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A Lady White Snake Bookshelf

Good Books and More for Getting Into the Chinese Opera and Its Ancient Story

By Aaron Shepard

For more treats and resources, visit Aaron Shepard at www.aaronshep.com.

Copyright © 1999–2003, 2012, 2014 Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.

Here are all the books and other offline resources I found most valuable in researching the Chinese opera The Legend of White Snake and its ancient story. For resources in English, Chinese names are given as they were printed, rather than all in Pinyin. (For instance, “Tian Han” can also be “Tien Han” or “Tyan Han.”) Most links are for more info at Amazon.com, an affiliate. Newer but hard-to-find books may also be available from China Books, at www.chinabooks.com.

The Legend—General

“The Holy Man and the Snake-Woman,” by Nai-tung Ting, in Fabula, Vol. 8 (1966). Compares the legend with stories in India and Europe, including Keats’s “Lamia.”

The White Snake: The Evolution of a Myth in China, by Pei-yi Wu, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1970. A dissertation. Includes a translation of the earliest surviving version. Best ordering may be from Dissertation Express (a service of ProQuest), at disexpress.umi.com.

The Legend—Versions—Folklore

“Lady White,” in West Lake: A Collection of Folktales, translated by Jan and Yvonne Walls, Joint Publishing Co., Hong Kong, and China Books, San Francisco, 1980.

“The Legend of the White Snake,” in Hangchow: The “City of Heaven”, by Frederick D. Cloud, Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai, 1906; reprinted by Ch’eng Wen Publishing Co., Taipei, 1971.

The Legend—Versions—Literary Fiction

Lady White, by Ren Shaozeng, Hei Feng Publishing Co., Hong Kong, 1983. A novel.

The Legend of the White Serpent, retold by A. Fullarton Prior, illustrated by Kwan Sang-mei, Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo, 1960. For young people.

“Madam White Snake,” in Origins of Chinese Festivals, compiled by Goh Pei Ki, translated by Koh Kok Kiang, illustrated by Fu Chunjiang, Asiapac, Singapore, 1997. A lovely comic-book version that introduced me to the story.

“Mrs. White,” in The Real Tripitaka, and Other Pieces, by Arthur Waley, Allen and Unwin, London, 1952. A translation of an early version. (You might have better luck with this book at Amazon.co.uk.)

“The White Snake,” translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, in Chinese Literature, July 1959. An early version.

The Legend—Versions—Chinese Opera

Bai She Chuan (Legend of the White Snake), by Tian Han, adapted by Zhao Laijing and Li Zhongchen, directed by Fu Chaowu, performed by Shanghai’s Second Beijing Opera Troupe, Shanghai Film Studio, Shanghai, 1983, 145 minutes. A video of a movie featuring Beijing Opera performed on standard movie sets and on location at West Lake. In Chinese, with no English subtitles. No known supplier, but formerly distributed in the U.S. by Nan Hai Co.

Bai She Chuan (Legend of the White Snake), Po Wah Video Production, Flat E 3/F Worldwide Industries Building, 33 To Kwa Wan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong, date unknown, two cassettes. A video of a Cantonese Opera stage production. No known supplier.

Book cover

Lady White Snake: A Tale From Chinese Opera, retold by Aaron Shepard, illustrated by Song Nan Zhang, Pan Asian Publications, Union City, California, 2001. My own picture book retelling, based on Tian Han’s libretto, with illustrations showing traditional Chinese opera costumes. Also available on DVD as a partially animated video, Pan Asian Publications, 2008.

The White Snake: A Peking Opera, by Tien Han, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1957. An opera libretto. The best-known and most influential of modern opera versions, and the primary source for my retelling, in the translation I prefer.

“The White Snake,” by Tyan Han, translated by Donald Chang and William Packard, in The Red Pear Garden: Three Great Dramas of Revolutionary China, edited by John D. Mitchell, Godine, Boston, 1973. Another translation of the libretto, but of a variant. Features lovely language for the dialog and translates some terms more exactly, but also suffers from stilted verse and misunderstandings of Chinese geography and mythology.

The Legend—Versions—Video

Madam White Snake, directed by Yueh Fung, Shaw Brothers Studio, Hong Kong, 1962, restored by Celestial Pictures, Hong Kong, 2004, 95 minutes. This is the classic movie version of the tale, starring the screen legend Lin Dai. Though most of the movie is in straight dialog, frequent sections are straight from Chinese opera. Also from Chinese opera—or heavily influenced by it—are the costumes, makeup, and fight-scene acrobatics. The movie, then, has the feel of Chinese opera without the great length. The story is also simplified fairly well—except for a contrived and unsatisfactory ending. A bonus in this digitally restored version is the brilliance of the color and the picture clarity. A great introduction to the story. In Chinese, with English subtitles.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai She Chuan Shuo), directed by Ching Siu-Tung, Hong Kong, 2011, 100 minutes. Distributed by Banzai Media Corporation. Probably the biggest production of this story to date. A very loose retelling, but stays mostly true to the spirit of the original, while straying far from the letter. One interesting twist is that Fahai—played by martial arts star Jet Li—has been mostly restored to his original role as a heroic demon fighter, thereby providing a more morally balanced conflict between himself and the women.

Green Snake, directed by Tsui Hark, Hong Kong, 1993, 98 minutes. Distributed by Mei Ah Entertainment. A modern Hong Kong fantasy flick—complete with wires—and the most erotic version of this story you’re ever likely to see! Great fun, with surprising twists on the old tale. In Chinese, with English subtitles. Warning: At least some early DVD editions of this movie were very poorly produced, but the 2004 “DTS Version” from Mei Ah is just fine.

