From folklore to literate theater: unpacking 'Madame White Snake'

Whalen Lai

Asian Folklore Studies
Vol.51 No.1 (April 1992)

COPYRIGHT Asian Folklore Studies (Japan) 1992

            THE Story of Madame White Snake (Baishe zhuan) is one of the 
            best-known stories in China, and, as a beautiful if chilling ghost 
            story, it has even been passed on to Japan. There have already been 
            several monograph-length studies on it (Hsu 1973; Wu 1969; Yen 
            1970). Of these, Hsu has painstakingly traced the development of the 
            tale, from a local, Ur-myth found in a Song collection all the way 
            to the popular-theater version of it. The latter is frequently 
            referred to as the drama of "The Flooding of the Golden Mountain." 
            Hsu includes in his coverage its Japanese fate and even the PRC 
            idealization of the serpent-turned-woman into a revolutionary 
            feminist (Hsu 1973). 
            The present essay will not try to cover the same ground. Instead it 
            will unpack this "man-demon romance" and look at how, in broad 
            historical outlines, China dealt with such intercourse between the 
            human and the supernatural in the form of myth, or folklore, or 
            popular theater. By using this one example, we hope to document 
            certain epochal changes in Chinese sensitivity toward the 
            otherworld. The philosophical postscript may be somewhat 
            unscientific. Those who hold generalizations suspect can ignore it. 
            Before Madame White Snake changed from being a villain to being a 
            heroine, the local legend of her story was about the seduction of a 
            young man by a she-demon. The bare bones of the story are as 
            A young man encountered a beautiful maiden attended by a maid 
            during a festive outing near a lake. 
            He followed her and was invited to her fine mansion outside the 
            city, where he dined and stayed overnight. 
            After that one-night stand, the young man became visibly 
            his vital essence being slowly drained. 
            The suspicion that he had been bewitched was confirmed by a 
            revisit to the mansion-in reality, a graveyard. 
            A Taoist was called in to perform an exorcism, and, sure enough, 
            a white snake and an otter were driven out. Upon this skeleton, 
            though, other elements were soon added to give it flesh and 
            In one later version, the she-demon was so powerful that the Taoist 
            priest was easily routed. A Buddhist monk, deemed more charismatic, 
            was called in. Even that was not enough to subdue the demon, so, in 
            still more embellished versions, Bodhisattva Guanyin 
            (Avalokitesvara, Kannon) was summoned. The dramatic end has the 
            snake kept forever under the weight of a pagoda built on the isle in 
            the lake. The Taoist is a magician of this world; the Buddhist monk, 
            being celibate, represents a higher calling; and the pagoda, being 
            what houses the Buddha relic (sarira), is the Buddha-body 
            (Buddha-kaya) incarnate. Other elements of the Ur-myth were also 
            changed. Nowadays we do not even remember the role of the otter. It 
            has been replaced by a tiny green snake that, in her human form, 
            plays handmaid to her mistress, Madame White. Nicknamed Xiao Qing, 
            or "Little Green," she now functions as the matchmaker to the 
            central couple. 
            The most dramatic change comes, however, over Madame White Snake. 
            Though unable to shed totally her demonic persona, Madame White rose 
            from being a heartless beast to being an ideal mate. She was a 
            loving wife, a caring mother, a rescuer of her family from the first 
            flood, and, at that point, a general benefactor of men. She took on 
            the virtues of the traditional Chinese female, especially 
            forbearance, a virtue born of necessity when women had little say in 
            a man's society. That was brought out more so by the fact that 
            Madame White was being hounded by her enemies, the ghostbusters of 
            yore, who simply would not let her be. 
            However, if forbearance was the virtue of submissive womanhood, 
            Madame White, being no common woman, would show an independence of 
            will that would endear her to the feminist. Indeed, in the glare of 
            her indomitable will, her mate appears all too spineless a male. 
