Chang’e & Hou Yi
She loved him but to protect him, she had to spend her days alone and in solitude as The Lady of the Moon.
I’ll love you to the moon and back.
The Lady of the Moon is an older story which exists in many formats as one of the origins of the Chinese mid-autumn festival known as the Mooncake festival. Scholars believe the origins of the festival date back at least two thousand years, with this particular story coming from the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and even as far back as the time of Emperor Yao (2346 BCE).
There is no one consistent story with clear origins, but that is the beauty of folklore. One of the older mentions of this story comes from the Guicang, Return to the Hidden, a divination text from the Zhou dynasty. It was found in a bog in 1993 after being lost for two thousand years. There are sixty-four hexagrams with a story on each of them. Hexagram 54 is the Returning Maiden story of how Chang’e stole the elixir of immortality from Xi Wangmu and used the hexagrams to determine that she needed to flee to the Moon.
Hou Yi and the Ten Suns
Once, there was a famed archer called Hou Yi and his beautiful wife, Chang’e. They lived a happy life until one day, ten suns appeared in the sky at the same time. Usually, the ten suns crossed the sky one by one. Some said the suns were creations of the Gods and others argued that they were the mischievous sons of the Jade emperor.
They were powerful and bright- ten orbs of relentless heat that dried up the rivers, destroyed crops and burnt people. Depending on the version, either the Gods called upon Hou Yi to shoot them down, or his people begged him to do something.
Faithfully, Hou Yi listened and tried begging the suns, threatening them and eventually, he shot down all but one of them. As the Suns fell, each turned into a three-legged raven. Happy with his intervention, the Gods rewarded him with a potion of immortality. However, not wanting to leave his wife, he hid the elixir and continued living his life.
The Lady of the Moon
This next part is widely contested. In some versions of this tale, Chang’e waited till her husband was gone before stealing the elixir and drinking it. As punishment, the Gods exiled her to the Moon to live out her life in solitude.
In another version, Hou Yi’s nemesis, Fengmeng, breaks into their house while Houyi is away, and Chang’e drinks the elixir to stop him from having it.
Still, another version has Hou Yi becoming a cruel tyrant who procured the elixir for nefarious reasons. Chang’e drank the potion to stop her husband from being a tyrant- forever.
Regardless of what happens, Chang’e is trapped on the Moon by herself. Eventually, the Gods allowed her pet rabbit to join her and her husband grew to forgive her. In one story, the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise gives him a cake that lets him withstand the heat of the sun and sends him to the last Sun. While more common stories say that he began putting out moon cakes for her, and this tradition ended up being the origin of the mid-autumn festival in China.
In The Chinese Fairy Book, edited by R. Wilhelm, the story continues when a Tang dynasty Emperor hosted a dinner with two sorcerers. One of the sorcerers took his bamboo staff and threw it into the air, where it transformed before their eyes into a heavenly bridge. Astonished, the three men climbed up and were amazed to see it led them to the Moon. They made their way to a magnificent castle called “The Spreading Halls of Crystal Cold.” Next to the sign was a massive cassia tree in full bloom. They were surprised to hear a sound and looked over to see a man hacking at the tree. So much for solitude.
A still from “Palace of Eternal Life.” /National Peking Opera Company
The Man on the Moon
The Sorcerer that had made the bridge told them that this was the man of the Moon, Wu Kang. He had to cut down the tree once every thousand years, otherwise, it would grow so big that it would overshadow the Moon.
The man paid no attention to the visitors, so they continued into the grand palace.
The Lady of the Moon came to greet them in a rainbow gown. She welcomed them with her attendants, all of whom flew down on white birds. Everyone sang and danced under the Cassia tree until they couldn’t dance anymore. Next to them, a jasper rabbit was grounding herbs in the dark.
Afterwards, the three men made their way home.
Image from The Chinese Fairy Book, edited by R. Wilhelm
Anytime you look at the full Moon, you can still see the outline of the rabbit and his mortar.
As we discussed earlier, when you look at the full Moon it almost looks like a rabbit is using a mortar on it. This was a common interpretation for Chinese and other East Asian cultures. But unsurprisingly, that is not the only pattern or symbols people have seen on the full Moon. For example, many European cultures see a man carrying a bundle of sticks. In India, it is a set of hand prints left by Astangi Mata, the mother of all living things, as she said farewell to her child Chanda. According to Hawaiian folklore, you can see a tree on the Moon. New Zealand stories talk of a banished Maori maiden. Lastly, of course, there is also the common idea of the man on the moon.
On the podcast episode, I mentioned that I had once heard that Jack and Jill from the nursery rhyme went to the Moon. After some looking, it seems that the story is related to the Gylfaginning, which is part of the 13th-century Icelandic Prose-Edda. This story features two siblings that are taken to the Moon while fetching some water. To read more about moon faces, click the following link to National Geographic.
