The Legend of the White Snake is a romance between a snake spirit and a human being. It is regarded as one of the four great folktales in China, and existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation. Scholars regard the story about the white snake in Stories to Caution the World (Jing shi tong yan), a fictional narrative by Feng Menglong (1574-1645), as a full written version of the oral legend. Feng’s story made the legend an architype, though it has been altered, revised and presented in a number of different local genres. There are also recent versions in modern spoken drama, film, television series and in the Western symphonic form.
The legend tells that after many years of cultivation and practice, a white snake and a green snake transform themselves into young women, the former is called Bai Suzhen (or Bai Niangzi, meaning Lady White), and the latter Xiao Qing (Little Green). They regard each other as sisters.
The chuanju version deviates from the above. On the stage, the female white snake has been locked up and guarded by the spirit of a toad. The snake falls in love with one of the Arhats. Later the white snake manages to run away; the Buddha sends the toad to chase the snake while the Arhat is punished by being made to leave Heaven because he has attempted to beg for mercy for the white snake. As she is escaping, the white snake meets a male green snake, and the two start fighting. The white snake defeats the green one. Admiring the white snake’s power, the green snake is willing to be her servant. They both transform into female figures. And from this point, the chuanju version joins the original story.
One day, at the Broken Bridge on the Western Lake they meet a young scholar, Xu Xian (who in the chuanju is the reincarnation of the Arhat). Bai and Xu fall in love and eventually get married. Holding a grudge against the snakes, a powerful Buddhist monk Fahai (who in the chuanju is transformed from the spirit of the toad) interrupts their happy marriage, and manages to capture Xu Xian and to imprison him in the Jinshan Temple.
The two clips show how Bai Suzhen comes to the Jinshan Temple to rescue her husband. With the help of a military force drawn from the sea in the form of shrimps, crabs and the like, the white snake uses her magic to flood the temple and fights with Fahai’s force. However, Bai’s ability is limited due to her pregnancy with Xu Xian’s child. Finally Fahai defeats Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in the Leifeng Pagoda.
In most regional song-dance theatres Little Green is performed by a female role type (dan), yet, in chuanju, the character can be presented by a male role, (sheng), (see Xiqu) and in this particular piece, the character is performed by two role types, one is a dan when Little Green deals with the mortal world; the other is a male-warrior role type when fighting against other spirits.
The special technique of chuanju “changing face” (bianlian) can be seen in the second clip. With a quick wave of the hands or by swiftly turning around, the actor, who plays the divine general, swaps masks almost instantaneously. This exhibits his supreme power.
Different theatrical genres present their own versions of the story, and often perform highlights of selected scenes.