            Indecisive and moved this way or that by the tides of changing 
            circumstance, he was the forgettable character who never rose above 
            his situation. At first, he was visibly seduced by her beauty. Then 
            he did much of her bidding when she saved the family from the first 
            flood. He was the passive one. When the tide turns against the 
            she-demon, the man seems to forget the love and children they 
            shared, as he does the bidding of her enemies. It is true that they 
            saved him from her, but during the humanizing rewrite of her 
            character, it was never suggested that she wished her family any 
            harm. Theoretically, the couple could have "lived happily ever 
            after," had not her enemies forced her hand. The modern feminist 
            would even see in her an advocate of the individual's freedom to 
            love, an advocate who, by boldly defying the feudal, patriarchal 
            authorities, brought the whole system of their sexist injustice down 
            upon her. 
            I shall, however, leave the literary and political readings of this 
            tale to others and look instead to other texts and contexts in order 
            to peel off the various layers of this tale, to find certain 
            internal dynamics that can just as well account for the tale's 
            transformations in time. Although my investigation into myth and 
            folklore types can be accused of ending up with bare bones and no 
            flesh, folklore types (and mythic structures too) are ultimately 
            "intended as a tool and not a terminus" of research (Eberhard 1965, 
            xiv).(1) And even as we unpack the story, we shall also put the 
            pieces back together, adding thereby, as it were, muscle and sinews 
            that will "flesh out" the developing character and plot. By 
            overlaying folklore upon folklore, myth upon myth, we might see how 
            the literate theater of "The Flooding of the Golden Mountain" came 
            about. Not individual authorship, but some shared imagination, is 
            responsible for that dramatic script. 
            Let us begin with a paraphrase of another "Story of the Serpent" 
            that is recognizably a variant of the tale of Madame White Snake 
            (Eberhard 1965, 173-75). It concerns a giant serpent that resided 
            underground in an isle on a lake. With its mouth masquerading as a 
            giant lotus blossom, it devoured alive all those who mistook the 
            flower as a gateway to Amitabha's Pure Land. The pious threw 
            themselves into the flower and were eaten alive by the chthonic 
            monster. That is, until a righteous official saw through its 
            deception. Pouring gunpowder and quicklime into its gaping mouth, 
            the official exposed--literally exploded--the demonic treachery. The 
            first half of this story resonates with the Ur-myth of Madame White 
            Snake as a man-eating monster located at a lake. 
            Eberhard's notation to the tale points to a common source for both 
            tales, one involving 
            the periodic sacrifice of a maiden to a river deity; the sacrifice 
            the form of a marriage of the girl to the deity. In this form, the 
            tale was known before the Christian era. . . . The gunpowder and 
            quicklime in our tale are innovations. Early texts have the official 
            either personally enter the water and fight the spirit or send the 
            priests into the river to announce the sacrifice. By so doing, the 
            official abolished the heretic cult. (Eberhard 1965, 237) 
            Two famous early stories come to mind. The "official who entered the 
            water" refers best to the exploits of Erlang, sometimes called 
            Erlang Shen (god). Erlang is a river god. He is to China as Krishna 
            is to India. Krishna also killed a multi-headed Hydra at a lake. But 
            if Erlang was a river god, that would mean that he was not simply a 
            hero who battled the river and stemmed its killing flood. In his 
            other persona as the river, he was the author of the flood. This 
            explains the two faces of Madame White Snake. As a heroine, she 
            saved her family from a flood--the first flood. As a demon, she 
            called up the same flood in her battle with Guanyin to help drown 
            the golden mountain and its temple. A cousin to both Erlang and 
            Madame White is known in Chinese history as the Sage-King Yu. Yu was 
            the dragon who stemmed the Great Flood by digging deep the channels 
            of the river bed. However, Yu also chased away those other dragons, 
            the "dragons of chaos," that infested China when the flood covered 
            the land. More on this Janus of a god later. 
            The official "who sent the priests into the river to announce the 
            sacrifice" reminds us of Ximen Bao. Ximen Bao had just taken up 
            office at Ye N when he came upon a local cult wherein a maiden was 
            sacrificed yearly as a bride for the god of the Yellow River. Bao 
            ended that licentious cult by throwing the female shamans into the 
            waters to announce a temporary delay in the marriage. Upon 
            inspection, though, we can see how the river god, He Bo, is really 
            just another Krishna. He Bo frolicked with the nymphs of the rivers, 
            all of whom were routinely counted as his consorts. Krishna made the 
            same claim. In a well-known episode loved by Hindu votaries, Krishna 
            bathed in the river with the gopis and mated with every one of them. 
