Stories of the Mid-Autumn Festival
Hou Yi and Chang'e While Westerners may talk about the "man in the moon", the Chinese talk about the "woman on the moon". The story of Chang E, and her flight to the moon, is familiar to every Chinese, and a favourite subject of poets. Unlike many lunar deities in other cultures who personify the moon, Chang'e only lives on the moon.
Tradition places Hou Yi and Chang'e around 2170 BC, in the reign of the legendary Emperor Yao, shortly after that of Huang Di. There are so many variations of the Chang'e legend that one can become overwhelmed and utterly confused. However, most legends about Chang'e in Chinese mythology involve some variation of the following elements: Hou Yi, the Archer; Chang'e, the mythical Moon Goddess of Immortality; an emperor, either benevolent or malevolent; an elixir of life; and the Moon.
Hou Yi, the archer
There are at least four variations to this story where Hou Yi was an archer.
Version 1: Hou Yi was himself an immortal, while Chang'e was a beautiful young girl, working in the Jade Emperor's (Emperor of Heaven) Palace as the attendant to the Queen Mother of the West (wife of the Jade Emperor), before her marriage. One day, Yi aroused the jealousy of the other immortals, who then slandered him before the Jade Emperor. Yi and his wife, Chang'e, were subsequently banished from heaven, and forced to live by hunting on earth. He became a famous archer. Now at this time, there were 10 suns that took turns to circle the earth — one every 10 days.
One day, all 10 of the suns circled together, causing the earth to scorch. Emperor Yao, the Emperor of China, commanded Yi to kill all but one of the suns. Upon the completion of his task, the Emperor rewarded Yi with a pill, the elixir of life, and advised him: "Make no haste to swallow this pill, but first prepare yourself with prayer and fasting for a year". Yi took the pill home and hid it under a rafter, while he began healing his spirit. In the midst of this, Yi was summoned again by the emperor. While he was gone, Chang'e noticed a white beam of light beckoning from the rafter and discovered the pill, which she swallowed. Immediately, she found that she could fly. Just at that moment, Yi returned home, and realizing what had happened, began to reprimand her.
Chang'e flew out the window into the sky. With bow in hand, Yi sped after her, and the pursuit continued halfway across the heavens. Finally, Yi had to return to the Earth because of the force of the wind. Chang'e reached the moon, and breathless, she coughed. Part of the pill fell out from her mouth. Now, the hare was already on the moon, and Chang'e commanded the animal to make a pill from it, so that she could return to earth to her husband. As of today, the hare is still pounding.
As for Yi, he built himself a palace in the sun as "Yang" (the male principle), while Chang'e is "Yin" (the female principle). Once a year, on the 15th day of the full moon, Yi visits his wife. That is why the moon is full and beautiful on that night. This description appears in written form in two Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-24 CE) collections; Shanhaijing (Classic of the Mountains and Seas, a book of travels and tales), and Huainanzi (scientific, historical and philosophical articles, named for the Prince of Huai).
Version 2: Another version, very similar to the above story, had it that the Emperor of Heaven, moved by the people’s suffering caused by the 10 scorching suns, sent the archer, Prince Hou Yi, from heaven to help Emperor Yao bring order. Hou Yi, with his wife, Chang'e, descended to earth, carrying a red bow and white arrows given him by the Emperor of Heaven.
Version 3: The earth once had ten suns circling over it, each taking turn to illuminate the earth. One day, however, all ten suns appeared together, scorching the earth with their heat. Hou Yi, a strong and tyrannical archer, saved the earth by shooting down nine of the suns. He eventually became King, but grew to become a despot. One day, Yi stole the elixir of life from a goddess. However, his beautiful wife, Chang'e, drank it in order to save the people from the her husband’s tyrannical rule. After drinking it, she found herself floating, and flew to the moon. Yi loved his divinely beautiful wife so much, he did not shoot down the moon.
Version 4: Another version, however, had it that Chang'e and Hou Yi were immortals living in heaven. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor transformed into ten suns, causing the earth to scorch. Having failed to order his sons to stop ruining the earth, the Jade Emperor summoned Yi for help. Yi, using his legendary archery skills, shot down nine of the sons, but spared one son to be the sun. The Jade Emperor was obviously displeased with Yi’s solution to save the earth. As punishment, he banished Yi and Chang'e to live as mere mortals on earth.
