The most popular myth around the Mid Autumn Festival is the legend of Hou Yi and his wife Chang E. The legend is so prevalent in Chinese culture that it has been adapted for TV shows and contemporary books. The name Chang E has been used for several space probes, including last year’s space mission to land on the far side of the moon.
There are many variations of the legend behind the Mooncake Festival, but all have the same elements. There is the man, Hou Yi who saves the earth from burning under ten suns; his wife Chang E, who is a beautiful woman; and an elixir of life which ultimately results in Chang E floating up to the moon. The main variations within the legend revolve around Hou Yi, who is either a kind or a despot ruler, and/or Chang E, who drinks the elixir of life either to save her life or out of greed.
Hou Yi was an immortal being who is renowned in heaven for his archery skills. One day, the sons of the Jade Emperor decided to have some fun and became ten suns which tortured the people and life on earth. The Jade Emperor called on Hou Yi to teach them a lesson but was displeased when his solution was to kill nine of his sons. As a punishment, he took away Hou Yi and Chang E’s immortality and cast them to the mortal world.
Chang E especially missed the loss of her home in heaven so to make her happy again, Hou Yi sought out the Western Queen Mother to gain the elixir of life. The Western Queen Mother tells him that drinking half of the potion will grant eternal life but drinking all will turn the person into an immortal.
When he returned, Chang E was thrilled and could not wait until Hou Yi was rested to drink the potion together. When she peeked into the box where Hou Yi stored the elixir, she couldn’t help herself and drank the whole bottle. However, she was still banished from heaven and could not remain on earth, so the moon was her only option.
In this telling, Chang E was a beautiful young woman who served in the Jade Emperor’s palace in heaven. One day, she made a terrible mistake and broke a precious jar. To punish her, the Jade Emperor took away her immortality and cast her to earth to be the daughter of a farming family.
Hou Yi is also a simple commoner but becomes famous after shooting down the nine burning suns and saving the planet. Hou Yi becomes king and marries Chang E. However; he becomes a cruel ruler and orders for the elixir of life to be made for him so that he can remain in power forever.
Chang E found the elixir, which was in a pill form in this version of the story, just before it was ready. These stories are not clear if Chang E drank the elixir on purpose or by accident. Either way, when Hou Yi found out what she had done, he ran after her in a rage. As she ran away, she began to float away towards the sky. Although Hou Yi tried to shoot her with his arrows, she escaped to the moon.
Some endings to this version describe Chang E as being turned into a three-legged toad. It was her punishment for stealing the elixir of life, whether her intentions were good or not. During the Mooncake festival, it is said that you will be able to see the shape of the toad on the moon.
The third version of this story combines elements of the other two. Hou Yi received the elixir of life from the Western Queen Mother as a reward for saving the planet from the ten suns. The elixir was only enough for one person so Hou Yi was unsure what to do because it meant he would have to live without his beloved Chang E. He hid the elixir away while he decided what to do.
Within this version, there are some variations. One telling introduces the character Feng Meng, who studied under Hou Yi. Chang E drinks the potion to escape him when he threatens her because he wants the immortality for himself.
The other variation presents Chang E as a curious and nosy woman, who found the elixir by accident and drank it without knowing what it did. Hou Yi became angry when he realized what she had done. When she began to float away, he shot at her with his arrows. However, unlike the other legends, Hou Yi came to forgive Chang E. He missed her very much so he put out offerings of food and drink so that she could see that he was no longer angry with her.
The tale of the Jade Rabbit and Wu Gang are two stories that are often associated with Chang E and the Mid Autumn Festival. As the legend4 goes, the Jade Rabbit was rewarded with immortality and sent to the moon after showing his selflessness. The reason that the Jade Emperor turned into a beggar is because he was looking for an animal he could trust to produce the elixir of life. The Emperor did not trust any human with the knowledge of the recipe. That is why the shape of the Jade Rabbit on the moon looks like he has a mortar and pestle. Some stories say that he is making the medicine for Chang E, while others claim he is making the elixir for other immortals.
Finally, the legend of Wu Gang5 tells a cautionary tale. Wu Gang lived thousands of years ago and desired to be an immortal. After gaining immortality, he made a mistake and as punishment, he was sent to the Moon Palace to chop down a laurel tree (this is a short tree that is also known as the plant that produces bay leaves used for cooking). Chopping down the laurel tree was a common punishment for wrongdoing immortals. However, since it was a magical tree, it grew back every time. Wu Gang is doomed forever to this task. The dark shadow you see sometimes see on the moon is said to be Wu Gang.
Seeing shapes on the moon surface,6 like the Jade Rabbit, Moon Toad or Wu Gang, is not unique to Chinese folklore. In Japan and Korea, people tell a story of a rabbit that is pounding rice cakes. Native American and Mesoamerican folklore also have stories about how a rabbit gets to the moon. Meanwhile, people in the US, Europe and New Zealand have stories of seeing a face, man or woman.
What will you see this Mid Autumn Festival when you look up at the moon?
I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.
I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!