            But the god's love was so individually tailored that each gopi had 
            the pleasure of thinking she had the lord all to herself and herself 
            alone. That a lake has many streams feeding it and a river many 
            tributaries can, in part, account for the physiology of this 
            licentiously polygamous Hydra-Krishna-He Bo. 
            If we look closer, then, as I have demonstrated (Lai 1990), Ximen 
            Bao did not exactly save a maiden fair from some Dracula. What are 
            now remembered, in the Confucian redaction of the tale, as "ugly, 
            old hags" whom Bao merrily threw into the river, were, in the same 
            script, none other than the brides. The shamans were the lovers of 
            He Bo during the spring festival. The Ximen Bao story only conflates 
            the orgy of a Maypole festival in spring with the sacrificial rite 
            of fall. The two events make up the cycle of Eros and Thanatos. The 
            Eros half celebrates a man-god romance; the Thanatos half remembers 
            the cannibalistic death and rebirth of the victims. Cast into that 
            larger drama, the seduction of the young man by Madame White at lake 
            side, fore-shadowing immanent death, only tells half of that story. 
            Love and sex are a natural part of these fertility myths turned 
            tales. Love can transport mortal man to immortal heaven; sex can be 
            a rendezvous in hell. Since sexual intercourse is yin meeting yang, 
            it is a play of cosmic forces, a "peak experience," sometimes 
            compared to a battle--a war of the sexes--but more often seen as a 
            harmony of opposites leading to general health and long life. As 
            such, it is worthy of being described as a dalliance with xian 
            immortals (Gulik 1974). Death and immortality are mixed in the 
            "Story of the Serpent" above. The serpent's mouth is a gateway to 
            the netherworld as well as the door to Pure Land. It has the same 
            function as the mouth of the old taotie. The realm of the Taoist 
            immortals had just been upgraded, in this medieval tale, to being 
            the Buddhist paradise of Amitabha. As sex is divine, sex can also be 
            demonic. And in medieval times, we will find the classic nymphs of 
            the Lo River (Luoshui shenxian) demonized into this life-draining 
            succubus of a Madame White Snake. More on that later. 
            Before the medieval demonization, the Han Chinese already separated 
            the encounter with gods from the encounter with demons. They 
            produced two separate genres with very different structures. It is 
            hard to say when the split occurred. In the Songs of the South, we 
            have only the man-god romances (Hawkes 1962). By Han, the Confucian 
            condemnation of shamanic and licentious cults had effectively turned 
            He Bo, the river god, from being Prince Charming to being a Dirty 
            Old Man in the tale of Ximen Bao now found in the Historical Records 
            of Sima Qian. 
            So perhaps it is fitting that by Han, the romance of "fortuitous 
            encounter" with immortals was set apart from the horror of 
            "unfortunate run-in" with the devil. Encounter is hui, as in hui 
            shenming (meeting the gods). Hui tells originally of a rite whereby 
            the gods are invited to come down to the altar--this is still done 
            at Shinto shrines in Japan--so that men and gods can "get together." 
            We find remnants of this cult told in the psychic chapters of the 
            Guanzi. When such encounters were secularized, the meeting was no 
            longer ritually planned; it was simply, "fortuitous." Such a chance 
            meeting is called yu, the same word that is used nowadays to 
            describe a brief, erotic affair. That change from hui to yu results 
            from taking a once-prescribed "rite of passage" out of context. The 
            predictable is now just the fortuitous. 
