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  • The Legend of the White Snake across Mediums
  • Tarryn Li-Min Chun (bio)

My contribution to the Theatre Journal special issue on "Theatre and the Nonhuman" examines three different layers of the nonhuman in performances related to the Chinese Legend of the White Snake (Baishe zhuan): the supernatural, the spectacular, and the technological. The White Snake is a well-known folktale about a snake spirit who transforms into a woman (Madame White, Bai niangzi, or Bai Suzhen) and her relationship with her human lover (Xu Xian or Xu Xuan).

This essay is part of my book-length project on spectacle and technological mediation in contemporary Sinophone theatre and performance, which examines a number of recent productions from the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It builds on my other current work-in-progress, titled "Revolutionary Stagecraft: Technology and Politics in Modern Chinese Theatre," which takes a more historical approach to the unique connections among technological modernization, artistic innovation, and revolutionary politics found in Chinese theatre of the early-to-mid twentieth century.1

Beginning with a brief comment on the legend in premodern Chinese literary and performance traditions, this essay argues that over time, the theatre has played a key role in transforming the White Snake from a cautionary tale to one that celebrates human/nonhuman hybridity. In recent years, the addition of multimedia technologies such as large-scale screens, mechanical stages, and interactive projections further extend the role of the nonhuman in performance. I use analyses of three twenty-first-century productions to demonstrate how the addition of the technological nonhuman creates a more equal alignment between the human and nonhuman on both the narrative and performance levels and brings contemporary Chinese theatre into dialogue with global artistic trends.

This essay analyzes three productions. [End Page E-55]

White Snake Spectacular (Chaoxuan Baishe zhuan) by Ming Hwa Yuan Arts and Culture Group


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Figure 1.

Madame White (Sun Tsui-feng) and the Green Snake (Jheng Yasheng) fly over the audience as fire trucks spray jets of water into the air in White Snake Spectacular (Chaoxuan Baishe zhuan) by Ming Hwa Yuan Arts and Culture Group. Screenshot from the recording by Ming Hwa Yuan. (Source: YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zvrn255kce8.)

Videos of this production can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zvrn255kce8 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jouk240ZrXE.

The large-scale outdoor Taiwanese opera (koa-á-hì) performance White Snake Spectacular uses cinema-sized screens to project live-feed video of onstage action and titillates audiences with its special effects. These include pyrotechnics, flying actors, and a cameo by the fire department, which is called in to spray audience members with jets of water during a celebrated scene involving a battle between the creatures of West Lake and the Buddhist monks of Golden Mountain Temple. [End Page E-56]

Impression West Lake (Yinxiang Xihu), retitled Hangzhou: A Living Poem (Zuiyi shi Hangzhou) in 2016


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Figure 2.

Madame White and Xu Xian as ballet dancers in Impression West Lake (Yinxiang Xihu), retitled Hangzhou: A Living Poem (Zuiyi shi Hangzhou) in 2016. Screenshot from recording by Zhejiang Television. (Source: YouTube, https://youtu.be/wdWQaMIO7OA.)

Videos of this production can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmq5XPUw2s4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeeDUDhMZOs.

Impression West Lake is a site-specific performance that takes place on West Lake in Hangzhou, PRC. The son-et-lumière-style production is part of the "Impressions Series" (Yinxiang xilie) produced by Zhang Yimou, Wang Chaoge, and Fan Yue at popular tourist destinations throughout China. In 2016, the production was retooled, remounted, and rebranded as "Hangzhou, a Living Poem" (Zuiyi shi Hangzhou) in honor of the G20 Summit held that September in Hangzhou. New scenes added for this version include a holographic Swan Lake ballet excerpt and a climactic finale during which the illuminated letters "G20" rose from the lake to an orchestral rendition of Beethoven's Ninth. [End Page E-57]

The White Snake (She shi man, later retitled Baishe zhuan), directed and designed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. E-55-E-59
Launched on MUSE
2019-10-11
Open Access
No
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