Textile Society of America
White Snake, Black Snake Folk Narrative Meets Master Narrative in Qing Dynasty Sichuanese Cross-stitch Medallions
Date of this Version
Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario
The cross-stitch medallion in figure 1 was collected by my grandmother, Katherine Willmott, in the early 1920s when she was a missionary in Renshow, Sichuan Province, West China. Many years after I inherited it, I learned that it depicts a folk narrative called “White Snake; Black Snake” that was traditionally performed both on stage in the legitimate theaters and in Chinese shadow puppet dramas (Highbaugh n/d:6).
The story may be summarized as follows: There were two female snakes, White Snake and Black Snake, who were inseparable friends. They both changed into beautiful young women. White Snake got married and bore a son who by and by passed his examinations and obtained a post as a government official. This was the dream and ambition of every Chinese wife and mother. Out of jealousy, Black Snake told White Snake’s husband that his wife was a changling from a snake. She also explained how he could prove her words.
Accordingly, he beat his wife with a whip. She then changed back into a snake and crawled into a nearby pagoda. Upon his triumphant return as a government official, the son learned of his mother’s fate and offered prayers of “heart-broken respect” to her at the altar before the pagoda. The pagoda in question actually exists “beside the West Lake, near Hangchow” (Highbaugh n/d:6-7).
Copyright 2006 by the author.