Legend of the White Snake

The Legend of the White Snake, also known as Madame White Snake, is a Chinese legend. It has since been presented in a number of major Chinese operas, films, and television series.

Legend of the White Snake
Image from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China, depicting the legend
Traditional Chinese白蛇傳
Simplified Chinese白蛇传

The earliest attempt to fictionalize the story in printed form appears to be The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda (白娘子永鎭雷峰塔) in Feng Menglong's Stories to Caution the World, which was written during the Ming dynasty.

The story is now counted as one of China's Four Great Folktales, the others being Lady Meng Jiang, Butterfly Lovers, and The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (Niulang Zhinü). [1]

Basic story

Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, disguises himself as a tangyuan vendor at the Broken Bridge near the West Lake in Hangzhou. A boy called Xu Xian (許仙) buys some tangyuan from Lü Dongbin without knowing that they are actually immortality pills. After eating them, he does not feel hungry for the next three days so he goes back to ask the vendor why. Lü Dongbin laughs and carries Xu Xian to the bridge, where he flips him upside-down and causes him to vomit the tangyuan into the lake.

In the lake, there is a white snake spirit who has been practising Taoist magical arts in the hope of becoming an immortal after centuries of training and cultivation. She eats the pills and gains 500 years' worth of magical powers. She, therefore, feels grateful to Xu Xian and their fates become intertwined. There is another terrapin (or tortoise) spirit also training in the lake who did not manage to consume any of the pills; he is very jealous of the white snake. One day, the white snake sees a beggar on the bridge who has caught a green snake and wants to dig out the snake's gall and sell it. The white snake transforms into a woman and buys the green snake from the beggar, thus saving the green snake's life. The green snake is grateful to the white snake and she regards the white snake as an elder sister.

Eighteen years later, during the Qingming Festival, the white and green snakes transform themselves into two young women called Bai Suzhen (白素貞) and Xiaoqing (小青), respectively. They meet Xu Xian at the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou. Xu Xian lends them his umbrella because it is raining. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen gradually fall in love and are eventually married. They move to Zhenjiang, where they open a medicine shop.

In the meantime, the terrapin spirit has accumulated enough powers to take human form, so he transforms into a Buddhist monk called Fahai (法海). Still angry with Bai Suzhen, Fahai plots to break up her relationship with Xu Xian. He approaches Xu Xian and tells him that during the Duanwu Festival his wife should drink realgar wine, an alcoholic drink commonly consumed during that festival. Bai Suzhen unsuspectingly drinks the wine and reveals her true form as a large white snake. Xu Xian dies of shock after seeing that his wife is not human. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing travel to Mount Emei, where they brave danger to steal a magical herb that restores Xu Xian to life.

After coming back to life, Xu Xian still maintains his love for Bai Suzhen despite knowing her true nature. Fahai tries to separate them again by capturing Xu Xian and imprisoning him in Jinshan Temple. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing fight with Fahai to rescue Xu Xian. During the battle, Bai Suzhen uses her powers to flood the temple, causing collateral damage and drowning many innocent people in the process. However, her powers are limited because she is already pregnant with Xu Xian's child, so she fails to save her husband. Xu Xian later manages to escape from Jinshan Temple and reunite with his wife in Hangzhou, where Bai Suzhen gives birth to their son, Xu Mengjiao (許夢蛟). Fahai tracks them down, defeats Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in Leifeng Pagoda. Xiaoqing flees, vowing vengeance.

Twenty years later, Xu Mengjiao earns the position of zhuangyuan (top scholar) in the imperial examination and returns home in glory to visit his parents. At the same time, Xiaoqing, who had spent the intervening years refining her powers, goes to Jinshan Temple to confront Fahai and defeats him. Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda and reunited with her husband and son, while Fahai flees and hides inside the stomach of a crab. There is a saying that a crab's internal fat is orange because it resembles the colour of Fahai's kasaya.

Modifications and alternate versions

The white snake was simply known as the "White Lady" or "White Maiden" (白娘子) in the original tale in Feng Menglong's Stories to Caution the World. The name "Bai Suzhen" was created in a later era.

