Beneath the creepy exterior lies a misunderstood goddess
What pops up in your mind when it comes to the concept of snake? Cold-blooded, dangerous, sly, or even a symbol of evil? It seems that all words related to it are negative. And even though we are only two days away from the Year of the Snake, many people are still unaware of the diverse, not-so-negative cultural significance of the snake in Chinese folklore.
Besides its creepy outlook, various ancient legends and fables about snakes are also part of the reason people associate the creature with signs of evil.
For example, one of its most notorious stories, The Farmer and the Snake, is widely known among Chinese people with most learning it as a child.
In the story, a farmer finds a frozen snake on a wintry day. He felt sorry for it, so he held it to his bosom. The man's warmth soon helped the snake recover. Resuming its ruthless nature, the snake then bit its life-saver. Before the farmer died, he sighed that he deserved such a death for his stupidity in taking pity on a snake.
In Chinese vocabulary, phrases and idioms depicting the evilness of snakes are not a few: xin ru she xie (as venomous as snakes and scorpions), niu gui she shen (evil people of all kinds), and hu tou she wei (a fine start but a poor finish).
The recognition of snakes' evilness is also shared in the West. In the Bible, the snake was one of the sliest animals that God ever created. In the Garden of Eden, a serpent tricks Eve into eating the forbidden fruit and hence she and Adam are expelled from the Garden.
Fear or revere
Though a terrifying and unfriendly animal in people's minds, the snake was still selected as one of the 12 zodiac animals in ancient Chinese culture. The snake of the Chinese zodiac is one of the totems for Chinese people," said Qi Bing, a folklore expert.
He introduced that in ancient times when people had extremely limited material life and lived very close to nature, various animals posed great threat to humans. And snakes - especially poisonous ones - were among the most dangerous. "Out of fear, people began to revere and worship snakes," said Qi.
According to documentary material about Chinese folk beliefs, people began worshiping snakes since the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD); later the worship turned toward the dragon (a mythological creature bearing similar traits to those of a snake). Meanwhile the sacred position of snakes in ancient Chinese people's hearts can also be found in some ancient books and archaeological discoveries.
For instance, images of Fuxi (the first of the Three Sovereigns, or mythical emperors of ancient China) and Nüwa (a goddess in ancient Chinese mythology known for creating mankind and repairing the wall of heaven) feature human heads with snake bodies.
In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), worshiping the snake reached its pinnacle with various snake temples built up. According to Qi, ancestors of people in today's southeast Fujian Province regarded the snake as the totem of their tribes, keeping many traditional customs and activities related to snake worship even until today.
For example, each year on July 7 in the Chinese lunar calendar, people in the Zhanghu county, north of Fujian, will gather in the snake temple to wait for the king snake to march around the county. People queue in one long line with each person holding a snake or allowing it to wind around their arm: some even kiss the snake.
Accompanied by fireworks and the beating of drums, the procession finishes their serpentine walk before setting the snakes free, back into nature. According to Qi, "Min," the abbreviation for Fujian, is interpreted in many dictionaries as the symbol of the snake since its Chinese character has a chong (worm) in it.
And not just in Fujian, people in other places in the country also hold the snake as sacred. For example, the ethnic Dong people in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region worship the snake as the god of the land. "When they experienced drought or pest infestation, villagers there will use bamboo splints to make a big 'snake,' then they dance with it and pray for blessings from the god of the snake," said Qi.
Endowed with beauty
Holding a sacred position in ancient Chinese people's hearts, snakes are also endowed with some bright and beautiful characteristics that make it lovable and closer to people, despite all the negative expressions made out of fear.
"The snake is an auspicious sign in folklore," said Zhao Shu, vice president of Beijing Federation of Literary and Art Circles. "Their long and round body is a sign of longevity, and also they have strong reproduction and survival abilities," said Zhao.
Also, its body enables it to make soft and graceful gestures; therefore, The Year of the Snake is also regarded as a romantic and graceful year.
Meanwhile, some legends and folklore add a humane element to the snake. For instance, the story of She Xian Bao Zhu (the snake holds a pearl in its mouth), has become an educational classic to help people remember kindnesses received and try to repay them.
In the story, during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476BC), the emperor of the Sui kingdom found an injured and dying snake. He pitied it and asked his men to put some medicine on it and then freed it in the grass. After the snake was cured, it held the legendary luminous pearl in its mouth and came to the residence of the emperor to repay its benefactor.
Another story is the household Legend of the White Snake, which has been produced into various stage and screen works. The 1,000-year-old immortal snake, Bai Suzhen, comes to the human world and falls in love with a common man. They marry and do many good deeds for people. Even so, she is eventually seized and detained by the old monk Fa Hai who insists that Bai is a devil and should not exist in the earthy world.
In the story, the white snake is the symbol of beauty, kindness, ability and justice.
"Besides the folklore, there are other arts depicting the snake as pleasant and graceful, such as calligraphy, music and dance," said Zhao.