The White Snake- the Most Famous Snake in Chinese Mythology

Today, we are going to introduce you to probably the most famous snake in Chinese mythology– the white snake, 白素贞(Bái Sùzhēn). The earliest time the white snake’s story appeared in a book was in the novel 警世通言(Stories to Caution the World) written in the Ming dynasty.

In that version of her story, during the Nansong Dynasty, she was a more than a thousand-year-old white snake. When a creature gets that old, it has certain powers. The white snake transformed into a beautiful widow, and called herself 白素贞. 白素贞 was born in the valley near the 青城山(Qingcheng Mountain) in Chengdu. On a rainy day in Hangzhou, together with her blood sister 小青Xiǎoqīng, a blackfish spirit, they met a young man called 许宣Xǔxuān on a boat in the west lake. 许宣 and 白素贞 fell in love at first sight and soon got married. Later, 白素贞 stole money to give to 许宣, and as 许宣 was using the money, he got caught. There came a monk called 法海Fǎhǎi, telling 许宣 his wife was a white snake spirit, and also told him how to reveal 白素贞’s true shape and capture the spirits. 许宣 was already suspicious about 白素贞 for there were things that didn’t make sense about her, so he followed 法海’s instruction and revealed their true shapes and captured the snake and the fish with an alms bowl. Then 法海 put them under the Leifeng Pagoda, so they couldn’t escape from under it, and they had to stay there forever.

This version was not romantic at all since, in this version, 许宣 was just spellbound by the white snake’s astounding beauty, but later broke from the spell and did the right thing.

However, in the most popular version, it was a quite romantic love story. In this version, 白素贞 and 许仙Xǔxiān still met on a boat on West Lake on a rainy day, and they fell in love at first sight. They met with each other several times by lending and returning an umbrella. They soon got married and opened a medicine shop/clinic together. 白素贞, even though not a human being, was very kind and used her powers to treat a lot of patients. So the local people respected and adored the family.

A traveling monk called 法海 stopped by their home, and told 许仙 his wife was a snake spirit. 许仙 couldn’t believe him. 法海 tricked 白素贞 into drinking some Realgar wine. She drank the wine, got drunk and revealed her true shape in front of 许仙. 许仙 was scared to death upon witnessing that. So 白素贞 took a risk, went to the deities realm and stole the herb that could bring the dead back to life. 许仙, who was deeply in love with 白素贞, couldn’t leave her even when he discovered that she was not human. 法海 was convinced that humans and spirits should not be together, so he imprisoned 许仙 in the Gold Mountain Temple and tried to force him to become a monk. 白素贞 was already pregnant at the time, so to try to rescue her husband she went to fight with 法海. She was so angry that she lost her mind, drew water from the West Lake, and flooded the Gold Temple area. In the process, many innocent creatures were killed. Since she was pregnant, though, she was weaker than usual so she couldn’t defeat 法海. When they were fighting, 许仙 escaped and fled back to Hangzhou, he reunited with 白素贞, and 白素贞 gave birth to their son 许士林.

法海 took the chance and captured 白素贞 with an alms bowl, and put her under the Leifeng Pagoda. 白素贞 cried and begged for mercy saying please, let me out, I have a baby boy to raise! 法海 answered coldly, I will let you out when this iron tree blossoms. But the iron tree hadn’t blossomed for 500 years. 20 years passed, and her son 许士林Xǔ Shìlín got the first place in the official selection exam and got a hat called 簪花Zānhuā from the emperor. He went to the Leifeng pagoda to hang the hat on the iron tree. Since 花 is “flower” in Chinese and blossom means 开花. So it was another way for the iron tree to blossom.

Therefore 白素贞 was able to get out and have a reunion with her family. After that, they lived happily ever after. There are many TV shows and movies about 白素贞, including a childhood favorite for my generation. Every girl has dressed at least as 白素贞 once when playing dress-up. Erlang Shen- one of the most famous mythical heroes in China, click to read more.

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