Bai Suzhen: The White Snake’s True Colours


Wong Jun Yi | West Lake Post

3rd Year of Empress Wu, Tang Dynasty

The following interview has been translated from Ancient Chinese to English.

My bamboo boat bobs above the flooded ruins of Jinshan Temple. A white snake streaks through the water. Jinshan Temple was sacred to the gods, but after a week-long battle of white-and-gold flashes, the temple has been reduced to ash, its once lavish, sloping walls crumbling to dust. 

The boat jolts. The snake transforms into a slight young woman in flowing white robes that almost glow amidst the chalk-grey rubble. She sits, facing me, and extends her hand.

“I am Bai Suzhen. I destroyed Jinshan Temple… and I will be condemned.”

The Legend of the White Snake tells the story of a female snake spirit, Bai Suzhen, who takes the form of a woman. Suzhen meets a human scholar, Xu Xian, and they marry. The catch? Xu Xian doesn’t know about Suzhen’s real form.

 In many cultures, the antagonists of myths are essentially a manifestation of the unknown. People have always feared and villainised what they don’t understand. Many cultures have used stories and myths as an explanation for the unknown, from the creation of the world to the reason for day and night.

In Chinese culture, these antagonists are known as mogui. Mogui are monsters and demons, evil beings weaving in and out of the mortal realm, bringing nothing but suffering and sorrow to those around them. How, then, did one such demon – the thousand-year-old snake spirit, Bai Suzhen – come to fall in love with a mortal man, and why did she destroy a sacred temple?

Bai Suzhen in human form by Wong Jun Yi (2021)

  1. Humans and spirits

There are many perspectives regarding Suzhen’s relationship with Xu Xian, with the majority believing that she had ulterior motives in seducing Xu Xian and that she had tricked him into marriage. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for spirits in legends to fraternise with humans whilst having bad intentions. Say for example, the evil fox spirit who tore down a kingdom, or the skeleton spirit who ate human flesh. Spirits and humans are fundamentally different, and have fought for centuries. Why did Suzhen try to break this cycle, and what was her side of the story?

“Everyone thinks I had an ulterior motive,” Suzhen sighs. Her voice is mellow and soothing. 

Suzhen chanced upon the scholar, Xu Xian, at the Broken Bridge. She was captivated by his kindness and humour. They grew close and visited the village together, where she met her “first friends”. 

“I’d never… talked to that many people, or laughed that much in my life,” she says, and beams at the memory. However, when night fell and she finally returned to her forest, out of all who she had met in the village, it was Xu Xian who she remembered the most.

“I had never been around humans. But I had friends. I had Xu Xian. We were in love, we were engaged… I stayed as a human with him for years,” Suzhen’s eyes betray a series of emotions – love, grief and guilt.

“We even opened a medicine shop together. I think we could have been happy… but humans and spirits have always been at odds.”

  1. A Monk’s Duty

Their medicine shop became renowned throughout Hangzhou West Lake. One day, a righteous monk named Fahai visited the pharmacy. Before meeting Bai Suzhen, I had the opportunity to interview Fahai, her sworn enemy. During our meeting, he donned an orange monk’s robe and a string of prayer beads. By his side hung a hulu bottle – believed to trap negative energy (including demons).

For Fahai, duty comes before all else. As a follower of the Court of Heaven, it is his responsibility to ensure what is best for humanity. In this case, it was to protect Xu Xian from Bai Suzhen, and bring an end to her actions. Did Fahai believe that Suzhen’s intentions were pure?

“Even if they are, which is unlikely, the spirit and human realm must remain separate. This is cosmic law. We do not know enough about spirits. This is the way of the world. Throughout history, there has never been and will never be a story about a ‘good’ mogui,” Fahai said.

 “For safety, I gave Xu Xian a bottle of huangjiu, which weakens and returns demons to their true form. It does not harm people. He was reluctant until he saw the snake demon’s true form. She would have killed Xu Xian. As a demon, she should know better than anyone that one must not violate the cosmic law.” There is a decidedness to his words. 

“Xu Xian ran to see me in the temple after realising his wife was a demon. I persuaded him to stay in the temple for his safety,” Fahai added.

 “I wanted Suzhen to come for Xu Xian in the temple, where I would have the upper hand to rid the world of her. She came initially in human form, but one should never trust a snake spirit. They are all sly and silver-tongued. When I refused to let Xu Xian back into her clutches, she showed her true colours – a gigantuan, venomous white snake – and vowed to tear down Jinshan Temple, brick by brick, to find Xu Xian.”

White Snake VS Monk by Unknown Artist (Year Unknown)

  1. The True Colours of the Unknown

Temples are highly prized in Chinese culture. Not only are they sacred to the gods, they also symbolise history and tradition to humankind, thought of as bridges connecting people to the Court of Heaven, as well as to the past. To destroy a temple is taboo and extremely disrespectful to deities, and leads to harsh punishments in the afterlife. Knowing this, why would Suzhen still destroy the sacred temple?

“Love.” Suzhen bows her head. “Whether we are humans or spirits – don’t we all do the hardest things for love?”

This love for Xu Xian led to a week-long battle between her and Fahai above Hangzhou West Lake, where gold and white flashes from each side thundered across China. Suzhen brought down the temple – but whether or not she reunited with Xu Xian remains unknown.

“There is truth to the idea of evil spirits – too many of them have harmed people. But that doesn’t account for the kind spirits. We fight, we fear and we love, just like other humans.” Suzhen’s passionate declaration sends lightning rippling through the sky.

Most of us have been raised alongside tales of strange creatures that bring people harm. But here I am, sitting with such a spirit, her melancholy eyes gazing into the distance, still holding out hope that her lover shall return. 

Thunder booms overhead. Suzhen smiles sadly. “Here comes my judgement.” 

While her actions may not have always been right, Suzhen was never cruel. Bai Suzhen’s tragic tale, seemingly a simple story of a snake spirit’s deceit, actually reveals more about human nature than it does about spirits. What is misunderstood is feared and villainised by our community – sometimes even prosecuted. 

This transcends simply mythology. People of different genders, races, appearances and more are still being discriminated against and antagonised. To see a situation from different perspectives is the key to coexisting in harmony with different people. Rather than generalising and villainising the unknown, the unknown can evolve into an opportunity for growth and learning.

There are many different shades to a person, but one can only know another’s true colours with patience and understanding.


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Dean, Kenneth. “Religions.”, 1 Mar. 2020, Accessed 17 Apr. 2021. 

Emerson, Lindsay. The Legend of the Lady White Snake; an Analysis of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian Themes. 2020, pp. 1-5, eSnakeAnAnalysisofDaoistBuddhistandConfucianThemes.pdf. Accessed 8 Apr. 2021. 

AFE. “Living in the Chinese Cosmos | Asia for Educators.”, Asia For Educators (AFE), 2021, main%20is%20ruled. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021. 

Keita, Gwendolyn. “Discussing Discrimination.”, 9 Mar. 2016, 0that%20the%20attitudes. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021. 

Wong Jun Yi (Class of 2025) draws inspiration from her daily life and dreams, and enjoys picking the brains of people and their relationships. Arranging thoughts on a page is her favourite thing to do, besides karaoke with her dogs Cola and Mimo.