in Search of White Snake

by Hannah Lund

If I were to say that a snake brought me to Hangzhou, I’m sure others might think I had drank too much baijiu or dropped my sanity somewhere in West Lake. But it’s true: I didn’t move to Hangzhou for the deep perfume of its osmanthus petals, or Jack Ma’s Alibaba. I moved because of a snake: Madame White Snake, to be precise.

I encountered her not in a cosmic act of fate like that in her legend, but in Iowa, while sitting in a library carrel surrounded by offensively-orange carpet. I’d been researching Chinese ghost stories for my senior thesis when I found her coiled in her own Hangzhou, that is within the pages of The Story of the White Snake.

The Midwest is not always known for being a fantastical land despite its many natural wonders, and yet even if I had lived in a veritable wasteland, I could have turned it into paradise. “I could find meaning in dust motes,” I told my roommate with pride. I wove tales together, walking around old buildings and seeing petrified skulls where there were only rocks. My friends and I went on night walks and drank in the stars as the night obscured the terrible clarity of the world around us. We let the darkness elongate, all the more so that we could imagine something better. I saw ruins of a prayer circle where most saw a rounded bench. I saw a last refuge from a zombie apocalypse when others saw a crumbling bridge. When I studied Chinese characters in class, I let the ancient shapes take me far away. In Chinese, something as commonplace as a “computer” transformed for me into the literal “电脑” or “electric brain,” and it seemed I didn’t need to scrutinize the language so much to find poetry in the everyday. The world could be so beautiful, so fantastical, I thought, if only I could choose the more exciting version of what was already there.

I began to study Chinese mythology and ghost stories, delving into the pages of wondrous legends like that of Madame White Snake, and was not disappointed. The Story of the White Snakeis about two snake spirits (Bai Suzhen and Xiao Qing) who transform into beautiful maidens and enter Hangzhou on the Broken Bridge. There, they meet a man named Xu Xian whom Bai falls in love with. The two quickly marry. This incurs the wrath of the monk, Fa Hai, who knows perfectly well that Bai is actually a snake spirit. He informs Xu of his wife’s true identity, and Xu dies from shock, leading to a string of adventures to bring him back to life. In the end, Fa Hai traps Bai under Leifeng Pagoda for all eternity. In other versions, she actually bests the monk and opens a medicine shop and starts a family with Xu. There is no definitive version of Madame White Snake, which is perhaps what drew me closer to her: she could be transfigured and immortalized in a story, any story, no matter the world around her.

Whereas I could only hope to land a good job and carve out time for writing, Madame White Snake could shape-shift and go on death-defying adventures for love. She was the kind of character I imagined I could be as a child, and the kind I didn’t like being compared to as an adult for fear of seeing how I came up short. She fought for things, she followed her heart, and she went to strange places for their strangeness, not because anyone told her to go.

Back in that library in Iowa, I read names like “Leifeng Pagoda” and “Broken Bridge,” and imagined a Hangzhou in which people walked in long robes with gods and ghosts at their sides. Hangzhou. Even before I knew what it meant, it sounded poetic without even trying. As I picked the name apart and sought its literal or even obscure meanings, I learned that there were radicals for trees and rivers, and that in Hangzhou’s name, 杭州, the 杭 character could also mean a cross-stream, or navigation. Most would correct me and say that 杭 was merely an abbreviation for the city’s name, but I was more than willing to see it as a place for navigation, where loose pieces could come together.It sounded like a place where I could be part of a waking dream. And as my thesis reached its conclusion and I began to think of moving to China to teach English after graduation, I came back to this idea of Hangzhou again and again. Where else but in Hangzhou could stories blossom about a white snake with a mouth “like a red cavern” dodging a monk like Fa Hai? Where else would Fa Hai, the original vigilante, run around to capture renegade demons?

I knew very little about Hangzhou in actuality, outside of its superlatives and slogans, but I already had a Hangzhou in mind, and wanted to keep my version alive as long as possible. On the plane, I swallowed my creeping doubts and instead imagined myself at the prologue of my own version of The Story of the White Snake. I wondered how Madame White Snake would fit into the fabric of my new home. Would she be a heroine, villain, demon, or lover?

As I soon found out, she, and the city I grew to love, would be all of the above.

*

About nine million people live in Hangzhou. The city is a huge tourist attraction, bringing in thousands of visitors every holiday. This is to say that Hangzhou is very famous by Chinese standards, and while I thought I knew what crowds were like, growing up in my population 50,000 hometown of Lakeville, Minnesota, I was in absolutely no way prepared for what would greet me once I landed.

