21 The White Snake

Jennifer Cote

Key terms

  • Snake
  • Madame White
  • Baishe zhuan

Madame White Snake: Positionality Through Time and Desire

Madame White Snake tells the tale of magic, manipulation, deceit, and the desire for free-love. The legend has been a traditional folktale throughout China and is considered one of China’s four great folktales, along with “Lady Meng Jiang”, “Butterfly Lovers”, and “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”. The first telling of the story can be traced back to Feng Menglong’s Stories to Caution the World, entitled “Madame White Snake is Kept Forever Under Thunder Peak Tower”. The story developed overtime from depicting Madame White as an evil spirit, described in many places as being a succubus or devilish, to depicting Madame White as a heroine – from “a heartless beast to being an ideal mate.”[1] The man-demon relationship that emerges from the bare-bones of the first version of the story is allowed to take on several forms throughout history, bringing the relationship into the mortal realm, but in what ways have these changes manifested themselves? This tale depicts a history of patriarchal and manipulative characterizations which shifts into a dynamic portraying Madame White as a heroine and a romantic following true desires for love in a function of yin and yang.

Original Depictions

The oldest versions of the story paint Madame White as a succubus, a demonic-type creature luring its victims under the guise of a beautiful woman. She manipulates Xu Xuan, her husband, and puts him into situations that threaten his existence – her treachery leads to accusations of theft, building in severity, with the magistrate claiming that “if you are able to steal without touching the seal, you must be a sorcerer as well as a thief!”[2] Madame White is responsible for Xu Xuan facing these constant forces of trouble, feigning innocence as is natural of a succubus archetype, and is quick to cover up her stories: “’I gave you the silver my deceased husband left behind out of the best intentions… I had no idea how he had come by it.’”[3] In each of her denials of her evil nature, she is able to connive and deflect the evidence against her, and by doing so, leaves the reader viewing her as the antagonist of her story with a shallow desire to influence and control the men in her life, as is exemplified by several more incidents, including deliberate lies of sexual assault when she is accidentally exposed in her true form. Even in her final admission as a demonic spirit, she claims that “Unable to control my desires, I violated the heavenly rules, but I never took a life. Please have mercy on me.”[4] The desire initiated in this version of the story places Madame White’s desire in controlling Xu Xuan as a pinnacle feature and the two do not function in terms of yin and yang. Neither is able to balance the other and much of the story is spent clashing in desires and goals; snakes are always considered to be yin but there is no clear depiction in this story version of Xu Xuan as either a yin or a yang figure. In many ways, he is portrayed as classically balanced by the forces in his life, which differs severely from the modern retellings. The original story suggests a particular view of women in China during this time period as being expected to be subservient to their husbands and perform as such; Madame White is read as the enemy of her own story because she blatantly baits Xu Xuan into dangerous situations and lies prolifically, countering the expectation of subservience. 

Modern Adaptations

The story of Madame White Snake has continued to be told across the world for the past several centuries. Each new version paints a new picture of the expectations of how women should perform, and recently has begun to reflect even the role of communism and capitalism in contemporary society. While most legends and folktales typify this cycle, Madame White’s story is particularly poignant because there is a clear shift from a spirit based in deceit to a spirit whose primary desire is to love and be loved; arguably, the actual shift for Madame White is in essentially becoming human. Most Chinese folklore deals in the pure deity or pure demon – either yin or yang – and the transition within story, but in Madame White Snake, through time, there’s a turned-protagonist shedding elements of demonic characterizations.


The depiction of The Legend of Madame White Snake has significantly developed from the initial images of an evil feminine spirit, to being a Chinese feminist icon of sorts; parts of the major transformation date back to the Qing Dynasty with a chuanqi version (Leifeng Pagoda), followed by a tanci version (Tale of Righteous Spirit). These new versions began to portray Madame White Snake as an empathetic character, and put Fa Hai in the position as the villain, determined to destroy and separate the relationship. One of the modern stories told today positions Fa Hai, who takes on a variety of roles but primarily is seen as a monk, as being jealous of Madame White for gaining immortality. This manifests itself in attempts to reveal her true nature, kidnap Xu Xuan and bait Madame White into dangerous scenarios to free her husband, and eventually trapping Madame White herself for many years. In each case, Madame White proves herself to be heroic, empathetic, and determined to protect her love at all costs, including at the loss of her own life. These versions of the story are not typically told through traditional pen and paper, rather recent adaptations of Madame White have been told through operatic and televised mediums. A metamorphosis of the tale of Madame White tells a story of how China has developed to be complicated by the role of gender, sexuality, and romanticism.

Television Series

URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoXysdQalUU&t=2338s

One of the many current television adaptations is one that recently began airing, entitled The Legend of White Snake, set in Hangzhou, once the capital of the Southern Song dynasty. The story follows the barebones of more contemporary versions, though it differs in dramatization in order to create a longer story for many episodes while keeping it interesting to a wider audience. In this particular medium, Madame White is a 1,000-year-old snake spirit, charged with the duty to eventually save the mortal realm. She is to be taught by a Xu Xuan type character, called Zi Xuan, altering the husband character to be a mentor turned romantic interest. It is immediately apparent that Madame White is portrayed as a protagonist due to her image as a snake and her subsequent human form; comments on the episode describe her as being a creature that looks like she is from Disney Junior in reference to her cute, cartoon-like renderings, and once she transforms into a human, she is a beautiful, but transparently naïve and non-threatening. Though not appearing as a threat, she is still responsible for defeating the enemy and saving Zi Xuan in the first 10 minutes of the television series (thus creating an enemy – the Fa Hai character) and is soon after saved by Zi Xuan when she is caught off guard.

