The Snake was called the Little Dragon by the ancient people, and the skin it shed was called the Dragon skin. It's said that the Snake wakes up from its long hibernation and creeps out of its den on the third day of the third month of the Chinese lunar calendar; therefore, that day is known as "the Dragon Head Raising Day".
Differences Between Snakes and Dragons in Chinese Culture
The Snake and the Dragon are very different in their symbolic cultural meanings, although the former was often compared to the latter by the ancient people.
In fact, the Dragon doesn't exist in nature. The Dragon was created by the imaginations of the ancient people based on the Snake, and it symbolizes power, nobleness, and greatness. It's very common for people to see snakes, and some of them are very poisonous, resulting in them leaving a bad impression on people.
Symbolizing Sinisterness and Indifference
The first negative symbolic cultural meaning of the Snake is its sinisterness and indifference. The Snake is a cold–blooded creature without a vocal cord, so humans can barely hear its sound although it hisses, reinforcing their prejudice about its indifference.
Women who are beautiful in appearance but crafty and ruthless in their heart are called "beautiful Snakes", and they are very popular in detective fictions.
The second negative symbolic cultural meaning of the Snake is its mysteriousness. The Snake can creep without feet, it approaches without casting a shadow, and it leaves without leaving a trace; therefore, it's rather mysterious to humans.
The ancient people worshiped the Snake as a god due to its mysteriousness. They were powerless to the threat of the Snake and therefore offered sacrifices to curry favor with it and pray for its blessing.
In addition, various kinds of taboos about the Snake have developed among different ethnic groups in China due to the mysteriousness of snakes.
A symbolic cultural meaning of the Snake is craftiness, with its origin in the Bible.
According to the Bible, the Snake is the craftiest of all the creatures created by God. The Snake lured Eve into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, known as "original sin" and "the fall of man", for which Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden by God, to live a life of trials on a cursed earth.
The Snake, representing the devil, was also punished by God, and it has to go about on its belly and eat dust throughout its life. It has become the enemy of human beings ever since. The prophesy of the Snake biting man's heel, but man crushing the Snake's head, is taken to refer to Jesus Christ's victory over the devil (and sin) on the cross.
As a result, most symbolic meanings of the Snake are in a derogatory sense, both in traditional Chinese culture and Western culture. However, it's not always the case, and some symbolic meanings of the Snake are commendatory.
Symbolizing Luck and Authority
The first positive symbolic cultural meaning of the Snake is luck and authority. Snakes are divided into house snakes and wild snakes, with house snakes being considered lucky.
The Snake also symbolizes the state authority; therefore, the ancient envoys usually carried a scepter with two snakes carved on its surface when they were sent on diplomatic missions to other countries by the king.
Symbolizing the Pursuit of Love and Happiness
The second positive symbolic cultural meaning of the Snake is the pursuit of love and happiness, which is fully demonstrated in The Tale of the White Snake.
The tale happened during the reign of Emperor Shaoxing (1131–1162) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). A white snake transformed itself into a beautiful woman (named Bai Suzhen) after cultivating itself for over 1,000 years, according to the religious doctrine, and she fell in love with Xu Xian and eventually married him. It has become a romantic love story that is now passed down from one generation to another.
Symbolizing Longevity and Fortune
The third positive symbolic cultural meaning of the Snake is longevity and fortune. The Snake is considered to be as longevous as the Turtle in traditional Chinese culture.
According to the Taoist theory, there is a kind of force in the human body which coils itself like a snake and can be released if humans practice Taoism well. It will increase the vitality and longevity of humans.
The Snake is also the symbol of fortune. According to the ancient legends, the Snake has its own underground kingdom with numerous precious treasures, and those who are eager to make a great fortune should pray piously in the temple of the Snake.