Gender in ''White Snake'' by Yan Geling

White Snake, by Geling Yan, is an exceptionally effective piece interweaving elements of mythical paradigms, Chinese “scar literature,” gender and sexuality issues, and the comparison of official, social, and private truths. I think of particular importance to those with an interest in gender and sexuality issues are the pre-sexual, sexual, and post-sexual relationships that Geling Yan examines through the parallel of the “Legend of White Snake” between her three main characters.

The most basic parallels Geling Yan draws are between the identity of her characters (both self-identified and identified by the reader) and the characters in the “Legend of White Snake.” I see that there are four of these analogues, outlined below:

  • White Snake and Sun Likun
  • Male Blue Snake and Xu Qunshan (“the shan character for “mountain””)1)
  • Female Blue Snake and Shan-shan (previously Xu Qunshan, “with the shan character for “coral””)2)
  • Sun Likun’s fiance and White Snake’s husband Xu Xian

Of these four, only the first three are principal characters in the story. Readers familiar with White Snake may protest that the separation of Xu Qunshan and Shan-shan is unnecessary, as they are the same person. I argue, however, that in addition to being separated for the purpose of paralleling the “Legend of White Snake,” that Xu Qunshan and Shan-shan are two different people embodied in the same individual.

I argue further that Xu Qunshan (the shan character for “mountain”) was not a woman masquerading as a man, but a person of female sex and male gender. Some Post Modern gender theorists say sex and gender are two unrelated dimensions of a person, one a biological, the other social. I differ from these theories in that I believe they are two different but related dimensions of person. Using quotes from the text, I would like to systematically examine Xu Qunshan/Shan-shan’s transitions between various genders on personal/interpersonal, social, and political levels.3) For clarity, I will use “female” and “male” to refer to biological sex, and “woman” and “man” to refer to gender as social constructs, specifically the Chinese social constructs of that era. “Masculine” and “feminine” will refer to Chinese archetypal traits of the genders “man” and “woman” during the time period White Snake is set, and not to biological traits of “male” and “female.”

Nymph - Undeveloped Gender


I’d really like to touch [Sun Likun’s bosom], to see if it is sculpted or real. I frighten myself when I have thoughts like that.

[…] I’ve always liked dance, but since I saw her dancing, I feel I don’t like to dance so much as I like the body that produces the dance. So am I strange? Can anyone tell me if I am normal? […]

But what about my classmates, Little Plum and Lili? Weren’t they dumbfounded too when they saw White Snake? I’ll bet they’re just as infatuated with her as I am, that they think about touching her body. They just wouldn’t admit it. I wouldn’t admit it to them either. I have to lock up this diary. No one must see it.4)


When her eyes spotted my watch, they widened as she said, “Such a young boy and already wearing a wristwatch!“

I replied, “I’m not a boy.”

She took a hard look at me and said, “Then why is your hair so short? Is it for swimming?” I couldn’t think of anything to say.5)


I really can’t stand Xu Xian! If it hadn’t been for him, White Snake would not have suffered such tribulations. If it hadn’t been for the detestable Xu Xian, White Snake and Blue Snake certainly would have been very happy together.6)


I would first like to examine Xu Qunshan (the shan character for “coral”) as a “nymphal” entity. I use this word secondarily for its meaning of “young girl,” the pre-adult gender that would have been assigned to her because of her sex, and more importantly for its meaning of “immature.” I use the pronoun “she” and the possessive “her” here for lack of any standardized or established alternatives in English.

Here Xu Qunshan’s gender is still developing, roughly following the course of Chinese childhood socialization, but already exhibiting traits that blur the line between “girl” gender and “boy” gender. Her hair is short, and she wears a watch, one of the proverbial “three things that go round” (the other two being a sewing machine and a bicycle) meant to prove to a woman that a man was a stable economic partner.7) Xu Qunshan says later in her diary that she has just entered pubescence, and her entries show her developing sexual interest in Sun Likun/White Snake, which can be taken more broadly as a sexual interest in women in general. The girl Xu Qunshan senses that this is not the experience of others, and tries to normalize her experience by projecting her feelings onto her peers, and maintaining secrecy about her desires.

