John Howe

Snakes and Towers

Or an Oriental Tale of Mélusina

When I opened the curtains of the 25th-story hotel room in Hangzhou in the early morning and looked out, I really did wonder where I was.

It’s not that the trip had been a long one, but tacking a three-hour flight at the end of a most eventful day was ambitious to say the least. Midnight taxis from airports to hotels somewhere are all a little the same, so waking up early, going to the window and pulling back the curtains on a vista of circumstance is always a moment to be fully appreciated.

Marco Polo described Hangzhou as “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.” It’s not what I was thinking as I looked over an infinite mosaic of highways, roundabouts and ambitious constructions sites… on the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of time for idle musings, there was a pretty full day ahead.

First stop: the West Lake. The West Lake is a beautiful spot, the spot where the inhabitants of Hangzhou have always gone out to stroll; its banks witness to thousands of years of promenades. It is also the site of a favourite Chinese fairy tale, the Story of the White Snake.


Left: Bronze water buffalo in the West Lake. Center: Leifeng Pagoda from the Broken Bridge. Right: The steps leading up to the pagoda. (The original pagoda was built in 975 A.D., the present structure dates from 1999.)

The story of the White Snake starts with one such innocent excursion. A young scholar named Xu Xian is out walking. There is a light rain cloaking the lake, concealing the other shore in mist, it is very much a Chinese watercolour. On the famous Broken Bridge (my translator Tong told me the story on the same bridge) the young scholar of medecine meets a beautiful you woman dressed in white accompanied by her servant. They strike up a polite conversation, and the young man lends the young woman his umbrella to protect her from the rain. She promises to return the umbrella the next day.

But, as it turns out, Xu Xian left much more than his umbrella, he left his heart with the mysterious young woman as well, and eagerly returns to the bridge to meet her again. As in all such stories, one thing leads to another, and they fall in love, Xu Xian wholeheartedly, the young woman despite herself, as she is not mortal. Nor even human.

Bai SuZhen, the beautiful woman dressed in white, is an immortal white snake. With her friend, the Blue Snake Xiao Qing, who has assumed the appeared of her blue-garbed maid, the two have left their mountain kingdom of Emei to approach mortals and understand their joys and travails. Now she has fallen in love.

Bai SuZhen and Xu Xia marry, and Bai SuZhen uses her knowledge of herbs and healing to skillfully diagnose and cure the ills of all who come to her young husband’s dispensary. They turn no one away, especially the poor, who cannot pay for their remedies. They are very happy, and overjoyed when Bai SuZhen announces she is with child.

But, like all fairy tales, happiness presages disaster; a Buddhist monk named Fahai chances upon them, and perceives the truth. He calls Xu Xian aside, warning him that his wife is White Snake, a vile demon hiding her true nature only to one day turn on him and devour him. Make her drink a glass of realgar wine at the Duanwu festival, says Fahai, her true nature will be revealed. (Wine laced with a tiny quantity of realgar, which is an arsenic sulfide, was traditionally reputed to protect the drinker from poisonous snakes and evil spirits.)

Despite himself, Xu Xian cannot get the monk’s warning out of his mind, and when the Dragon Boat festival arrives, proposes a glass of wine to Bai SuZhen. Fearing her husband will suspect her if she refuses, Bai SuZhen drinks, hoping her immortal powers will serve as antidote to the realgar. But she is wrong, and the realgar is nearly fatal to her serpent nature. She flees to their bedchamber and swoons. When Xu Xian enters the bedroom and sees the glistening coils of a huge white snake sprawled over the rumpled bedclothes, he dies on the spot of fright.


Hangzhou and the West Lake from the top of the pagoda. Centre: There were three gilded bells hanging from each corner of the roof, and a hundred other details I tried doggedly to photograph and remember. Right:Dragon boat for tourists and day trippers. The “broken” bridge is a popular architectural style.

Awakening from her stupor to find her husband dead, and knowing that only a divine remedy, a magic mushroom from the realm of the gods, can bring him back to life, Bai SuZhen takes her sword and the sword of Blue Snake and flies on a cloud to the Kun-lun mountains, where she battles fiercely with the guardians of the realm. Alone, she cannot overcome them. But, admiring her bravery and the strength of her love for a mortal, Old Man of the South, the god of immortality, allows her to depart with the prize she seeks. Bai SuZhen makes a potion with the mushroom and restores her husband’s life, but now he is afraid of her, until she persuades him that he too had taken too much wine at the festival, and that it was her white sash he had drunkenly mistaken for a snake.

Happiness of a kind returns to the household, but Fahai is not done with them yet. He persuades Xu Xian to accompany with him to an island temple, imprisoning him once he is there. Bai SuZhen waits for three days for her husband, then goes to seek him out. She begs with Fahai: they only wish for happiness, she says, and she has helped and cured many poor humans with her medecine. Fahai refuses to release Xu Xian, calling her a vile she-demon and ordering her to return to whatever dank hell from which she came and leave mortals alone. Furious, Bai SuZhen calls up an army of water creatures. They storm the monastery, but Bai SuZhen falters, and must leave without her husband.


