replied that he would always love his wife and son, whatever they were, but he would not be fully happy until he knew the truth.
“Then I shall show you the truth,” declared the monk. And he gave orders that Xu Xian should not be allowed to leave the Golden Temple.
It was not long before the two snakes arrived to demand the freedom of Xu Xian. They found that the temple was guarded by heavily armed monks and celestial soldiers. Lady White Snake was expecting a baby soon, and was in no condition to fight. Xu Xian watched from the tower where he was held captive. He saw how the two women called up an army of strange underwater creatures, serpents, dragons, and giant bearded fish that walked on legs. This extraordinary band of slimy warriors stormed the walls of the temple but were repelled by the monks. Next they tried to divert a river to flood the temple, but the monks managed to make the walls waterproof. After a week of laying siege, Lady White Snake felt that it would be soon time for her to give birth. Her soldiers gathered around to give her cover as she retreated from the fray.
But the battle was not in vein. During all the great commotion, Hsu Sheng managed to lower himself out of the window on a rope made of sheets. He slipped away through the smoke and noise, and made his way home where he found his wife, and his new baby son both in excellent health.
And that really should have been the end of the story, but I am afraid the finale is not entirely happy. The monk did not give up so easily. He arrived at the home of the happy family, together with a glowing solider of heaven. There followed another fierce sword fight, in which the green snake lady took on the heavenly solider. Lady White Snake was still weak from giving birth – and oh – it is so sad to relate – but the evil monk overcame her with magic and whisked her away to the Thunder Peak Pagoda where he imprisoned her under a great rock. That was the last that the good-hearted Hsu Sheng saw of his lovely snake-spirit of a wife. But his son inherited his mothers powers, and when he reached manhood, he was determined to release her. Like his mother before him, he practiced the Taoist arts. A hundred years passed before his powers were fully developed. Sadly Hsu Sheng did not live to see how his son, allied with the green lady, gathered an army of mountain spirits and creatures, and marched on the Thunder Peak Pagoda. A fierce battle raged, and this time the attackers were victorious. Lady White Snake was freed and reunited with her son and her loyal friend, the green snake. And so the end of this story of Madame White Snake is at least partly happy.
I do hope that you enjoyed this ancient tale from China, that was adapted for Storynory by Bertie. And Bertie’s asked me to mention that Madame White Snake is often performed as a Chinese opera with music, masks, dancing and lots of spectacular action on stage. The places in the story, including the West Lake, the Broken Bridge, and Thunder Peak Pagoda are all real.