Liang Luo, The Global White Snake, University of Michigan Press, 2021. 373 pgs.
“No culture can be fully understood in isolation,” writes Liang Luo in the introduction to her book The Global White Snake (Luo, 26). It is not a new observation, of course; for centuries we’ve said in various ways that no person (or nation or culture) is an island. But well-worn phrases are often well-worn because they wear well; for Luo’s new work, the methodological implications of such a simple phrase are profound. With cultural references spanning from Feng Menglong to Mizoguchi Kenji and Alexander McQueen, The Global White Snake is not simply a new reading of the classic Chinese legend. Instead, through vivid prose and a reading style both open and unpretentious, Luo provides a relatively global picture of the legend’s circulation, without glossing over local particularities that render the story legible within the various cultural contexts she explores.
The White Snake legend is one of the most enduring folk stories in Chinese culture. The story takes place in the Yangtze Delta city of Hangzhou, located two hours by train southwest of Shanghai. No trip to Hangzhou is complete without taking in its renowned 西湖 (Xihu, West Lake), a misty, flower-lined lake immortalised in countless poems and paintings over the past 1,000 years. Among its many arched stone bridges you might come across the very one where legend has it a young man named 許 (Xu) once met two women—one in white and one in green. Although Xu falls in love with the woman in white, eventually a Buddhist monk intervenes to reveal that both women are actually snakes disguised in human form. The snake women dive into the Yangtze River to escape the monk, but he traps the white snake, supposedly for eternity, under 雷峰塔 (Leifengta, Thunder Peak Pagoda), which stood at the south end of Xihu from about 975 CE until its epic collapse in 1924. (Leifengta was rebuilt in 2002—a story which Luo traces in her book’s third chapter.)
These are the fundamental elements of the White Snake legend. But as a folk story passed down through countless generations, even basic details like the names of characters (Xu Xian or Xu Xuan; Bai Suzhen or simply the woman in white) get shuffled around from one version to another. Things get even more complicated when you move to more sophisticated details—questions like how exactly the relationship is between Xu and the woman in white (Luo points out that “love” was not part of the earliest versions), or what it is about the woman’s character that prompts intervention from the monk––does she represent a warning to readers to follow Buddhist morality or is she a symbol of feminist resistance to be admired? These details, both big and small, can reveal unique insights into the contexts in which the legend is retold. And since these details are constantly in flux, it becomes virtually impossible to speak of an original source. As Luo emphasises in her introduction, hers “is not a study of textual variations of the White Snake legends with a systematic analysis of their various degrees of proximity with some fixed core narratives” (1). Instead of establishing a base narrative from which to compare later derivations, Luo treats each version of the legend in its own context. As a result, although her focus is a folk tale with Chinese origins, her work cannot easily be compartmentalised as “Chinese studies”. Those interested in Japanese and Korean cinema will certainly benefit from The Global White Snake, but so will those whose interests lie outside of what we might easily call “East Asian Studies”. Scholars of cultural translation, Cold War popular culture, performance studies and more are also likely to take interest in Luo’s wide-reaching new work.
Her view of “culture as appropriation” is crucial to her approach (1). She writes, “culture itself is that which appropriates; its artefacts are always already in the process of mediation and transformation. This ability to travel and transform is what keeps a culture alive, as it sheds skin after skin and regenerates itself time and again” (2). This understanding of culture means Luo does not spend time critiquing what American or Korean retellings of the White Snake get “wrong” or “right” about the legend. The result is a reading style that is noticeably open-minded. She accepts that as cultural artefacts circulate, their details are distilled or distorted. But she does not allow this to prevent her from asking what new meanings might also be found only in these circulated products. Her readings do not disguise the fact that these translations can depart radically from their source material, sometimes in Orientalising or otherwise discomforting ways. But she also does not limit her analysis to simply critiquing these works for misrepresenting Chinese culture. Instead, she opens up new possibilities by asking what it is these works might represent as cultural artefacts in and of themselves.
Her second chapter is a highlight of this reading style. She begins with a sample of 19th-century American missionary Samuel Woodbridge’s introduction to his 1896 translation of the White Snake legend. Woodbridge describes what he considers the “lamentable” condition of the “Chinese popular mind”, which he views to be riddled with “abnormal cravings” and comparable to “the physical condition of a fever patient” (29). Luo’s response to these quite outrageous statements reveals much about her sophistication as a reader. She writes, “Looking from a modern, secular perspective, we can certainly discredit Woodbridge’s proposal for ‘saving Chinese souls’ by observing its propagandising nature…However, such a criticism of Woodbridge’s ‘religious propaganda’ is coloured by an unjustified presentism, which I would like to avoid in this study” (31). She goes on to comment that Woodbridge imbues the White Snake characters with “love and devotion, as well as psychological depth” (37). She writes that his reimagining the legend as a modern love story makes his work a contribution “to romantic English literature as well as to the modern reinvention of the White Snake legends” (38).