Incredibly detailed high relief carvings depicting the tale of the White Snake, part of an exhibition in the Leifeng Pagoda. Alas, my camera batteries gave out (with a whimper, and an exasperated exclamation on my part) just as I was preparing to photograph from every angle Bai SuZhen’s army of water creatures, which were some of the most imaginative and incredible sculptures I’ve ever seen anywhere. The craftsmen who have trained to do this kind of traditional carving are now hard-pressed to find work; pieces like these can take years, and no one can afford such things any more.

Broken-hearted, she wanders the shore of the West Lake, coming finally to the Broken Bridge, where she first met Xu Xian. Suddenly, he appears, having fled the monastery, and begs her forgiveness, explaining how Zahai had tricked him and locked him away. Xiao Qing would happily cut him in two for his betrayal, but Bai SuZhen forgives her husband, and they are reunited.

Their son is born, but their happiness does not last. Fahai appears once again, this time with a golden alms bowl carried by a warrior from heaven, and against it neither Blue Snake nor White can prevail. I see now who the true demon is, says Xu Xian, but he can do nothing either. Bai SuZhen bids goodbye to her husband and baby, and Fahai emprisons her under Thunder Peak Tower, on the far shore of the West Lake.

Centuries later, Blue Snake Xiao Qing returns, this time with an army of mountain creatures, and they defeat the tower’s guardian spirit and cast down the tower down. Freed, White Snake rises from the ruins.

But her husband and son, and the evil monk, have died long ago, and Bai SuZhen can have neither happiness nor revenge. And, she is immortal, so where is she now? Possibly wandering along the shores of the West Lake, in a cloak of rain, with the mist covering the far shore, like in a Chinese watercolour…

I thought it was a haunting and beautiful story, with so much of the tragic tale of Mélusina in it, proving once again, as if it needed further proof, of the wonderful persistence of the tales of female water spirits, and of their disastrous dealings of the heart involving mortal men, who are alternately foolish, cowardly and blind. Added to that is of course the persona of the Chinese heroine, who is never a wallflower, but a sword-wielding warrior when need be. (Purists will forgive me if I have gotten the details wrong or left too many out – there are many stories of a similar nature, often intertwined, with one tale borrowing from another from dynasty to dynasty, and Chinese stories always feature a plethora of characters and creatures, often very confusing to us poor Westerners, who are used to rather more linear tales. Add to that the translation of the Chinese names in English, never spelt the same twice, or that Blue Snake is also Green Snake in some versions, it can all get a little complicated.) It would be very exciting to illustrate.


Votive candles in front a Buddhist temple near the Leifeng Pagoda.

But, no leisurely promenade in store for us, as we were running on a schedule, and we drove out to the Comics Fair, situated outside of Hangzhou in a surreal amusement park, complete with San Marco’s square, a medieval castle, a town out of the Wild West and who knows what more. Followed a couple of signing sessions, a conference and more signatures.


Left: You know when you’re a VIP when you get a huge colourful VIP badge… Center & right: The entry of the convention grounds and center – the whole city was decorated with absolutely huge signs advertising the event. Even San Diego Comic Con seems modest in comparison. Something like three hundred thousand visitors attend each year.


Left: What do do when fans are constantly snapping photos of you? Well, photograph them of course. China is quite a camera-happy country, and few people mind overmuch having their pictures taken (except camels near Great Walls). Center and right: Conference and Q&A, along with the inevitable signature session.

As soon as we were done, my very kind hosts took me back for another visit to the West Lake, to see the Leifeng Pagoda, built on the site of Thunder Peak Tower. Then back to the convention for a dauntingly huge official dinner, where I think I sat next to the director of the movie Kung Fu Panda (I lost his business card) and on to an awards ceremony and finally back to the hotel. We had to be up early, we had a morning flight to catch back to Beijing.


Left: Official dinner, where I had to abandon my hosts, who were seated elsewhere. Center & right: Part of the show for the awards ceremony, where once again I was condemned to VIP seating, but would have been happier with my hosts.

At Beijing airport, where we were met by a handful of adorable students from the Art Academy, who had made the trip out to the airport to say goodbye, I did my best to rearrange my luggage (I had left quite a but in Beijing rather than take it on the flight to Hangzhou) into manageable shape, it was time to catch my connection to Hong Kong and then on home.

Quite frankly, I have never felt so grateful and so well looked after on a trip. So, thank you Wang Wei, Zang Jihzong and Wang Tong, for making it such an enlightening and wonderful (if whirlwind) trip. I’m looking forward to going back one day. Next time, I’ll take along my watercolours.
New photos from the Weta site.
And even newer photos here

August is traditionally the time I try to take a break from newsletters, so for the next month or thereabouts, if I can manage one or two, they will be of the rather lighter summertime variety, until regular newsletters resume later in September.

Enjoy the rest of the summer and see you then.