Love of the White Snake (Zhen Bai She Chuan), directed by Chan Jeung Wah, Hong Kong, 1978, 95 minutes. A straightforward retelling with fine actors, including the legendary Brigitte Lin in the starring role. In Chinese, with no English subtitles. Great fun! Best ordering in the U.S. may be from YesAsia, www.yesasia.com.

Love in the West Lake: The Legend of the White Snake, Taipei Puppet Theater, Taipei, 2012, 109 minutes. A Taiwanese puppet performance of the opera, featuring both hand and rod puppets, recorded live at the 2012 Taipei Traditional Arts Festival. Best ordering in the U.S. may be from YesAsia, www.yesasia.com. Note: If no words show on the menu, move the highlight bar to the right and press Enter for English subtitles.

Hangzhou and West Lake

Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276, by Jacques Gernet, Allen & Unwin, London, and Macmillan, New York, 1962. On Hangzhou at its peak.

Focus on Zhejiang, Hong Kong China Tourism Press, Hong Kong, 1994. On Hangzhou and the surrounding province.

Hangchow: The “City of Heaven”, by Frederick D. Cloud, Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai, 1906; reprinted by Ch’eng Wen Publishing Co., Taipei, 1971. On Hangzhou before modernization.

Hangzhou and the West Lake, by Simon Holledge, Rand McNally, Chicago, 1981. Also by Holledge: Hangzhou and Zhejiang Province, Passport Books, Chicago, 1987.

“Ho for the Soochow Ho,” by Mabel Craft Deering, National Geographic, June 1927. An account of a boat trip from Shanghai to Suzhou and Hangzhou.

Notes on Hangchow, Past and Present, by G. E. Moule, Kelly & Walsh, Shanghai, 1907.

West Lake Reflections: A Guide to Hangzhou, by Sara Grimes, People’s Publishing House, Zhejiang, and Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1983.

Chinese Opera

Chinese Opera, directed by Deben Bhattacharya, O. E. T. Foundation for Culture, Sussex Tapes, London, 1992, 27 minutes. A video documentary. Best ordering may be from Lyrichord, www.lyrichord.com.

Chinese Opera: Images and Stories, by Peter Lovrick, photos by Siu Wang-Ngai, UBC Press, Vancouver, and University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997. A good overview with excellent performance photos.

Farewell My Concubine, directed by Chen Kaige, Tomson (Hong Kong) Films Co., 1993, 157 minutes. A widely available video of an award-winning movie depicting the lives of two Chinese opera actors. In Chinese with English subtitles. Rated R. Brilliantly conceived and historically accurate, though also highly disturbing! Based on the novel by Lilian Lee.

Peking Opera, by Colin Mackerras, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong, 1997. A thorough treatment, most of it applying to Chinese opera in general.

Chinese Mythology

Chinese Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend, by Derek Walters, HarperCollins, London, 1992.

Taoism and Chinese Religion, by Henri Maspero, translated by Frank A. Kiernan, Jr., University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1981.

Chinese Festivals

Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China, by Carol Stepanchuk and Charles Wong, China Books, San Francisco, 1991.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

The Ancient and Healing Art of Chinese Herbalism, by Anna Selby, Hamlyn, London, 1998.

A Manual of Chinese Herbal Medicine: Principles & Practice for Easy Reference, by Warner J. W. Fan, Shambhala, Boston, 1996.

Chinese Geography

China, Lonely Planet, 2013. A guide.

Date: Wed, 05 Sep 2001
From: Roland Altenburger < [Email address removed] >
Organization: Ostasiatisches Seminar
To: Aaron Shepard < [Email address removed] >
Subject: White Snake bibliography

Dear Mr. Shepard,

I appreciate your useful “bookshelf” on the White Snake legend. May I contribute some additional bibliographical entries (limited to English titles) that I have found?

Translations of various versions:

Chang, H. C. (transl.): “Madam White.” In: Chinese Literature: Popular Fiction and Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973, pp. 216–261. [Translation of the version by Feng Menglong, “Jingshi tongyan.”]

Waley, Arthur (transl.): “Mrs. White.” In: The Real Tripitaka. London: Allen and Unwin, 1952, pp. 183–213. [Translation of the version included in Xihu jiahua.]

[Anonymous translator]: “The Legend of the White Snake.” Reprint in: Guoli Beijing daxue Zhongguo minsu xuehui minsu congshu, 135. Taipei: The Orient Cultural Service, [n.y.]. [Translation of the version “Xiuxiang yiyao quanzhuan.”]

Ellis, Myra (transl.): Madam White Snake. Singapore etc.: Federal Publications, 1981. (Times Asian Library). [Ü Bersetzung der modernen Adaptation von Zhang Henshui.]


Chang, H. C.: Introduction to “Madam White.” In: Chinese Literature: Popular Fiction and Drama, pp. 205–215.

Hsü, Wen-hung: “The Evolution of the Legend of the White Serpent.” Part I: “The Earliest White Serpent Story, Pai She Chi in the Tang Dynasty,” Tamkang Review, 4.1 (1973), pp. 109–127; Part II: “Thunder Peak Pagoda [Lei-feng t’a], a Story of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644),” Tamkang Review, 4.2 (1973), pp. 121–156.

Lai, Whalen: “From Folklore to Literate Theater: Unpacking Madame White Snake.” Asian Folklore Studies 51, (1992), pp. 51–66.

Yen, Yuan-shu: “Biography of the White Serpent: A Keatsian Interpretation.” Tamkang Review, 1 (1970), pp. 227–243.

Best regards,
Roland Altenburger

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Roland Altenburger
Ostasiatisches Seminar
der Universitaet Zuerich
Zuerichbergstr. 4
CH-8032 Zuerich
Tel. -41-1-634 31 85
[Email address removed]

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