Rays of Hope for a
White Snake

A project for the Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland

Text: Hsin-Mei Chuang
Photos: Matthias Messmer

Rays of Hope for a White Snake

Jialong Shen, born 1982. From Jilin Province in Northeastern China. Single. Certified legal consultant in a life insurance company. Amateur nandan (male actor performing female roles) in Beijing and Kun operas. His favorite role: Bai Niangzi (the White Maiden) in the Legend of the White Snake. Stage debut in 2005.
In the Legend of the White Snake, the White Maiden is originally a white snake that aspires to become a deity by doing good deeds for hundreds of years. However, just before its wish comes true, the snake sees a young scholar and changes its mind. The snake transforms into a pretty young woman, bringing forth a sudden rainfall. The young scholar lends his umbrella to the White Maiden and falls in love with her.

Traditionally opera performers were considered belonging to a profession of low social status due to their roaming and unstable lifestyle. Among them, nandan were the most peculiar and invited, unsurprisingly, some prejudices. In feudal days women were not allowed to perform in the opera. As a consequence, some male actors specialized in female roles. These men embodied the art of femininity, which they often limited not only to the stage. Some nandan inherited the profession, others were sold to a troupe by their impoverished families. Only very few pursued this glamorous yet humble career by choice. However, things have changed. Jialong, like many other young performers today, devotes himself to performance as an escape from ordinary life. The so-called piaofang (a club-like gathering where committed Beijing opera performers meet) offers amateur actors an opportunity to exchange latest information on the rich culture of Beijing opera, and practice their singing and gestures.

The White Maiden and the scholar Xu Xian get married, and soon she becomes pregnant. However, fairy tales never last forever. One day a monk shows up and warns Xu Xian about his wife’s true identity. Xu Xian carefully follows the monk’s advice and gives the White Maiden realgar wine on a specific day. All of a sudden, her legs turn into the tail of a snake. Xu Xian is literally shocked to death by this discovery.

Sometimes, there is a glimpse of discomfort in Jialong’s eyes, a trace of inner agitation. He is a shy man who does not talk much. Four years ago, he moved to Shanghai but he is not really enchanted by the city. In his eyes Shanghai is not really as miraculous and culturally exciting as people describe it. He lives in a modest room with a shared kitchen and bathroom in a traditional 1930s-style Shanghai lilong house. To better support his living and as a means to get out of his hermitage, he works part-time at an ice-cream parlor in a fancy shopping mall. His mother came to visit him once during these years, but not his father. Both parents know he has been singing nandan in Beijing and kun operas but never wanted to see him perform on stage. Jialong turns his face to the side and falls into silence. Would he want his parents to see him play a beautiful woman on stage? Maybe. But it seems easier for everyone that this wish remains unspoken. Jialong gazes indifferently at the traffic outside the window. Only the way his slender fingers twist betrays his sentiment.