In the theme of “Legend of White Snake,” she expresses her anger at the character of Xu Xian for coming in between White Snake and Blue Snake, suggesting that she is already subconsciously casting herself in the role of Blue Snake. This further implies that she sees the intimate and caring relationship between White Snake and Blue Snake as a path by which her desire for Sun Likun/White Snake could be realized.

Imago - Third Gender Perceived as Man


When I put the cover of Red Flag on top of one of my old movie magazines, then what I was reading became Red Flag. When I put the cover of Quotations of Chairman Mao over my copy of Les Miserables, then it became Quotations of Chairman Mao. A woolen military uniform immediately transforms me into a first-class, high-level person, receiving everyone’s admiration as a wool-clad special soldier. It’s going to be hard to step down from such a pedestal. I can shed this uniform tomorrow, but I won’t be able to shed the lie.8)


First time anybody’s called me “Elder Brother.” […] I’m nineteen, and this is the first time I have felt that my body is inherently androgynous.

Actually, people who knew me saw me as a girl, and strangers saw me as a boy. It was my neither-male-nor-femaleness […] that made my life much more convenient and much safer. And afforded me much more respect. Being addressed as “Elder Brother” opened a strange and wondrous door for me. A door that led to limitless possibilities.

Will I be able to find my way through these possibilities? Is there a destiny that transcends the dichotomy of male and female? Despite having a body with a uterus and ovaries, is it possible that I am not without a choice?

I despise the superficiality of girls. I scorn the vulgarity of boys.9)


In this diary entry, Xu Qunshan experiences two catalysts that I believe transform her from her nymphal stage to imago. The first catalyst is the wool suit itself. The suit is the vehicle of her escape from her village. The second catalyst is being called “Elder Brother” on the train, which acts as the vehicle for her examination of her own gender, and her assumption of a new gender.

Stepped outside the dichotomous gender paradigm, Xu Qunshan for the first time feels androgynous. Androgynous, but not sexless, as is demonstrated by the lines about having a uterus and ovaries. Here Xu Qunshan’s does not choose to switch to the other side of the gender paradigm, but instead wonders about other possibilities, and I believe assumes a new, third gender that includes traits of both the man and woman genders. In the story’s examination of official, social, and personal truths, these epiphanies demonstrate Xu Qunshan’s personal truths about gender.



“The young man’s strides were long, and he walked with his hands behind his back as if he were some kind of old warlord with “people clearing the way in front and a young guard running up behind.”10)


“The woolen uniform was so broad and heavy that the young man, his slim body bent slightly forward, was almost carrying it rather than wearing it. But it was precisely the large size of his uniform and the small size of his body that gave him a peculiar air of casual elegance.”11)


“The derision and disdain in his eyes made the men think he had clout. His eyes were clear and feminine; his shyness was in the dark part of his eyes, and his cruelty was in the whites.”12)

“For the moment [Sun Likun] was unwilling to figure out why she couldn’t bring herself to smoke this homemade, disgusting and unseemly cigarette in front of this twenty-something young man.”13)


The young man was riding a racing bike, its entire frame an oily metallic black without any hint of color or decoration.14)


[The guard girls] also silently recognized that Xu Qunshan’s completely alien presence had infected each one of them in some absurd way, making them suddenly de-emphasize the thick arms and legs and loud voices of which they had thought themselves so proud.15)


In her thirty-four years of life, this was the first time she felt that the most comforting part of being together with a man was not his body but his heart.16)


She had never before met a man as manly as Xu Qunshan, nor had she ever met a man as kind and amiable.17)


She basked in the sounds of his turning the pages of his newspaper and sipping tea. They created in her a kind of longing she had never felt before, a longing for being together with another person, daily and always.18)


I believe Xu Qunshan (shan for “mountain”) assumed the gender “man” as the result of social perception that eroded his original assumption of a third gender. Playing the part of a man in order to “pass” in Cultural Revolution-era Chinese society influenced his behavior to the degree where he became one. It is not just the wool suit that makes him a man, it is his carriage, his mannerisms, his eyes, his voice. The strongest evidence for this, I believe, is how Xu Qunshan is immediately perceived as a man not by one or two parties, but by everyone who encountered him.

