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Return of Madam Snake

Deng Zhangyu
Updated: Aug 25,2015 7:53 AM     China Daily

Craftsmen color the shadow puppets to give them a modern look.[Photo provided to China Daily]

The Chinese fairy tale figure Madam White Snake is back again, this time in two very different guises. The first is in the time-honored way in which audiences are used to seeing it, and the other in a very contemporary form.

The first version sticks rigidly to the well-known folktale the “Legend of the White Snake”, vividly presented on a scroll 30 meters long featuring more than 140 shadow puppets dating back to the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The version in which the tale is given a very different, contemporary twist is by the artist Wu Jian’an.

“This is fresh attempt to break the boundaries between traditional craftsmanship and contemporary art,” says Fan Di’an, curator of the show Transformation and head of Beijing’s Central Academy of the Fine Arts.

“Chinese art always needs to regenerate itself by feeding on its rich culture.”

Wu Jian’an’s contemporary presentation of the green fish monster.[Photo provided to China Daily]

According to the folk tale, a 1,000-year-old serpent leaves her sacred home in a mountain and goes into the human world to marry a young man named Xu Xian, who had saved the snake’s life centuries ago.

But a monk named Fahai is determined to stop this forbidden love between a human and an “evil spirit” and imprisons the white snake in a pagoda. Madam White Snake’s son, whom the emperor has decreed to be the finest scholar, manages to free her.

The story has been performed in many different ways for hundreds of years, including as a shadow play, a traditional Chinese opera form dating back more than 2,000 years ago.

The ancient shadow figures version of the legend presented at Prince Kung’s Palace Museum is rare because it is extremely hard to bring the cow leather puppets together for one show, says Wang Tianwen, 66, a craftsman of shadow figures.

Ancient shadow puppets .[Photo provided to China Daily]

Many ancient shadow puppets were destroyed during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), he says, and those used in the stage show, The Legend of the White Snake, are rarer still because, given the use of expensive leather, they were the preserve of the wealthy.

Wang and nine other craftsmen have been making extra shadow puppets for the show since March. The ancient figures are depicted on an illuminated scroll.

Wu’s modern presentation of the popular folk tale contrasts sharply with that in which the ancient puppets are used. In seven large, suspended works, Wu has assembled hundreds of small figures, animal and other shapes into a collage in the form of a green fish monster that wants to be transformed into a human.

Wu says his interpretation is a quasi-fairy tale that looks at things from an adult angle. Fahai, whom audiences usually loathe for arresting Madame White Snake, plays the role of loyal detective sent by the Buddha.

“People think Fahai is the bad guy, and they think of the tale as a tragic love story, but I prefer to see it as a detective story with a monster in it,” Wu says.

Chinese mythology dictates that the Buddha has no right to arrest monsters such as the white snake, which is under the control of the gods in heaven.

Wu has created the image of a green fish monster that wants to become a Buddha, thus angering the Buddha, who sends Fahai to imprison Madam White Snake, which inhabits the green fish’s mouth.

Wu says all of his plots are based on ancient books and folk tales.

On display are installations such as one that shows a snake casting off its skin and two chicken monsters battling with a snake.

The small figures and shapes Wu used as a collage to present his works are all made of cow skin. One work alone has about 180 kinds of shapes.

“The obligation of Chinese artists is to propagate Chinese culture in an artistic form,” Wu says.

Sun Jianjun, an expert on national intangible culture, says the show is an interesting experiment in combining heritage and contemporary art.

If you go

8 am-5 pm, Tuesday to Sunday, through Sept 9, no Mondays. The Prince Kung’s Palace Museum, 17, West Qianhai Street, Xicheng District, Beijing. 010-83288149