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Unraveling the myths and charms of snakes

Updated: 2013-02-06 09:59

Snake literature

"Draw a snake and add feet to it" is a set phrase, coming from Intrigues of the Warring States. It means to be superfluous or try to be smart but end up making a fool of oneself. Long ago, the story goes, there was a man called Zhang San. He often tried to show off his skills. Once, his friends bring a pot of wine for him. "Come one, I have got a pot of wine here, let us share it together," said Zhang. "It is such a small pot, if each of us just drinks a little bit, no one would feel gratified. I suggest we solve this by doing a little game, each of us draws a piece from the ground, and whoever completes the picture first has the pot of wine," one of his friends said. Thus, everyone picks a branch and starts drawing. With a few strokes, Zhang San completes the picture. He takes a look at his friends, and finds there is still time. "I'd give it a few more touches," he thinks. Thus, he draws four feet under the snack. "I've done, this pot of wine belongs to me," said one of his friends. "You are wrong, the pot of wine is mine, and I've completed my picture much earlier. Look here," debates Zhang. All of them come over and look at his picture. "What's this? It doesn't like a snake or a dragon. Is it a monster?" "It's a snake, only I added four feet to it." All his friends laugh, "you are supposed to draw a snake, but why you add feet to it? It's superfluous."

The Snake Hunter written by Liu Zongyuan tells a story of a labor's tragic life.

In the wild of the State of Yong, there lives an unusual species of snake, its skin patterned with white bands over a black background. It is so poisonous that it kills the plants when it crawls across them and its bite on humans is fatal. However, if caught and dried, it can be used as a medicine-efficacy enhancement, able to cure leprosy, poliomyelitis, fistulas, ulcers, myonecrosis, and remove parasites from inside human bodies. In the early days, under the emperor's edict, the imperial doctors enlisted people to capture two snakes a year in exchange for tax payment. This enticement engaged the interest of the entire state.

There is a man whose surname is Jiang. His family enjoyed this privilege for three generations. When asked, he told me with deep grief, "My grandfather was killed by a snake, and so was my father. I myself have been engaged as a snake catcher for twelve years and might have been killed many a time." I sympathized with him, saying, "Are you complaining about this work? I shall ask the official in charge to transfer you to your former work and renew the taxation on you. How would you like that?"

My words threw him into great agony. He burst into tears and said, "Do you pity me and want me to live on? But the misery I am suffering now is not at all worse than what I suffered before. If I had not taken this work, I would be in desperate straits. Three generations of my family have been living here for sixty years. Our neighbors are growing poorer day by day. In order to pay the taxes, they are compelled to hand over all the produce of their land and all the possessions in their house. They shuffle from village to village, wailing in distress, and many of them die of hunger along the way. They are beaten by wind and rain, suffering freezing cold in winter and scorching heat in summer. What's more, they have to inhale the pernicious air of deceased districts. In this way, people are dying one after another, and their dead bodies are piling up. Out of ten families that were my grandfather's neighbors, only one has survived, and out of ten families that were my father's neighbors, only two or three remain. As for the neighbors who have been living near me for the past twelve years, only four or five out of ten families have survived. Most of them are dead or have moved to other places. I luckily remain alive simply because I am a snake catcher. Whenever the relentless officers come to the village, they make a row and bully the people. The village people scream with terror. Even fowls and dogs are not left in peace. I get out of bed with fear and look into the jar. To my relief the snakes are still there. Then my mind is at ease and I return to bed. I feed the snakes with great care and deliver them to the authorities in time. Back at home, I eat the produce of the land so that I may live on till my death. I risk my life only twice a year. The rest of the time, I spend my days quite happily, unlike other village people whose lives are constantly threatened. Even if I were killed by a snake today, I would still have lived longer than my neighbors. Why should I complain?"

I feel all the more depressed upon hearing his story. I was once disbelieving of Confucius's words: "Tyrannical rule is more ferocious than a tiger." From Jiang's example I have come to realize that this saying is true. Alas! Who could have known that oppressive taxation is worse than venomous snakes? Hence I write down this story for those who are making investigations relating to the life of the common people.

Bencao Gangmu, also known as the Compendium of Materia Medica, is Chinese medical material written by Li Shizhen in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is a work epitomizing medical material in the Ming Dynasty. The Bencao Gangmu is regarded as the most complete and comprehensive medical book ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. It lists all the plants, animals, minerals, and other items that were believed to have medicinal properties.

Li Shizhen describes snake in his Compendium of Materia Medica as a medicine that can cure bad cold, leprosy, poliomyelitis, fistulas, ulcers, myonecrosis, and remove parasites from inside human bodies.

Bi She is a small poem written by Zheng Banqiao in painting and calligraphy. It describes a kind of snake, Bi She, living in Guangdong and Guangxi province, likes to compare height with humans, if it wins, it can bite humans, if loses, it would die directly.

Cui She is another small poem of Zheng Banqiao, It describes Cui She, a non-toxic kind of snake which breaks and grows easily and has curing properties.