The construction workers, as other men of a different social class, see him as a man of importance and high caliber, and also as a dangerous man, so much so that one of them does not dare throw a rock at him when he challenges them.19) Sun Likun’s guards are so affected by his masculinity, that in an instinctive bid to appear more feminine, they begin to downplay their own archetypal masculine features that they had previously glorified. His masculinity not only has a similar effect on Sun Likun, making her not want to appear vulgar and unfeminine in front of him, but it also awakes White Snake within her, making her an archetype of femininity. Later, when he first enters her room to interview her, she is so affected by Xu Qunshan’s presence that she forced to make a stage exit in order to collect herself and become White Snake.

Further, the very female characteristics that one might assume would give him away, on the contrary enhance his masculinity. The refinement of his single-lidded eyes and his shapely hands make him more manly. The elegance lent to him by his female frame in masculine garb makes him the paragon of Man.

In the context of “Legend of White Snake,” Xu Qunshan is male Blue Snake courting White Snake. The analogy functions both on the level of Xu Qunshan as a masculine entity approaching a feminine one as per the myth, and as a fulfillment of his subconscious girlhood assumption of the role.

The mass perception of Xu Qunshan as a man, without their ever being any suspicion that he was female, based solely on behavior, demonstrates social truths about gender at the time. Similarly, in the official reports, the investigators’ inability to locate him because of the social impossibility that a man could be female, demonstrates a political truth about gender.

Third Gender Perceived as Woman


He sat on the edge of the sofa, one leg in front of another; this was not the usual way he placed his legs.

She thought this way of sitting rather odd, bizarre even, as if he were wearing an overly tight skirt.20)


In that instant, human and animal became equal, old and young, male and female, all absolutely equal.21)


Again and again, she blocked her intuition from trying to tell her a secret.22)


It was that same evening. The spasms in her body became smaller and smaller. Suddenly she realized she was still naked. […] [S]ince there was no opposite sex here, what was the point of concealing herself? Then the opposite realization struck her: since there was no opposite sex here, what was the need to be naked? Being naked was meaningless, worthless, insipid redundancy, […] her own nakedness became nothingness.23)


She was just your average young girl about twenty-something. […] The girl wasn’t much to look at, with a short hairstyle, neither male nor female, walking around with her shoulders squared and waring a dark blue woolen Lenin coat.24)


Finally someone came to the realization: maybe this Shan-shan is a man dressed up as a woman! […] Some pulled open her clothes, some pulled down her pants, others pinned her as she struggled, with this result: Shan-shan was definitely, beyond any doubt, a woman.25)


Her tenderness and protectiveness were also purely those of Shan-shan. Compared to Xu Qunshan, Shan-shan’s lips were much softer, more delicate, warmer.26)


As soon as Xu Qunshan and Sun Likun are alone in the hotel room, as evidenced by his mannerisms, he seems to unconsciously revert to a third gender, one that is neither man nor woman but exhibits traits of both. Sun Likun seems to sense this transformation, but in a defense mechanism, her mind refuses to recognize what Xu Qunshan’s body and body language are telling her. More than that, she unconsciously dismisses it when she experiences the instant when all became “absolutely equal,” bypassing her conscious mind’s personal truths about gender.

After having sex with Xu Qunshan, her conscious mind’s truths about gender reassert themselves, leaving her wondering how her nakedness can be sexual around someone of the same sex, and how same-sex bodies can possibly find sexual pleasure with each other. The chapters earlier reference to her orgasms bely her defensive denial of the possibility of two females achieving sexual pleasure.

Later, when Shan-shan visits Sun Likun at Joyous Mountain Song Hospital, Shan-shan is as readily perceived as a woman as Xu Qunshan was as a man. Whereas Xu Qunshan was perceived as an extraordinary man, though, Shan-shan is perceived as an unremarkable woman. People in the hospital view her hairstyle as androgynous, and her style of clothing also seems to be more unisex. This, and her behavior, suggest to me that Shan-shan is not woman gender, but once again a third gender who is seen socially as a woman. Shan-shan still exhibits some parts of Xu Qunshan, more masculine behaviors, but Sun Likun notes that now Shan-shan is a distinctly different person. A la “Legend of White Snake,” Shan-shan shedding the man Xu Qunshan is analogous to male Blue Snake becoming female Blue Snake. Blue Snake’s role as a handmaiden to White Snake is comparable to Shan-shan and Sun Likun’s outward relationship of elder and younger sister.