I wandered the block around my apartment, which was in Hangzhou’s industrial zone, Xiasha. Rather than gods and ghosts, I ran into factory workers who stared at me like I was the snake spirit, and watched as the polluted, swollen sun set halfway down the sky, bleeding orange into the horizon’s haze. Xiasha wasn’t even a “city,” and yet towering apartment complexes and streets of shopping centers and restaurants dazzled my eyes. “This is China, where people live in the sky,” a co-worker of mine said. At night, I looked out at apartment towers with lights twinkling from other rooms, my own constellations. Where would a ghost hide amid so much life and chaos?

And yet, in spite of discovering a much more modern Hangzhou than I was prepared for, I was also happy to know that certain landmarks from the story still stood. Within my first week, I made a trip downtown, and much of the city’s natural beauty and mystical, poetic flair still shone through the congested streets. While standing in the midst of grey buildings,I caught glimpses of the lush green hills on the other side of West Lake. One side of the lake, an urban fugue, the other a green refuge. The causeways in the middle stretched like dashes in a poem, as if taking a breath, connecting two seemingly opposite ideas.

After a couple months of busy adjustment, I went out to Leifeng Pagoda, Madame White Snake’s final resting place. I was sure that there I would find the true Hangzhou.

At the time, I wasn’t sure how to get where I needed to go - a deceptively simple problem that has since become my life’s tagline. To complicate things, my mother had come to visit me for Christmas, and while I was excited to show her around, I simply didn’t know how to do that yet. To get to Leifeng Pagoda, I resorted to asking locals for directions with broken Chinese and a not-to-scale tourist map. I decided to use my “best two out of three” method, discovering that if two out of three people pointed me in one direction, it was likely to be more or less accurate. Passersby gestured further down the road saying, “not far.” In the end, an old woman with a large canvas bag told us to follow her, and together we boarded a bus. It clanked along the streets, passengers wedged into the aisles. Stops listed in then-illegible Chinese characters clicked by, and I turned to the old woman to watch her reaction, while also smiling confidently for my mom’s sake.

“Not yet,” the old woman said. “A couple more stops.”

The bus clanked on. Much of downtown Hangzhou blurred by. The neon signs for restaurants, karaoke bars and towering shopping centers clanged like a pinball machine in my head (and I could only imagine how my mother had felt). At each stop, five or more people got off, and six or more people got on. I edged closer to the window and sought the skies reflected off of the windows, or the clumps of camphor trees that signaled the arrival of the lake.

The apartment complexes thinned; the lakeside greenery thickened. I leaned closer to the windows, excitement stirring once more.

“Hey! Hey! Foreigner!”

The old woman was gesturing wildly to the door as the bus slowed to a stop. We squeezed our way through the crowded walkway, and finally got off.

We were greeted by a sleek, trim pagoda with a double escalator leading to the entrance.

“Is this it?” my mother said. I nodded, and we followed the trickle of tourists inside. The atmosphere felt akin to visiting a memorial, given its photos and models of the original along the walls. Plaques reminded us of the original pagoda, and showed pictures of it, and the process of reconstruction that followed. The pagoda was not like a new piece of art, but a reminder of how glorious the tower once was, and what a pity that we could no longer enjoy it.

To drive this point home, we went to the lowest level, to the original yellow and cracked foundations of the old tower. It glimmered from coins that tourists tossed inside for good luck, obscured by the glass’s reflection of curious faces peeking inside.

Of course, I had not expected to see an actual fictional snake spirit, nor did I think it would be the same as what stories say. But I had hoped that even a glimmer of its magic would still be there. It wasn’t. If anything, I wondered if it’s sometimes better to view events or places from a distance, to let imagination aggrandize and fictionalize them. Leifeng Pagoda, when seen from across the lake, rose out of the green tapestry as an emblem of when the world of ghosts and mortals collided. Up close, it was a memorial unto itself.

“I think it’s nice,” my mom said as we walked away. “Can’t say I was expecting escalators, though.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You know, China is really modern and has changed a lot, and it’s so important to appreciate that.”

My mom paused for a moment. “True,” she said. “But then, there’s nothing wrong with feeling otherwise.”

“I don’t. I love all parts of Hangzhou,” I replied quickly.

For the rest of the day, we walked through Hangzhou’s tiered green fields of tea. From where we stood, the downtown skyline disappeared behind the hills. I wouldn’t admit it, but I experienced something like relief that day as I watched the city disappear.

*

Bai she zhuan,” my student Penny said, annunciating each tone carefully for my benefit. This was right after I’d led my first English class as a university teacher, a mere four months after I’d graduated from college myself. “You said you’d read The Story of the White Snake. It’s very romantic.”