Modern Lady of the Moon
The rise of fantasy novels from all over East and South-East Asia has released a trove of folklore and fairy tales from these regions into general knowledge. Last year I read a book called Burning Roses by S. L. Huang which featured Hou Yi, but I never made the connection to the story of Chang’e. Burning Roses is also listed as one of our LGBTQ picks!
Recently, I’ve read Sue Lynn Tan’s Daughter of the Moon Goddess which is book one of the Celestial Kingdom Duology. The story gives yet another reason for Chang’e taking the elixir of immortality- she was pregnant! The protagonist of the story is Xingyin, and she is forced to leave their castle on the Moon and work in the Celestial Kingdom to find a way to free her mother from banishment. Tan’s second book in the duology, Heart of the Sun Warrior, came out recently!
Emily R. X. Pan’s An Arrow to the Moon takes a modern approach with Hunter Yee and Luna Chang as high school students. I have not personally read Pan’s book yet, but it is on my TBR!
TV and Movies
Another prominent showcase of the Chang’e legend is in a more modern take of the story in Netflix’s “Over the Moon.” This was made in association with Chinese studios, PearlStudios. The story is based on a young Chinese girl named Fei Fei and her grief around her mother’s death. After hearing about her father’s remarriage, she decides to build a rocket to the moon to prove that Chang’e is real. Now, Chang’e was an interesting character. Earlier in the movie, we have a lovely animation that resembles ink on paper of Houyi and Chang’e’s legend as told by her parents. There are backup dancers, the jade rabbit, giant toads, a secret gift and so much more. Overall, it was very enjoyable to watch!
To hear a more in-depth review of the movie, check out author Xiran Jay Zhao’s youtube video on the cultural depictions!
Finally, Chang’e and Houyi both have representation in video games. In the SMITE game series, both Chang’e and Houyi are playable gods. They also appear on Legacy of the Lunatic Kingdom and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.
The Elixir of Life
They say that there are always two things you can count on in life: death and taxes. And for as long as humans have been around, they have been trying to avoid these things. That is why there are so many tax evasion laws and why the USA loses nearly $190 billion a year due to tax evasion. On the other hand, people avoiding death have helped push science and improve medicine like never before. Despite this, one of life’s greatest mysteries will always be death. Whether you look for a fountain of youth, a philosopher stone or an elixir of life, immortality always has a price.
Elixir of life and philosopher stones are fascinating ideas because not only does that mean there is a way to immortality, but the implication is that it is a creation. Not merely granted by deities or found by chance like the fountain of youth, but something that could be made and possibly shared. Of course, in stories these items are usually related to a McMuffin, the item that everyone’s chasing after to drive the plot forward. But in history, we can see this was a real pursuit with deadly consequences. There is a long history of people trying to create these elixirs, which often resulted in people ingesting various toxins, and oh boy- did that ever backfire.
Dragon and Rabbit making the elixir of immortality. An 18th-century embroidered Chinese emperor’s robe. Reproduced in: Anthony Christie, “Chinese Mythology”, 1983, p. 63
The Mid-Autumn Festival
The Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Mooncake Festival, is a popular festival held all over Asia, but today we will focus on the Chinese celebrations. It is a lunar festival, so it is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar for the moon to be at its brightest. According to our story, Hou Yi chose this day to gift his wife, Chang’e moon cakes as it was when he could see the moon at its brightest. If some extra legends are to be taken into account, it is also when he is allowed to go and see her, but these tales seem to be confusing the story of Chang’e with “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” where they are banished to opposite sides of the heavenly river (aka the milky way) and only see each other once a year.
History of the festival
The Mid-autumn Festival has been celebrated in some capacity in China since the Shang dynasty, but the festivals gained traction during the Tang Dynasty. The added part of the “Tang Emperor and the Two Sorcerers” told at the end of our tale is often used as a reason for the festival’s popularity with legends adding that on his return from the moon palace, the Tang emperor began holding festivals for the lonely moon goddess.
There are many ways to celebrate the Mooncake Festival, and different regions have different traditions so we will focus on just a few, like lanterns, mooncakes, and family time! Lanterns and lantern riddles are popular when families all gather, and celebrate with moon cakes. Moon cakes are round pastries often filled with egg yolk, bean paste or other fillings. During this time, young girls will ask Chang’e to grant them their romantic wishes, and couples will confess their feelings to one another.
When I hear about Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, I never hear about him meeting the Moon Lady and her bunny. Of course, the reality is that space is super deadly and constantly trying to kill us squishy life forms. But that doesn’t stop people from wondering what it would be like.
A wide range of stories from all over the world speculates what kind of life could be on the moon. The series, Sailor Moon, has the titular character of the moon princess who was sent away to earth for her safety. Dante’s The Divine Comedy describes the moon people as ghosts who are so pale that they are mistaken for a shadow.
But ever since humans landed on the moon and found no intelligent life, more stories on the moon have involved the idea of humans colonizing it. Science Fiction fills in the gaps where fantasy fails! Andy Weir’s Artemis explores many of the ideas and logistics of human life on a moon city!