            In China, gods are orderly and predictable; ghosts are not. A 
            "run-in" with ghosts is just as accidental, or fortuitous (in the 
            bad sense of misfortune). The Chinese colloquial expression 
            describing the worst of all luck is "seeing a ghost in broad 
            daylight." The Cantonese in their less refined language simply call 
            it tsong guai, now used as a regular cuss word for anything 
            unbecoming. We shall look first at a case of a "fortuitous encounter 
            with an immortal" before we do a run-in with a devil.(2) 
            The classic story of a good encounter, known to all Chinese, is that 
            of "Dong Yong Fortuitously Encountering a Female Immortal." The poor 
            but hard-working Dong won, somehow, the heart of a female immortal, 
            who came down to earth to be his wife. Upon their first meeting by 
            chance, Dong was such a Confucian prude that he was not sure whether 
            or not it was right for him to talk to this beautiful stranger. 
            After all, they had not been properly introduced. So she bad to make 
            the first move. Even the proposal of marriage had to come from her. 
            Even then, she had to call on a huai tree--a tree of fertility--to 
            be their go-between and witness. She became, as expected, a model 
            wife. With all the felicity of offspring and wealth she brought him, 
            Dong remained a model breadwinner, hard-working and frugal, to the 
            end. The tale ends when her time on earth has come to an end. After 
            revealing her true identity, she takes her leave. And Dong takes her 
            departure rather well. 
            Thus everything is kosher and morally proper in this story. Dong was 
            a gentleman from beginning to end. He was not out looking for a 
            brief romance; juicy sex is not a part of this tale. He persisted in 
            being a hard worker; indulgence in love, as happened to the Oxherd 
            and the Weaver, who became lazybones,(3) was not his style. When she 
            left--all good things must end--he took it with stoic gratitude. He 
            did not foolishly pine and chase after her as Archer Yi would. 
            (Archer Yi [of the east], in an exercise of futility went after his 
            wife, Heng E, after she, the goddess of the moon, fled to the west 
            [where the moon rises].) 
            This tale of a "prim and proper" Dong Yong, codified in Han by 
            moralistic Confucianism, is a marked departure from the freer sexual 
            mores of the older Songs of the South. The south was the home of 
            shamans, sufficiently far away from Lu, the home of Confucius. In 
            the southern lakes and streams, female shamans mated with He Bo just 
            as readily as male shamans would woo the beautiful Lady of the Lake. 
            Love affairs between man and god were frequent (seasonal) happenings 
            and not labelled as "confusing the distinctions of names and ranks," 
            as Confucians would be prone to do. Confucius, following the Zhou 
            Enlightenment, had accepted the transcendence of Heaven. But back in 
            the days of the Shang that preceded the Zhou, the supreme deity, or 
            Shangdi, probably fathered the house of Shang. This Lord on High 
            probably came down in the form of the "dark bird" (Japan's 
            yatagarasu) and impregnated the ancestress of the royal house. That 
            was a classic hui shenming scene before Confucian historians rewrote 
            it into a "fortuitous encounter" in which the Shang ancestress is 
            stepping on a giant bird's footprint or swallowing a bird's egg "by 
            chance" on some outing "in the fields or woods." 
            Patriarchy had, by the Han, redacted many of these early myths. By 
            then it was deemed improper for single women to go walking alone in 
            the woods (site of the old suburban rite) and get themselves 
            pregnant (by strangers). Female immortals, however, could still come 
            down from Heaven and grace such lucky fellows as Dong Yong with 
            their favors. These are often known as banished immortals "on 
            temporary exile from Heaven." Male immortals in Confucian China lost 
            that freedom. They rarely came down to marry some lucky women. Zeus 
            they were not. Men could have affairs with heavenly maidens, but to 
            have women sleeping around with gods and producing offspring would 
            create havoc with the standard, patrilineal genealogies! 
            If the Han tale of Dong Yong represents "fortuitous encounter," then 
            the Wei-Jin zhiguai (records of strange happenings) would be our 
            ghost stories about "run-ins with the devil." The former spoke up 
            for Confucian mores; the latter for Taoist fascination with the 
            unknown. Unlike the former, which is so on the up-and-up as never to 
            titillate the reader's baser instincts, the latter has more 
            entertainment value. Actually, though, the Wei-Jin tales are so 
            matter-of-fact (they were counted as "history" and not as "story"), 
            short, and unembellished that they are more strange incidents than 
            truly horrifying, Gothic tales. Ghosts appeared and then 
            disappeared, with seemingly little rationale. Anyone, just or 
            unjust, could be met with such visitations. There is no karmic 
            theodicy to make sure that the just were blessed and the unjust 
            cursed. Sex was neither particularly glamorized nor condemned. There 
            was no subgenre of "man-ghost romance" as such. 