“Yes, some versions of it are romantic,” I said, recalling how in earliest versions of the story, Madame White Snake was actually the villain, not the lovelorn hero. “Have you read it?”

Penny shook her head, “Oh no. But I’ve watched the TV series. You should find it! It would be good for your Chinese.”

“My Chinese isn’t that bad.”

“Right, right, of course. It would be...interesting, then. Who knows? It might help you find your Xu Xian!” She giggled.

I smiled and tried to play it off, unaware that this would be the ongoing narrative for many classes to come. Whether the question took the subtle form of Penny’s remark, or the blunt “Do you have a boyfriend? Why not find a Chinese boyfriend?” this idea of romance found on places like the Broken Bridge was alive and well.

From a narrative pointof view, it would check a lot of story arc boxes for me to travel to the land of Madame White Snake, walk along the Broken Bridge, and meet my soulmate as I handed him an umbrella, just like in that first fated meeting between Madame White Snake and Xu Xian. But then I also knew that my reasons for leaving my familiar haunts were not nearly so concise.

For my students, “romance” was the kind of sweeping gesture that for them was best encapsulated in the city Paris. There, romantic French men would sweep girls off their feet, and take them on whirlwind adventures, like true Prince Charmings. I’d visited Paris, and while parts of it were indeed romantic, I would not say that it’s known for fairytale princes on the streets. Where my students saw gentlemen, I saw guys trying to get laid. While my students talked about the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of love, I could only think about the vendors down below, selling knock-off keychains.

In this sense, Hanghzou’s West Lake was akin to my view of Paris’s Eiffel Tower. Back in Iowa, I read about West Lake, and pictured a willow-laden refuge where poets and fairytales came alive. As my college friends and I spent time creating radio shows, poems, splatter paintings, and really anything we could get our hands on during our last couple of months in school, I thought of Hangzhou as a sort of natural habitat where others would be just as hungry to create. But as I walked along West Lake’s concrete shore, with its tourist carts blaring a tinny rendition of the classical piece “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto” down sidewalks through jostling crowds, I thought of the Eiffel Tower keychains, again and again. They had been created by someone, sure, but for a purpose that was not art.

I quickly learned that West Lake itself was man-made, unlike the creation myth that had been ascribed to it. The myth sounded lovely: a tear-drop, a pearl, and other striking images that would have delighted me back in my little library carrel surrounded by the blaringly orange carpet. But the gilt was beginning to wear off, no matter my poetic slant. Back in the US, my same creative friends were struggling to find postgraduate work. Our sprawling, creative hours were slowly being sidelined by necessary everyday concerns. They told me that I should stay in China as long as possible, and live out the dream as long as I could. And yet it was becoming harder to see Hangzhou gleam for me like it had before.

I had to get closer to Madame White Snake. Only then would her story come alive once more. In a last-ditch attempt suffused with irony, I went to the Hangzhou Zoo to view the city’s collection of snakes.

Rain spattered the ground as I reached the entrance, embedded in the hilly, southern portion of Hangzhou. I walked in, splashing through wide puddles, and entered a hallway full of cages. A Reticulated Python coiled in a pool of water far away from the glass, but I received a shock when I saw the Hundred Pacer cage: the maroon-speckled snake had its belly pressed against the glass, inching itself toward the vent above. The reptile area had Green Pit Vipers, Black Adders, Chinese Cobras, Garter Snakes, and Stink Snakes. Along the walls, diagrams indicated how far a snake could unhinge its jaw, while other diagrams showed how the internal organs stretched to fit into the thin body. I drank in these ghastly, unbelievable details, the blare of the city disappearing behind me.

Strolling down the hallway, I learned that many of these fearsome snakes were indigenous to the general area of Hangzhou. And yet, in the time I’d spent in Hangzhou, I had only seen one snake, and it had been purely by accident.

“Snakes stay away from people, if they can help it,” one of the zoo workers said. He was a short man with dark green rubber boots.

“Do they ever attack people?”I said.

“Not usually. We don’t taste very good, anyway.” He blew a slow pillar of smoke out of his mouth, and back up into his nostrils.

“Where’s the white snake?” I said. “You know, like the story?”

He made the same gesture that many pedestrians in Hangzhou did when they knew the direction I needed, but didn’t have time to tell me. ‘A little further ahead,’ it meant. ‘It’s not far.’

Back in the hallway of snakes, I reached the cage that read “White Snake.”

The stories depicted a large White Snake, atone point able to coil itself around Xu Xian. If this was the case, then the White Snake could be as big as the Reticulated Python, or worse. Of course, fiction exaggerates, so I prepared myself to see a White Snake with a small, ribbon-like body like that of a Green Pit Viper.