When the hospital residents strip Shan-shan to see if “she” is a man in disguise, their previous suspicions about a sexual relationship between Shan-shan and Sun Likun evaporate. These women’s social truths about gender are rigid, only allowing for sexual relations between a male man and a female woman. It never occurs to them that Shan-shan is a female man, a female third gender, or even a female woman could have sexual relations with another woman. This idea does not exist in their world view, and so Shan-shan and Sun Likun are left alone to have the sexual relationship no one believes is possible.



Shan-shan was clearly no longer Xu Qunshan. Her hair was still short, her clothing still dark, and she still had that slightly sneering smile. Nevertheless, there was no trace of Xu Qunshan left.27)


“I’ll go back with you part of the way.” “Go back! You have so many guests!” “They’re his guests.”28)


This kind of short hair was now very fashionable; they called it Zhang Yu style.29)


During the time when Shan-shan and Sun Likun were separated as a result of Sun Likun’s official pardon, Shan-shan seems to have transitioned from a third gender to gender woman. Sun Likun notes that the persona of Xu Qunshan is completely gone, and so it seems, all of Shan-shan’s masculine behaviors that were a part of her third gender. She has assumed the gender woman to the degree where she is even marrying a man.

Something that Geling Yan never goes into detail about is Sun Likun and Shan-shan’s choices to marry. For Chinese readers the reasons might be implicit and obvious, but as an American reader, I find myself wondering why, especially in the case of Shan-shan. Sun Likun’s sexual activity with the same sex seems to be entirely situational, while Shan-shan’s attraction to females seems to be more universal (unless one argues that she was only attracted to Sun Likun/White Snake). Also, at the end of the story, Sun Likun mourns the loss of Xu Qunshan, rather than Shan-shan, suggesting that she was still in love with the man.

Several elements might have contributed to Shan-shan’s choice to marry and assume gender “woman.” One might have been Sun Likun’s eminent marriage to her “Xu Xiao” analogue, who would drive White Snake and Blue Snake apart. Another might be the fact that as the Cultural Revolution ended, so did the hierarchical fluidity that allowed her to assume gender man without being questioned. Then, perhaps forced to outwardly demonstrate gender woman, she would have come under pressure by Chinese society and economic concerns to marry.

Shan-shan’s dismissal of her wedding guests as belonging to her husband and her anger at Sun Likun suggest that she still resists the assumption of gender woman. Her fate, however, seems determined. Even her haircut has ceased to be perceived as androgynous. The social truth of Shan-shan’s gender, that she is a woman because she is female, ultimately dominates.


This analysis is not meant to suggest that Xu Qunshan/Shan-shan’s gender transitions categorically follow a linear time-line, but to instead highlight parallels with “Legend of White Snake” and examine the personal/interpersonal, social, and political circumstances that influenced these transitions. Geling Yan does a commendable job of this herself in a less linear fashion, showing mirrors within mirrors in her writing, where the reflections sometimes align and other times do not. Geling Yan’s cathartic story about two people surviving the scars of the Cultural Revolution delves deeper, into many universal assumptions about gender, roles, and sexuality.

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Yan, Geling. White Snake and Other Stories. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999. 24.
Yan 49.
“The Untold Story,” “The Popular Account,” and “The Official Account,” respectively.
Yan 27-28.
Yan 28-29.
Yan 29.
Walker, Lawrence A. 63. [a note by translator Lawrence A. Walker]
Yan 35.
Yan 36.
10) , 12) , 13)
Yan 14.
Yan 13.
Yan 15.
Yan 24-25.
Yan 37.
Yan 40.
Yan 45.
As an aside, I find Geling Yan’s reference to Xu Qunshan’s bicycle very interesting in the context of her earlier reference to the wristwatch. Now we associate Xu Qunshan with two of the three proverbial “things that go round.”
Yan 46.
Yan 47.
Yan 48.
Yan 53.
Yan 51.
Yan 52.
Yan 55.
Yan 60.
28) , 29)
Yan 62.

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