            For stories with sufficient sex and violence, which is what we have 
            in the mature tales of Madame White Snake, one would have to wait 
            nearly a millennium, for works produced in Song and embellished 
            (especially) in Ming. That is not just because the popular press, 
            dated to Ming, could then better cater to the grosser interests of a 
            larger population. Whether we like it or not, sex and violence--to 
            mimic Freud--do build character, not just in lives but also in 
            stories. These two demons of lust and aggression rise from the depth 
            of the id to provoke the censor from the superego, and in so 
            threatening the ego, also dare it to take better charge of its life. 
            Maturity comes with being slave neither to the id of the instincts 
            nor to the superego of one's society. Song and Ming Neo-Confucianism 
            fostered that. 
            Like the Puritans of Europe, the Neo-Confucians popularized 
            asceticism in a cult of rational self-control. It worked at building 
            character through self-imposed hardship and by resisting 
            temptations. Like the Puritans, they were not always successful and 
            their plans sometimes backfired. Repression takes its revenge. So by 
            condemning literary fantasy--it runs counter to their rational, 
            sober life-style--the Neo-Confucians helped to promote it. The Ming 
            novel embodied those very "guilty pleasures" denied the parlor 
            readers in their real life. The novels tell of those "forbidden 
            fruits" and then, in the last minute, append their proper 
            punishment. The Story of Madame White Snake is one such Gothic 
            romance. Before the final curtain falls on the Wicked Woman who 
            caused it all, we are treated to the delicious breaking of all the 
            social taboos and the pleasures that come with it. 
            So in this morality tale, the young man was no Dong Yong. He was a 
            listless, lesser literatus, easily aroused to erotic fantasy by the 
            sight of a winsome beauty. He sought her out--with no proper 
            introduction--and she, single and with no chaperone, just as boldly, 
            reciprocated. As if that was not enough, she turned out to live in a 
            gorgeous mansion. In short, wealth and sex, what most men wish for, 
            was his for the asking. That is the escapist half of the tale. Moral 
            censor followed soon enough. The fantasy is too good to be true. 
            There was the crude awakening that the price of sin is death. On 
            that sour note, the tale ends. 
            Such tales of seduction were very real at one time. Today, thanks to 
            Freud, we call it sexual fantasy. Since it is our sexual fantasy, we 
            are responsible for it. In medieval times, it was known as 
            possession. The evil is not within us; it comes from a source 
            without. When a young man from a good Chinese family falls in love 
            with a village beauty of low social standing, he might pine for her 
            and suffer nightly the "love sickness" that drains his vitality 
            (essence/semen). Since goodness is thought to come from being born 
            into a good family, it is common practice at one time to accuse the 
            "fox lady" with bewitching the lad. His family might seek her out 
            and beat her up for transporting herself into his wet dreams. The 
            Gothic romance of Madame White Snake is a tale to us, but it was a 
            feasible happening then. 
            A female immortal descends to assume human form to marry Dong Yong. 
            A snake spirit ascends and masquerades as a beautiful woman to 
            entice men. In either case, the female crosses over into the realm 
            of man. Neither stays in that realm forever. Banished immortals are 
            temporary exiles only. Animal spirits seduce men only at a 
            way-station upward bound. The good among animal spirits who help 
            rather than harm man may graduate to being xian immortals; the evil 
            ones attain immortality, but only as yao demons. In time, exiled 
            immortals will fly off. In sleep, when drunk, or during exorcism, 
            animal spirits may revert to their subhuman form. The diagram below 
            shows the typical movements involved in descent and ascent: 
            for gods and immortals               for ghosts and demons
            --immortal temporarily exiled     --demon on an upward climb
            --descends into humanity          --ascends into human form
            --picks a deserving man           --preys on a hapless youth
            --a helpful wife of virtue        --a partner of the flesh
            --a mother to boot                --usually without offspring
            --a boon to her mate              --a kiss of death
            --returns to heaven               --is imprisoned underground
            The above shows two separate destinies. The power of the mature 
            story of Madame White Snake is due to its mixing of the two. 