Faced with an author of views as troublesome as Woodbridge’s, some readers might have used his prefatory statements to find all those ways in which his version woefully misconstrues the Chinese original into an unrecognisable Westernised (mis)translation. By contrast, Luo includes an insightful passage in which she reflects on employing Woodbridge’s text in her undergraduate seminars at the University of Kentucky. Citing her students, Luo reveals that Woodbridge’s text offers an accessible means for a contemporary Anglophone readership to reflect on such matters as “the plasticity of folklore” (32). This is in part what I mean when I refer to Luo’s reading style as “unpretentious”. Throughout her work, her generously reparative style of reading considers the pedagogical potential of each text she employs for a wide range of audiences. She is equally astute at providing the perspective of 20th-century Chinese intellectuals, 19th-century American missionaries, and 21st-century undergraduate readers. This method allows us to understand the legend’s full potential to thrive in such a wide variety of contexts. We see that the White Snake represented something critical to Woodbridge; we learn through Luo’s reading of him the central role the White Snake legend held in Chinese popular culture of the late 19th century. Taking his perspective seriously demonstrates the White Snake legend’s ability to make itself relevant across time and space.
Of course, Luo does not limit the reader to Woodbridge’s perspective. For one thing, his is obviously a quite limited and biased view of the “Chinese popular mind” he purports to take such interest in. For another, considering only Woodbridge or other American missionaries might lead the reader to conclude that it is only by translation into non-Chinese contexts that the legend underwent such radical transformations. It would turn Luo’s study of the legend’s circulation into a story of outsider adaptation. In fact, the legend was constantly being revised by Chinese authors as well. These domestic transformations drive the second half of the same chapter, which focuses on Chinese stage interpretations in the early 20th century. In that section, we read of the fascinating connection between the White Snake and certain turn-of-the-century technological innovations, such as on-stage special effects. We read also of the resistance such new conventions met from intellectuals such as Lao She, who deemed some of these new features gimmicky (58). Beyond Lao She, other urban elites “protested the vulgarity of the story and the ludicrousness of the whole White Snake phenomenon,” Luo writes. With engaging prose that often transports the reader into Chinese performances spaces of the time, Luo’s second chapter demonstrates that you do not have to look to Western missionaries to determine that the legend’s adaptations were always challenging and controversial. In turn, this observation will provide space to consider some of the contemporary adaptations that Luo explores at the end of her book, which sometimes bear very little resemblance at all to the storied tale on the banks of Xihu.
Later chapters prove equally illuminating. The third chapter explores the metaphorical resonances of Leifengta’s 1924 collapse, and its effect on new interpretations not only of the White Snake legend, but the fate of modern China itself. In part two, we move to a Cold War context to consider White Snake’s role in mid-20th-century Japanese and Korean cinema. Luo writes that these chapters “explore the broad context of post-war inter-Asian inspiration and influence” even across Cold War divides (21). This is a very welcome addition to a growing body of inter-Asian scholarly literature that will help the field move beyond grouping itself based entirely on national or linguistic boundaries. Part three examines more contemporary adaptations of the legend in places such as Hong Kong, mainland China, and the United States.
In this final section, we encounter another example of Luo’s anti-elitist approach to popular culture analysis through her reading of the Indian-born filmmaker Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri’s 2013 short film The Legend of Lady White Snake (235). Luo tells us this example was provided to her by an undergraduate student and she describes the “shocking experience” of first watching the eight-minute short film with her students (237). Luo points out the film’s numerous inaccuracies and its very loose connection to the Chinese legend. But she does not use these facts to “pull a Lao She”, so to speak, and balk at the fashion industry film’s over-commercialisation and radical reinterpretation of a classic piece of Chinese culture. Instead, Luo argues that the film represents themes of “gender and species, media and politics”—themes which have long been central to the various versions of the story—coming together in newly relevant ways (241).
The broad scope of Luo’s research strikes a very difficult balance between moving the reader through a wide range of time and place without feeling disjointed or overwhelming. For this reason, the book offers as much in way of methodological lessons as it does in terms of its content. Even those who do not primarily study Chinese folklore will have much to learn from Luo’s masterful presentation of a complexly tangled web of influences and cross-cultural movements. What’s more, her generous reading style and open attitude toward source selection provide readers with a wonderful example of how we might approach texts with earnest curiosity for what they might teach us, rather than trying to prove our own intelligence by illuminating all the ways the texts fail. This reader hopes more works in the field will continue to employ a similar cross-regional perspective and hopes even more that they might do so with similar grace, intellect, and care as Luo.
How to cite: Weber, Noah Arthur. “Culture Is That Which Appropriates: A Review of Liang Luo’s The Global White Snake.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 8 Feb. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/02/08/global-white-snake/.
Noah Arthur Weber has a BA in Chinese Language & Culture and English Literature from Washington University in St Louis. Originally from St Louis, U.S.A., he is currently an MA student in the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature at National Chengchi University with a Taiwan Scholarship from the R.O.C. Ministry of Education. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org