But after all of my effort to get there, I saw nothing among the leaves. Nothing, other than a trail of paper-like skin where the White Snake had once been.

As I waited for this incarnation of Madame White Snake to appear, I thought of how even if her tale had taken place one hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, she wouldn’t recognize her city. Construction had added a skyline, luxury brands and hotels dotted the downtown area, and some pedestrians wore Gucci handbags like name tags. Who knows? She might start a successful Weibo account and slide smoothly into this new land, or, as I saw in the empty snake skin in front of me, she might seek other abodes, or escape before even giving it a chance.

Madame White Snake journeyed out from a familiar magical world to strike out a new life with different rules, I thought as I left the Hangzhou Zoo and entered the congested downtown fugue. Is it so wrong to go to places specifically because they’re so different? What happened when they were different in ways you didn’t want them to be?

I didn’t have the answer to this, just as I didn’t have the answer to many questions that had materialized in the time I’d moved across the Pacific Ocean. All I knew was that my time in the quiet, serene hills of Hangzhou would inevitably come to an end, and that like it or not, I had to leave its southern half and stomp onto the concrete shores once more.

I had not seen Madame White Snake, at least not in the way I wanted. I could (and would) poeticize it however I wanted, but it would not be anything other than it was. It was like the white snake’s discarded skin: the way I saw myself would at one point peel away, and there would be no use trying to reattach it once gone. No matter my fight to stay in old skin, it would scratch and chafe until it was time to remove it. And then, there would only be what lay beneath.

*

On my subsequent trips to the Broken Bridge, I could see why it held such importance to Madame White Snake’s story. It spans West Lake and looks different every season. In the summer, the lotus leaves gasp open until they’re taller than a person. In the fall, the trees are aflame with falling leaves. In winter, sometimes snow powders the bridge, making it look indeed broken in the middle. In spring, it all becomes a cool, green mist. If lovers were to choose any Hangzhou spot to declare their love, this would be it.

As I went there each time, I saw the ghosts of past stories all around. Of course, there were the more garish ones: vendors actually dressed in white ancient garb, selling umbrellas by the bridge to mimic the iconic opening scenes of the tale. Then, the more subtle: a couple admiring the lotus flowers with shy smiles in the mist.

But, inevitably, no Madame White Snake.

I could never pinpoint the moment, but as I now walk along West Lake’s concrete shores, the rocks are no longer petrified skulls, and the benches, benches only. I still imagine what the lotus leaves could look like, but after years living in this Hangzhou, I now see lotus leaves first. The mystical green willow trees that had enchanted me in Iowa blend with the concrete walkways.

It’s a funny thing, searching for a ghost: you think you can catch it, only to discover that by nature it can’t be caught. I knew that I would never actually find Madame White Snake, and yet, I had hoped to step into legend, to grasp an illusive truth embedded in the sway of those willows, to count myself among a privileged few to say “Ah, yes, Hangzhou,” and know that it meant something.

As the years passed in Hangzhou, I began to see Madame White Snake everywhere and nowhere all at once. She was on postcards, and she was in plays; she was on wood carvings, and she was in storybooks. The mystery of her romantic tale lived on in many corners of Hangzhou, and yet it was forever out of reach for those in pursuit of it like me. She was like Leifeng Pagoda: regal from a distance, disjointed up close.

But then, my Hangzhou was also a fantasy-land, an actual land, and everything in-between.

And so, I imagine Madame White Snake today. I imagine her gliding through my Hangzhou in a long white robe, a relic of the old world caught in the new. Her fingers might curl around Xu Xian’s umbrella as she navigates the city sprawl, robe fluttering in the breeze.

Her lips might twist into a slight smile as she sees a bill for a theatrical rendition of her story. She might summon Xiao Qing, the green snake, to go see it with her, or perhaps they decide to tuck in and download the TV series instead. As she strolls past three-story shopping centers, she might finger soft silks or pass them up for an H&M instead. She might hum along with “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto” as she waits to cross the street. She might journey to Leifeng Pagoda to peer into the old foundations of her prison, or she might toss in a coin for good luck. She might return to the Broken Bridge in the hopes that Xu Xian would find her someday, or she might meet him on one of the elevated walkways downtown.

Or, as she winds her way through a now-strange land, she might peer over her shoulder and disappear around a corner, the tail of her robe sliding along the concrete, skin shifting into white reptilian scales.

Back into the world, and out of sight.


Hannah Lund is an emerging American writer and Chinese-English translator. She is currently pursuing her master's degree in Comparative Literature and World Literature at Zhejiang University, and is one of the founders of the Hangzhou Writer's Association. She is working on translations and adaptations of Chinese ghost stories, as well as her own poetry. This is her first published translation.