            What began as a tale of demonic possession (upper-right box) turns 
            halfway into the demon taking over the good qualities of an exiled 
            immortal middle-left box) before returning to the original ending 
            (lower-right box). Madame White Snake grew into the faithful wife, 
            the loving mother, the benefactor of men. What Hsu documented as the 
            successive humanization of the White Snake is simply this shift in 
            the axis of her conduct. Her tragedy is that her demonic past would 
            not let her be. Or, even if she was ready to forgo it, those 
            hounding her would not let her. 
            We can almost pinpoint her transformation from malevolent to 
            benevolent spirit: it came with motherhood. Full family life, the 
            foundation of Confucian virtues, changed her. It appears that 
            Chinese demonology does not encourage a cult of "Rosemary's Baby." 
            Christianity believes in divine and demonic progeny, but Buddhist 
            karma disallows a biological inheritance of good or evil. As for 
            Taoist immortals, they apparently do not father immortal offsprings, 
            just normal, healthy, human babies. Maybe that is because gods in 
            China were originally men (Allen 1979). Man-demon encounters seem to 
            involve good sex for its own sake without producing children of 
            darkness, though folk belief does entertain possibilities such as 
            the operatic one of an empress said to have given birth to a fox or 
            a bobcat. 
            We may be unnecessarily specific here. Chinese folklore, like 
            folklore all over the world, has no trouble with "grateful animals" 
            marrying men and producing families. Swan Lady and Snow Woman never 
            disqualified themselves from childbearing, either. It is the moral 
            metaphysics of developed cultures that set up such unreasonable 
            paternity requirements. In the Chinese variant of Swan Lake, called 
            "The Bank of the Celestial Stream" (Eberhard 1965, 43-44), morality 
            was never an issue. Virtue might be assumed in the Weaver and the 
            Oxherd, but the tale is equally a tale of guile: his stealing of her 
            clothes and her retrieving of her magical feathered gown. 
            Put the Swan Lady at a river inlet and we see a nymph of the waters. 
            Transport Madame White Snake back in time and her seduction of men 
            would just be another innocent dalliance with such nymphs at lake 
            side. The difference is that during the medieval fascination with 
            ascetics, the nymph saw herself turned into and hunted as the much 
            feared witch. 
            That had yet to happen during the Han. The yin-yang of sex was then 
            deemed healthy and Taoist bedchamber books endorsed the mutual 
            gratification of male and female during intercourse. China did have 
            a misconception. Whatever Laozi had said of the inexhaustible Mystic 
            Female notwithstanding, the medical opinion was that the male had a 
            greater supply of yang than the female had of yin, for menopause 
            seems to terminate her fertility. She needed to draw on the male to 
            become fertile. With that came a fear of the female "stealing" the 
            yang from the male. Medieval ascetics fueled that fear. And the 
            promiscuous nymph became a succubus who visits men at night to suck 
            dry their vital forces. There were mythic femmes fatales before: the 
            Great Earth Mother who dines on her children appeared in China as a 
            motherly tigress and the taotie on Shang bronzes. But the succubus 
            was a medieval creation. 
            As sex haunted the Buddha and St. Anthony, water nymphs fell from 
            grace. Just as their male counterparts, the fertile satyrs, would 
            reappear as aspects of the Devil in the West and "cow-head" and 
            "horse-face" messengers from Buddhist hells in the East, river 
            goddesses became Mara's (the Devil's) daughters. Because in China 
            sexual intercourse was a matter of mixing "cloud and rain," 
            seduction by Eros regularly took place at aquatic sites. It is not 
            that the virile mountain, home of the clouds (the male fluid), has 
            no role. Wushan was not called "shamanic hills" for no reason. 
