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Great snakes!

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-02-04 19:22

All right: Nuwa, the Chinese goddess who mended the broken sky, has a human head and a snake body. And in Journey to the West, a.k.a. The Monkey King, there is a nine-headed snake, which surely gave the CGI artists a field day.

While overwhelmingly repulsed by the snake, Chinese sentiments for the 2013 zodiac animal can be more complex, varying with time and locality. In Fujian province, the snake is held in a god-like position. It is not to be killed if found in a home, but removed gently into the wild. It is definitely not to be eaten as food. Some say they love the tickling of a python slithering around their body. At a mid-year festival, a parade is organised in which every participant holds a snake, which is supposed to bring them peace and harmony.

A branch of ethnic Li in Hainan province regards the snake as their ancestor. There are several folk tales of humans and snakes marrying each other. If a snake is found near a tomb, it is considered the apparition of the dead person. In Guizhou province, the Dong ethnic costume features myriad snake motifs, and they even motion like a snake during a prayer ritual.

These are a few examples of pagan worship for the snake that remain after thousands of years of demonising it with a glossy veneer of civilisation. In many cases, the snake either morphed into the more auspicious dragon or simply became an embodiment of malice and immorality.

One ambiguous similarity remains between East and West, though. The snake is a symbol of sexual passion in some cultures. In China, snake wine, made by infusing whole snakes in grain alcohol, is believed to have rejuvenating or even aphrodisiac power. It could be that the sinuous movements of the cold-blooded vertebrate conjure up the act of sex, which is handy in a nation of florid metaphors.

Great snakes!

Standing debate 

As a gourmet dish, the snake is much valued in the Middle Kingdom, especially in southern China. For those who believe in traditional Chinese medicine, each part of the snake is a “treasure”, so to speak. Snake bile is said to be a remedy for many ailments, including rheumatism. Its venom is made into drugs for pain, poison and blood clots.

But Cantonese people eat snakes mostly for their taste. There is a famous dish called “Dragon and Tiger in Battle”. It’s actually a snake and a cat cooked but preserved as they were in life. I’ve heard stories that it was served to distinguished guests from Western countries, who, upon taking one look at it, promptly fainted.

A decade ago, there was a theme park in a suburb of Guangzhou that was devoted to snakes. It was a zoo full of all kinds of snake species. As a publicity stunt, the owner put his daughter, probably a snake charmer, into a cage with hundreds of snakes, where she stayed for so long it broke the Guinness Record — or so it was claimed.

Afterwards, a group of local celebrities were invited to a banquet, where a dozen courses were served, each one a dish of snakes but cooked in different ways.

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