This relationship is what suggests the role of yin and yang in the versions that have developed since the original story; the original story illustrates husband and wife as a set of people who do not work well with one another whatsoever. They do not balance each other out and are at odds to one another. This TV portrayal has a very clear representation of yin and yang, land and water. Zi Xuan would have been defeated if Madame White had not surprised the enemy, and Madame White would have been killed by the enemy if she was not saved by Zi Xuan. They save one another and the goal of the antagonists within the show is to separate the two because together, they are stronger.

Opera Depictions

(1: URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvACXrWGWcY)

(2: URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIB0N6ZkoGI&t=3153s)

The operatic mediums representing the tale of Madame White Snake differ from the television show while still exhibiting a vast change in attitude. These two operas exhibit Madame White as a being with the desire to love and be loved, with each following the valor and danger Madame White is willing to endure to save and maintain her relationships. The opera performed in Boston (video 1) was a recent recipient of the Pulitzer prize, and in its acceptance, there is a principally pointed description: “The deadly white snake demon gives up her immortal existence to assume human form in the pursuit of the most human of all emotions – love. She holds love dearly for one moment; and then love is lost forever. A powerful metaphor for each individual’s struggle to dream, the myth has spoken deeply to all who have dared to dream. The question of what it means to be truly human is always timely and each generation answers this question in its own voice.”[5] Describing Madame White as a metaphor for those who have dared to dream – her adventures to save the love of her life, a person who would be out of reach were she to not be human, from all evildoers – clearly counters the original way in which she was represented, not only presenting her as a romantic figure, but as an icon to look up to.

The yin and yang of this medium is perhaps more apparent than in story form because these versions allow for a balance of auditory harmony as well; in each duet between Madame White and Xu Xuan, the culmination of different notes lets a feeling of yin and yang drift between the two. But perhaps this analysis is not valid because an opera composer is unlikely to compose with dissonant chords that cause pain to the listener; yet this still allows one to examine the ways in which the combination of voices together brings a semblance of balance in one way or another. The sound is objectively fuller and more compelling when they duet than when they have separate arias, again suggesting that they are stronger together.


Madame White Snake of old and Madame White Snake of new are essentially two different Chinese folktales – neither boasts the same moral and the titular character is distinguished very differently in each version. While the oldest versions portray Madame White as someone with evil intentions, looking to manipulate Xu Xuan into difficult situations, acting as a femme fatale of sorts, the modern-day mediums, described here as recent operatic and television forms, show Madame White as a romantic heroine, fighting for love at all costs.

How you can expand this chapter

This is by no means an exhaustive researched effort of how Madame White Snake has changed. There are many limitations that have restricted this paper, at the forefront of this being the conformation to only English works due to my own lack of language skills. Were this research to continue, by myself or by another, I would encourage further examination of these changes being a part of a cultural shift in narrative in China, delving further into the role of yin and yang, parallels to other Chinese myths and folktales (including Miss Ren and the god Erlang), and using additional examples of representations throughout time. Given the size of this project, it was not possible to thoroughly research each of these and create a short essay, however each’s relevance would allow for a fuller understanding of the stories role in greater society.


Chau, Nikhi. “”The Tale of the White Snake” (白蛇传) 1/2 [English Subtitles].” Filmed July 2014. Youtube video, 1:31:37. Posted July 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIB0N6ZkoGI&t=3153s.

Feng Menglong. Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Luo, Liang. “The White Snake as the New Woman of Modern China.” University of Kentucky. Columbia University. “Madame White Snake, by Zhou Long (Oxford University Press).” The Pulitzer Prizes. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/zhou-long.

Rahmat Dede. “(English Subtitle) The Legend of White Snake Epi 01 – 《天乩之白蛇傳說》第01集(楊紫, 任嘉倫, 茅子俊, 李曼, 劉嘉玲, 趙雅芝).” Filmed July 2018. Youtube video, 45:38. Posted July 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoXysdQalUU&t=2338s.

Whalen Lai. “From Folklore to Literate Theater: Unpacking ‘Madame White Snake.’” Vol. 51, No. 1 (1992): 51-66.

White Snake Projects. “Madame White Snake 2016.” Filmed July 2017. Youtube video, 2:00 mins. Posted July, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvACXrWGWcY.

  1. Lai, Whalen, “From Folklore to Literate Theater: Unpacking ‘Madame White Snake,’” Vol. 51, No. 1 (1992): 51-66.
  2. Feng Menglong, Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection (Seattle: University of Washington Press), 482.
  3. Feng, Stories to Caution the World, 485.
  4. Feng, Stories to Caution the World, 503
  5. “Madame White Snake, by Zhou Long (Oxford University Press),” The Pulitzer Prizes, Columbia University, accessed April 25, 2019, https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/zhou-long.


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