            Nonetheless, water is the preferred haunt. This went back to the 
            Lady of the Lake in the Songs of the South, what Edward Schafer has 
            traced to the poetics of Tang as the tradition of the Divine Woman: 
            Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens (Schafer 1980). 
            With the waters given over to being the erotic playgrounds of Rain 
            Maidens and She-Demons, the mountains became associated more with 
            the abode of the ascetic, usually male and celibate. But what Raoul 
            Birnbaum sees as a pattern in the vision quest on China's sacred 
            mountains appears as a mirror image of what happens in an erotic 
            quest at the enchantress's watery lair (Birnbaum 1988). 
            The vision quest of the ascetic involves a rite of passage. Guided 
            by a psychopomp, he crosses over to a different reality, usually by 
            crossing a bridge, a river, or a gate. To his surprise, he finds 
            there a gorgeous mansion or palace. Wined and dined, he stays there 
            awhile before he makes the return trip. Once he crosses that bridge 
            or gate, though, he turns around to find the mansion or palace gone. 
            That vision of a mandalic mansion or palace (the sacred axis mundi) 
            is central to the mystical experience. In China, these are 
            associated with the hetu and the luoshu [river diagram and writing] 
            or with the maps of heavens and grottos in the Shangqing 
            We find nearly identical episodes in our story of seduction. Instead 
            of the mountain, it is the water. Instead of asceticism, it is 
            eroticism. The young man also remembered passing through a gate when 
            he visited her home. Beyond the gate stood a grand mansion. He was 
            wined and dined. He stayed overnight. He left only to find on return 
            that, instead of a mansion, there was this abandoned graveyard. Look 
            more closely and the tale is told with a powerful set of symbols 
            drawn from some remote memory. 
            A man and a woman met--where else, but where land and water, yang 
            and yin, met. When? During a festival to view the seasonal rise of 
            the tide. This is, in ancient times, the Merrie Month of May, when 
            "male and female mingled all too freely together" to celebrate the 
            fertility of life. The stolen glances at a public place led to the 
            secret rendezvous, with Little Green the snake playing the 
            psychopomp. The man left the city limit (order) for the suburb 
            (chaos), crossed to the other side of life (death: graveyard). The 
            pleasure of the night, with intimation of immortality, turned, in 
            the light of day, to have been an affair with a demon. Exorcism was 
            performed by a Taoist, a "man of the mountain" in pursuit of the 
            flight (dance) of birds (immortals). He subdued the nymph of the 
            Let us not forget the meal. In a tradition where there is not a 
            sharp dichotomy of body and soul, ingestion of material is 
            tantamount to a flight of the spirit. In the vision quest, food 
            amounts to access to immortality--like the peaches of the Queen 
            Mother of the West. In demonic possession, the diner is actually the 
            one being dined upon. Either way, the meal goes back to the 
            cannibalistic feast of He Bo, the River God, who married fair 
            maidens and/or dined on them as Dracula would his brides. Here is a 
            simple but chilling tale of the same, told in the Luoyang qielan ji, 
            a record of the temples found in this city on the sunny side of the 
            River Lo: 
            (My paraphrase) A certain soldier visited an old comrade-in-arms 
            on a trip. He stayed over at the latter's beautiful home, having 
            been well wined and dined. He woke up on the bank of the Yellow 
            River (near Luoyang). Next to him was the wine goblet of the 
            night before--the skull of a man who had drowned the previous 
            day [and whose blood he had drunk]. 
            Ancient gods like He Bo used to depend on blood sacrifice to stay 
            alive. Madame White Snake did only what any good enchantress living 
            on her sacred isle would do: made a meal of her mates as Circe did. 
            [DIAGRAM OMITTED] 
            Only one item remains to be explained: the otter. The Black Otter is 
            the proper companion of the White Snake. The substitution for it of 
            Little Green the snake--based on the later East-West icon of "Green 
            Dragon, White Tiger"--forgets that, as an agent of death, the White 
            Snake is better served by the Black Otter, at one point the icon of 
            the wintry north and of death. 
