The Love Story of a White Snake
Broken Bridge is in fact never broken, but when both the bridge and the lake are covered by snow, the bridge seems broken when viewing it from one side because the bridge abruptly descends to a water level on the other side.
Broken Bridge, the Witness to a Snake’s Love for a Man
The initial bridge was said to be built a thousand years ago during the Tang Dynasty, while the current one was structured in the 1940s and renovated in the 1950s.
As one of the ten most scenic spots of the West Lake in the heart of city Hangzhou, the ancient capital of the culturally and technologically highly developed Southern Song Dynasty (1127- 1279), Broken Bridge is not only known for its visual beauty but a close association with one of the most romantic Chinese love tales.
According to Stories to Caution the World (警世通言) by Ming dynasty writer Feng Menglong (1574 – 1646), it was at Broken Bridge, a woman fell in love with a man 980 years her junior.
The Love Story of A White Snake
Once upon a time, during the tomb-sweeping festival, 20-year Xu Xian took a day off his work at a Chinese medicine store to tidy up his parents’ graveyard.
On his way home, it rained, and he shared a lake taxi (a boat) with a young lady and her maid.
They landed at the Broken Bridged and the lady kindly lent him a spare umbrella.
The next day, Xu Xian paid a visit to the lady’s home to return the umbrella.
Once there he received a proposal from the maid to marry her mistress immediately.
Xu Xian declined the offer since it wasn’t a socially acceptable way to be formally engaged with someone for life. He hadn’t informed his sister and they didn’t have a go-between, to start with.
But the lady’s earnest commitment to the relationship and his deep admiration for the lady triumphed over his concern for the social propriety.
After the wedding, that was only attended by the couple and the maid, the trio migrated to Suzhou and opened a medicine store there.
Xu Xian was an experienced shopkeeper, while the lady happened to be a qigong master and could fix all sorts of human diseases and conditions.
The lady also had a charitable spirit and offered free treatment for the poor and the disadvantaged, as the result their medicine store became the most popular in Suzhou, and their business was booming.
Xu Xian’s life seemingly couldn’t get any better…
One day in early summer, Xu Xian met a Buddhist monk called Fahai and Fahai detected overwhelming yin qi (info-energy) from the man’s face.
Upon inquiry, the monk believed Xu Xian must have intimate physical contact with an alien being.
“Listen to me, young man,” Fahai said, “your wife is not a human.” Noting Xu Xian was hurt and angry, Fahai added, “If you let her drink realgar wine at the Duanwu festival, you’ll see what she really is.”
Duanwu Festival is on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month when the sun is positioned on the due south thus the yang qi is considered at its strongest point.
Yet according to I Ching, the theoretical foundation of Chinese culture, when anything develops to its climax, the counter-reaction from the opposite force is also at its most potent moment.
Therefore it was a custom in China to drink realgar wine on that day to protect against insects, germs, snakes and other harmful spirits.
The lady understood she shouldn’t accept Xu Xian’s invitation to toast realgar wine with him, yet she loved Xu Xian too much and couldn’t beat to see him disappointed so eventually, she complied.
No sooner had she taken the wine than she felt a strong headache. “I need to rest in bed, please do not interrupt me,” she urged Xu Xian.
She fell asleep for a good three days. When she finally woke up, she saw the corpse of her husband on the floor by her bedside.
After days without seeing his wife emerge from the bed, the man was extremely anxious thus opened the bed-curtain to check if she was all right.
His wife was obviously not all right because she disappeared. Curling up in the bed was a snow-white snake.
The man was transfixed. When his eye locked with that of the snake, he realised the creature was no other but his beloved wife. He fell to the floor and died of a heart attack.
The snake dashed to Mt Emei in Sichuan, where she practised cultivation for a thousand years, to steal a magical fungus.
She was nearly killed by the mountain guards but escaped with the plant and successfully brought the dead man back to life.
When Xu Xian recovered, his fear of the snake overtook his love for his wife, and he fled home to seek Fahai’s protection at Golden Hill Temple, a Buddhist monastery situated on Golden Hill Island in the middle of the Yangtze River.
The snake pursuit Xu Xian to the temple demanding to talk to her husband. Fahai rejected her request outright.
Considering the snake had deliberately misled her consumer (the man she peddled her love to) with false advertising (presenting herself as a pretty young woman despite she was not a woman and was 1000-year-old), Fahai determined to defend the consumer rights and stand by the principle of fair trading.
The snake, therefore, enlisted the help of kung fu prawns, martial turtles and military mussels from Yangtze River and flooded the temple for three days.
But when witnessing the flood began to affect the cities and villages along the river, the snake decided she’d rather lose Xu Xuan’s love than hurting innocent people thus called off the siege of the temple.
As time went by, Xu Xian’s love for his wife overtook his fear of a snake, and he escaped from Golden Hill Temple to the Broken Bridge where they first encountered, hoping to meet his lover again.
It happened the snake, heavily pregnant with Xu Xian’s baby, also wandered around the spot with her maid mourning the loss of her love.
After the maid’s initial explosion of fury, the snake’s doubt over the man’s sincerity, and Xu Xian’s deep remorse and repeated apology, the couple reconciled.
The couple’s life returned to normal. And the arrival of a baby boy further brought great joy to the young family.
They believed the love between a man and a woman (even a fake one) could eventually triumph over the law (for fair trading) and the order (of the universe).
But how wrong they were. The reverend Fahai took his volunteer fair trading officer job super seriously and hunted the offender all the way from Golden Hill in Jiangsu to Hangzhou in Zhejiang.
He broke in the couple’s home and lifted his golden bowl, which was equivalent to a police car for animal immortals, towards the snake.
Xu Xian promptly stood before his wife and implored the monk not to prosecute her because now he was the happy husband of the snake and the happy father to the baby of mixed species.
But the fair trading officer insisted the snake must be prosecuted for initially tricking her human victim into the relationship with her misleading visual presentation.
Thus a baby was taken away from his mother and a husband was separated from his wife.
Leifeng Pagoda – the Prison to the Snake Immortal
The snake was drawn into the monk’s golden bowl and eventually locked in solitary confinement in the basement under the Leifeng Pagoda by the West Lake.
The current one was reconstructed about 10 years ago. In 2000 before the construction work began, the site was cleaned and a basement, where allegedly the snake immortal was imprisoned, was discovered.
A team of archaeologists was thus called in but the entrance to the basement was obstructed by a giant rock weighing 750 kg.
After the rock was finally removed by a crane, the archaeologists entered the basement and found a small Buddha statue along with 4 copper coins and a metal box.
Inside the box, there was a gilt pagoda, a belt with a buckle, a blue glass box and a square mirror. On the mirror was a gilded box containing copper coins — all these items and the way the items arranged are typical for traditional Chinese exorcism practice.
(Painting artists: 赵宏本, 林雪岩, 刘永锡)