The original story was a story of good and evil, with the Buddhist monk Fahai setting out to save Xu Xian's soul from the white snake spirit, who was depicted as an evil demon. Over the centuries, however, the legend has evolved from a horror tale to a romance story, with Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian being genuinely in love with each other even though their relationship is forbidden by the laws of nature.

Some adaptations of the legend in theatre, film, television and other media have made extensive modifications to the original story, including the following:

  • The green snake (Xiaoqing) is portrayed as a treacherous antagonist who betrays the white snake, as opposed to the traditional depiction of her as the white snake's close friend and confidant.
  • Alternatively, the green snake (Xiaoqing) is less evolved, less well-trained compared to the white snake (Bai Suzhen), and thus less cognisant of what it means to be human. She is more animalistic and therefore sometimes at odds with Bai Suzhen, thus explaining their differences both in character and actions.
  • Fahai is portrayed in a more sympathetic light as opposed to the traditional depiction of him as a vindictive and jealous villain: rigid and authoritarian, yet well-intentioned. His background story is also different in some adaptations.
  • Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda because her son's filial piety moved Heaven.
  • A retcon or revisionist version of the story relates that Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen were actually immortals who fell in love and were banished from Heaven because celestial laws forbade their romance. They are reincarnated as a male human and a female white snake spirit respectively and their story begins.


Operas and stage plays

Pai Niang Niang, created by Joseph Koo and Wong Jim. Premiering in 1972, it marked the start of the musical theatre industry in Hong Kong.
White Snake, Green Snake (2005), created by Christopher Wong
The Legend of the White Snake, created by Leon Ko and Chris Shum


  • The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇傳), a 1939 Chinese film made by Xinhua Studio. It was the earliest adaptation of the legend.
  • The Legend of the White Serpent (白夫人の妖恋), a 1956 Japanese film made by Toho in collaboration with Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio. It was noted for being the first Toho special effects film to be in colour.
  • The Tale of the White Serpent (白蛇傳), the first coloured anime feature film released in Japan in 1958. The U.S. release title was Panda and the Magic Serpent. It was also one of the rare instances where Xiaoqing is represented as a fish demon and not a snake demon. It was also the only known film based on the legend to be dubbed in German (German release title: Erzählung einer weißen Schlange).
  • Madam White Snake, a 1962 film produced by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio. This version is a Huangmei opera directed by Yueh Feng, with music by Wang Fu-ling on a libretto by Li Chun-ching.
  • Snake Woman's Marriage (白蛇大鬧天宮), a 1975 Taiwanese film directed by Sun Yang.
  • Green Snake (青蛇), a 1993 Hong Kong film directed by Tsui Hark, starring Maggie Cheung, Joey Wong, Vincent Zhao and Wu Hsing-kuo, which depicts the story from the perspective of the Xiao Qing and lays emphasis on their snake-like origins and characteristics.
  • The Sorcerer and the White Snake (白蛇傳說), a 2011 3D film, starring Jet Li, Huang Shengyi, Raymond Lam and Charlene Choi.
  • The Legend of Lady White Snake: A Tribute to the Spirit of Alexander McQueen, a short film starring Daphne Guinness, directed by Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, with creative direction/styling by GK Reid, produced by Markus Klinko & Indrani, Daphne Guinness and GK Reid. Written by Indrani, inspired by the ancient Chinese legend, with a poem by Neil Gaiman, the film is set in contemporary New York City. Previews of the film are featured in the Daphne Guinness Exhibition at the Museum of the Fashion Institute from September 16, 2011 through January 6, 2012.[4]
  • My Girlfriend is a White Snake (我的蛇精女友),[5] a 2017 film by Firewin Pictures, reprises the huang mei opera of "New Legend of the White Snake", which was a Taiwanese television (TTV) series of this classic Chinese folk tale. Whereas the original film series[6] is suitable for young children the movie remake treats themes appropriate to a more mature audience albeit this film is nevertheless appropriate for children (no nudity or vulgarity).
  • White Snake, is a 2019 chinese computer animated movie based on the tale. The adaptation is an action fantasy romance and it has been well received by general audiences and critics.


  • Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔), a 1977 Taiwanese television series.
  • Legend of the White Snake (白蛇傳), a 1985 Taiwanese television series.
  • The Serpentine Romance (奇幻人間世), a 1990 television series produced by Hong Kong's TVB, starring Maggie Chan, Maggie Siu and Hugo Ng.
  • New Legend of Madame White Snake / The Legend of White Snake (新白娘子傳奇), a 1992 Taiwanese television series starring Angie Chiu, Cecilia Yip and Maggie Chen.
  • The Legendary White Snake (白蛇後傳之人間有愛), a 1995 Singaporean television series starring Geoffrey Tso, Lin Yisheng, Terence Cao, Lina Ng, Ding Lan, Liu Qiulian and Wang Changli.
  • My Date with a Vampire (我和殭屍有個約會), a Hong Kong television series produced by ATV. The series made extensive use of the story, reusing it in the first season (1998) and a modified version in the second season (1999).
  • Madam White Snake / Legend of the Snake Spirits (白蛇新傳), a 2001 Taiwanese and Singapore co-produced television series starring Fann Wong, Christopher Lee, Zhang Yuyan and Vincent Jiao.
  • Madame White Snake (白蛇傳), a 2005 Chinese television series starring Liu Tao, Pan Yueming, Chen Zihan and Liu Xiaofeng.
  • The Legend of White Snake Sequel / Tale of the Oriental Serpent (白蛇後傳), a 2009 sequel to Madame White Snake (2005), starring Fu Miao, Qiu Xinzhi, Shi Zhaoqi, Chi Shuai and Cecilia Liu.
  • Love of the Millennium (又見白娘子), a loose sequel to New Legend of Madame White Snake (1992), starring Zuo Xiaoqing, Queenie Tai, Ren Quan and Shen Xiaohai.
  • The Destiny of White Snake (2017), a loose adaptation of the classic folk tale starring Yang Zi and Ren Jialun.
  • The Legend of White Snake (2019), a web drama adaption of the classic folk tale starring Ju Jingyi and Yu Menglong.
  • New Madam White Snake (2019), a web drama adaption of the classic folk tale starring Sun Xiaoxiao, Lu Hong and Zhang Tianyang.


  • Lu Xun penned an essay "Comments on the Collapse of the Leifeng Pagoda" (论雷峰塔的倒掉) in 1924, celebrating its collapse as a symbolic blow to feudalistic and conservative forces, symbolized by the monk Fahai and his interference in the romance between Xu and Bai.
  • In the West, there have been children's picture book adaptations of the legend, written by Western authors and illustrated by Chinese artists, including:
    • Legend of the White Serpent by A. Fullarton Prior, illustrated by Kwan Sang-Mei[7]
    • Lady White Snake: A Tale From Chinese Opera, by Aaron Shepard, illustrated by Song Nang Zhang[8]
  • The novella The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffmann Price is based on the story.
  • The legend is a major part of the fantasy novella "Fighting Demons" by S. L. Huang.
  • In 2009, Dantes Dailiang made use of the Chinese lyrics of the Legend of White Snake for his song La muse aux lèvres rouges (红唇之缪斯女神), recorded in his LP Dailiang.
  • In 2012 the Swatch company launched a model named The legend of white snake in honor of the Chinese new year, the year of the snake. The watch's hands are white and green snakes.
  • Scale-Bright (2014) by Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a novella that transposes the Legend of the White Snake to contemporary Hong Kong.
  • DC Comics used a variation on this tale for the origin story for Wonder-Woman of China in an issue of New Super-Man, released in August 2017[9]

See also


  1. Idema (2012), p. 26.
  2. Boston Globe: "Curtain rises on ancient Chinese myth," March 1, 2010, accessed March 2, 2010
  3. "Oregon Shakespeare Festival" website , accessed March 4, 2012
  4. Eolin, Sara. "Daphne Guinness Exhibit at FIT" September 13, 2011 in Aero Film Blog. http://aerofilm.blogspot.com/2011/09/fashion-week-has-settled-upon-new-york.html
  5. "我的蛇精女友 (豆瓣)". movie.douban.com.
  6. TTV 台視官方頻道 TTV Official Channel (January 31, 2018). "新白娘子傳奇 第01集 The Legend of the White Snake EP01 (1992)" via YouTube.
  7. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1960,
  8. Union City, CA: Pan Asian Publications, 2001.
  9. "Peng Deilan", DC Database, 8 June 2018

References and further reading

Media related to Legend of the White Snake at Wikimedia Commons

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