            And Otter should go with Snake. This odd couple went as far back as 
            Sage-King Yu--the Dragon (Snake) that stopped the flood--and his 
            father Gun. Gun, who tried building up the river levee, has been 
            identified as the otter. Once upon a time, as father and son, Gun-Yu 
            represented the cycle of the year. When split into two, Gun would be 
            remembered as the proud fool who aggravated the flood while Yu was 
            the diligent hero who tamed it. Together they represent the two 
            faces of the Yellow River, the bed of Chinese culture (Lai 1984). 
            Rivers have defined the myths of other cultures. The Nile of Egypt 
            is remembered in myth as regular and benevolent; the Twin Rivers of 
            ancient Babylonia are remembered as a perpetual threat. The Yellow 
            River has the character of both: life-giving in its good years, and 
            life-taking when it floods. It is Gun and Yu rolled into one. Even 
            Yu the Dragon only tamed a flood that the dragons of chaos caused. 
            His alias, He Bo the River God, has the same Janus of a face: he is 
            Prince Charming as well as man-eater, auspicious long (dragon) and 
            tempestuous jiao (kraken). By the same token, the Rain Maiden and 
            the Snake Demon were one. 
            In other words, the medieval demonization of the nymph might have 
            only radicalized the two faces of the Yellow River. Even as the 
            nymph was vilified for her promiscuity, who else should appear as 
            victor but her alter ego, the virgin goddess Guanyin. Medusa was 
            being tamed by Athena. In the still larger order of things, the 
            story of Madame White Snake is well known in China because it is 
            about a struggle between good and evil--not just between the demon 
            and Guanyin "out there," not just between a woman warrior and a 
            male-dominated society either--but, in some ultimate sense, between 
            the two halves of the Chinese soul. 
            That is because in China's anthropogeny myth, this dragon nature was 
            in Emperor Kongjia. As emperor, he was himself a dragon. Heaven 
            graced his reign with a gift of dragons, but unable to "feed" 
            (nurse) this gift, he foolishly "ate" (violated) the trust. For that 
            sin, he died. This dragon nature that Heaven gave us, Mencius 
            (Mengzi) would find good and Xunzi would call evil. Nurse it well 
            and it will serve us. Violate it and it will destroy us. The beauty 
            of the mature story of Madame White Snake is that, being born a 
            demon, she had the cards stacked against her, but, for the greater 
            part of her popular opera, she overcame that indictment by Xunzi of 
            her innate evilness. She nursed well that Mencian mind of compassion 
            for family and kin, behaving more like a banished immortal than a 
            demon on the prowl. Other players in her story are creatures of 
            circumstance, but Madame White Snake rose above her destiny. She was 
            the character that truly moved the plot--not vice versa--and grew in 
            the process.(4) She managed to stay one step ahead of her 
            pursuers--until, of course, her last confrontation and final 
            capture. Almost in self-defense, she struck back, unleashing all the 
            dark powers in her being. And, in a rather unforgiving world of man 
            and gods, socio-karmic justice took its toll on a soul that tried so 
            hard to do good. 
            (1.) From the "Foreword" by Richard M. Dorson, who makes this remark 
            while reviewing a controversy over folklore studies in the PRC in 
            the period 1957-63. (2.) At the national convention of the American 
            Academy of Religions held at New Orleans in November 1990, where an 
            earlier draft of this paper was read, Russell Kirkland (Stanford 
            University) made the argument that frequently the zhiquai ghost 
            stories were about a cosmic imbalance between this world and the 
            other world that called for a restoration of harmony. (3.) The 
            popular version of this tale now has the two lovers so in love as to 
            neglect their work, and therefore, to enforce the Confucian stress 
            on duties, the two were separated. But the Book of Songs remembers a 
            Weaver who could not finish weaving and an Oxherd whose ox could not 
            plough. Such "work never being done" points to their being variants 
            of the Sisyphus myths, telling of constantly changing stars and 
            moon. (4.) On a future occasion I hope to use Paul Ricoeur's theory 
            of the "Narrative Self"--dealing with the dialectics of the changing 
            character and changing plot--to analyze the freedom (as well as the 
            limits of freedom) of the individual human will in this and other 
            premodern Chinese stories. 
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