Hangzhou Trip Part 1: Leifeng Pagoda and White Snake, or: How Ancient Chinese Sorcery is Counter-Revolutionary, Comrade

19 Mar

West Lake is what makes Hangzhou famous. That, and Dragonwell tea, of course. There are many folktales about West Lake, hyped to glorify the overglutted regional tourist industry, to be sure, but one in particular caught my attention–that of White Snake.

According to legend, White Snake was a spirit who fell in love with a human man. She transformed herself, as spirits can, into a beautiful woman and they married. They started a pharmacy together (China has been civilized for WAY too long, that there are pharmacies in folklore, by the way) and did a bustling trade in traditional remedies. Every version I’ve read is careful to note that these were kind-hearted people’; if villagers were too poor to purchase their medicines, they would give them away free of charge.

That’s when Fa Hai, a meddling monk-slash-sorcerer, stepped in. During Dragon Boat Festival one year, he told the husband that the woman he’d married was really a spirit. White Snake at this time had weak magic because she was pregnant, and also because villagers were performing many rituals to drive away spirits–a common theme of Chinese holidays.

Various misadventures and miscommunications ensued, and despite White Snake’s best efforts to prove her true love and devotion, her husband left. When the time came for her to give birth, he returned to visit their son with a gift from Fa Hai–a hat. But these things are never quite what they seem, and the hat turned out to be magic. It swallowed White Snake up and trapped her inside. When Fa Hai got a hold of her, he imprisoned her within the stones of Lei Feng Pagoda.

Here, again, the story depends on who’s doing the telling. Does the White Snake ever escape, or is she bound for eternity? Does her sister, Green Snake, defeat Fa Hai? Does her son rescue her, or does he die of old age before she can be reunited with him? Frustratingly, they never seem to mention if her husband forgives her for her deception.

We’re left with nothing but questions. Can a white snake become a woman?

Does love transcend mortality?

Probably because of White Snake’s association with medicine, villagers came to believe that bricks from the pagoda in which she was supposedly imprisoned had the power to repel illness or prevent miscarriage. Many people stole bricks to grind into powder for remedies, until finally the structure became unsound and collapsed. Lei Feng Pagoda, built by aristocrats, was a symbol of the Chinese empire which, symbolically enough, crumbled to pieces in the early 20th century. It’s possible that “White Snake” became “White Lady” (her alternate title) during this time, in the consciousness of the People–Lei Feng Pagoda was no longer protecting them from a rogue spirit, but imprisoning an innocent commoner who’d lost everything for love.

I think if I write any story directly inspired by China, it’ll involve White Snake. I love the image of a spirit imprisoned in a tower–not a woman trapped inside, awaiting rescue, but a magical presence bound to the very rocks of the place, looking out over a lake and waiting for the human construction to crumble before the ravages of time.

I think my White Snake wouldn’t mind waiting. But when she gets out, she’ll be having words with Fa Hai the sorcerer.

I think that kid's studying either Potions or Herbology. Man, Hogwarts would TOTALLY have a study abroad program in Hangzhou.

Is that glow Fa Hai's protection spell, or tacky neon tourist lighting? You be the judge.

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3 Responses to “Hangzhou Trip Part 1: Leifeng Pagoda and White Snake, or: How Ancient Chinese Sorcery is Counter-Revolutionary, Comrade”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Hangzhou Trip Part 2: Three Dudes, Two Monuments, One Fascist on Holiday, No Eye Contact « Feisty Notes - March 20, 2012

    […] I made it over to Leifeng Pagoda (mentioned previously here) and ran into a bunch of PRC soldiers. Or, as I liked to think of them, Fascists on Holiday. I got […]

  2. Hangzhou Trip Part 3: Tea in Autumn, Silk in Fountain(?!), and Unseen Looms Looming Luminously « Feisty Notes - March 23, 2012

    […] Hangzhou Trip Part 1: Leifeng Pagoda and White Snake, or: How Ancient Chinese Sorcery is Counter-Rev… (feistynotes.wordpress.com) Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterMorePinterestDiggStumbleUponRedditLinkedInTumblrPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. Hangzhou Trip Part 4: The Smiling Buddha in the “Paris of the East” « Feisty Notes - March 25, 2012

    […] Hangzhou Trip Part 1: Leifeng Pagoda and White Snake, or: How Ancient Chinese Sorcery is Counter-Rev… (feistynotes.wordpress.com) Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterMorePinterestDiggStumbleUponRedditLinkedInTumblrPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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