Seeing that Chang'e felt extremely miserable over her loss of immortality, Yi decided to journey on a long, perilous quest to find the pill of immortality so that the couple could be immortals again. At the end of his quest, he met the Queen Mother of the West, who agreed to give him the pill, but warned him that each person would only need half a pill to regain immortality. Yi brought the pill home and stored it in a case. He warned Chang'e not to open the case, and then left home for a while.
Like Pandora in Greek mythology, Chang'e became curious. She opened up the case and found the pill, just as Yi was returning home. Nervous that Yi would catch her, discovering the contents of the case, she accidentally swallowed the entire pill, and started to float into the sky because of the overdose. Although Yi wanted to shoot her in order to prevent her from floating further, he could not bear to aim the arrow at her. Chang'e kept on floating until she landed on the moon. While she became lonely on the moon without her husband, she did have company. A jade rabbit, who manufactured elixirs, also lived on the moon.
Hou Yi, the builder
Hou Yi, a famous builder who built a beautiful jade palace for the Goddess of the Western Heaven (also called the Royal Mother). In appreciation, she gave Yi a special pill that contained the magic elixir of immortality. But with it, came the condition and warning that he may not use the pill until he had accomplished certain self-purification. His wife, Chang'e, was a beautiful but inquisitive woman. One day, she discovered the pill, and without telling her husband, swallowed it. The Goddess was very angry, and as a punishment, banished Chang'e to the moon where, according to the legend, she can be seen at her most beautiful, on the night of the bright harvest moon.
Hou Yi and the sorcerer-chieftain
Chang'e was a village girl who married Hou Yi. Pang Meng, the sorcerer-chieftain, seeing his position threatened, tricked Yi into believing that Chang'e had been unfaithful. Still deeply in love with his wife, Yi fed her the elixir of immortality, and banishes her to the moon. He realized his error, and died gazing at her image in the sky.
Chang'e and the cruel emperor
Many years after she was already the moon goddess, Chang'e looked down upon Earth, and saw that a terribly cruel and tyrannical emperor sat on the throne. To help the people, she allowed herself to be reborn into the mortal world. The other members of her mortal family were either killed or enslaved by the emperor, but Chang'e managed to escape to the countryside.
Meanwhile, the emperor was aging, and obsessed with discovering the elixir of life. He had people all over the land brought to him, and demanded of them to find the elixir of life; nobody knew, of course, but the emperor would not accept ignorance for an answer, and executed all those who could not give him a satisfactory reply. In the countryside, Chang'e met the Goddess of Compassion, Guan Yin, who proceeded to give Chang'e, a small elixir. Chang'e brought the elixir to the emperor, but the suspicious emperor, worrying that it was poison, demanded that Chang'e tasted it first. She did, and showing no ill-effects, the emperor then took the elixir, but promptly died. Chang'e also left the mortal world as the effects of the elixir had only been delayed in her case. Instead of dying, however, she ascended to the moon to retake her place as the moon goddess.
The Hare - Jade Rabbit
According to tradition, the Jade Rabbit pounds medicine, together with the lady, Chang'e, for the gods. Others say that the Jade Rabbit is a shape, assumed by Chang'e herself. You may find that the dark areas to the top of the full moon may be construed as the figure of a rabbit. The animal's ears point to the upper right, while at the left are two large circular areas, representing its head and body. In this legend, three fairy sages transformed themselves into pitiful old men, and begged for food from a fox, a monkey, and a hare. The fox and the monkey both had food to give to the old men, but the hare, empty-handed, jumped into a blazing fire to offer his own flesh instead. The sages were very thankful for the meat and ate it but the sages were so touched by the hare's sacrifice and act of kindness that they let him live in the Moon Palace, where he became the "Jade Rabbit".
Overthrow of Mongol rule
The Mid-Autumn Festival also commemorates an uprising in China against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368) in the early 14th century. As group gatherings were banned, it was impossible to make plans for a rebellion. Noting that the Mongols did not eat mooncakes, Liu Bowen (劉伯溫) of Zhejiang Province, advisor to a Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, came up with the idea of timing the rebellion to coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival. He sought permission to distribute thousands of moon cakes to the Chinese residents in the city to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake, however, was inserted a piece of paper with the message: "Kill the Tatars on the 15th day of the Eighth Moon" (八月十五殺韃子). On the night of the Moon Festival, the rebels successfully attacked and overthrew the government. What followed was the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), under the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang. Henceforth, the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated with moon cakes on a national level.
The Vietnamese version of the holiday recounts the legend of Thằng Cuội, whose banyan trees was uprooted after his wife accidentally urinated on it and took him with it to the moon. Every year, on the mid-autumn festival, children light lanterns to show Cuội the way to Earth.