Monday is a public holiday- and a much needed break from the insane traffic- as the country marks the Mid-Autumn festival. There’s been abundance of mooncakes in the supermarkets aisle and special offers. The presence of mooncakes might be easily explained by learning some background on the festival itself. The Chinese have three stories that they use to explain to younger children the origins of 中秋节 Zhongqiu Jie (Mid-Autumn Festival), which are Chang’e and Hou Yi, The Jade Rabbit and Wu Gang and the Cherry Bay.
Chang’e and Hou Yi is the most common story about a local archer and his wife’s ultimate sacrifice. The Jade Rabbit is a continuation of the Chang’e and Hou Yi folklore which gives a background look at the afterlife of the couple. Wu Chang and the Cherry Bay is totally a different story and does try to explain the festival in a different light.
Chang’e and Hou Yi
It is said that long ago there used to be 10 suns in the sky. Each day, one of the suns would travel around the sky on a carriage driven by Xihe, the mother of the suns. One day, unexpectedly, all 10 suns simultaneously appeared in the sky, which instantly dried the crops and caused disaster to the people on earth.
Hou Yi, a local archer, felt a great sympathy for the people’s sufferings from the blistering weather and decided to help them. Hou Yi climbed up to the summit of Kunlun Mountains and shot down the suns leaving only one to be used to benefit the people. After he shot down the sun, Hou Yi became a hero who was revered by local people.
Later, Hou Yi married a beautiful girl—Chang’e. The young couple lived a happy and sweet life.
Hou Yi was so famous for his perfect archery skills that he had a lot of apprentices, including the unrighteous Peng Meng. One day when Hou Yi was on his way to visit his friend, the Queen Mother of the West gave him an elixir of immortality as a reward for his heroic undertaking. Although, she warned Hou Yi “Do not take this elixir before preparing yourself with prayer and fasting for a year”. Hou Yi gave the elixir to Chang’e for safekeeping, which she took as a treasure and hid it in her jewelry box. Unfortunately, Peng Meng found this secret and made a plan to steal it.
Several days later, when Hou Yi and other apprentices went out hunting, Peng pretended to fall ill and stayed at home. After they left, Peng forced Chang’e to give him the elixir. Chang’e, knowing that she could not defeat Peng, swallowed the elixir herself, and immediately she felt herself begin to float up to the sky. With deep love for her husband, Chang’e chose to be an immortal on the moon, closest to the earth; this way she could see her husband every day.
In the late afternoon, Hou Yi came back and was told what had happened. Heart-stricken, Hou Yi went to the back garden and called his wife’s name ceaselessly. Surprisingly, he found that the moon was extremely clean and bright that night; and that there was a moving figure that resembled Chang’e on the moon. Hou Yi desperately tried to catch up with the moon, but he could not do it.
Hou Yi then asked servants to set a table in his back garden with his wife’s favorite snacks and fruits on it. Within a short time, more and more people heard about the news that Chang’e had become an immortal, and they also put tables under the moon to pray to Chang’e for good fortune and safety. From then on, the custom of worshipping the moon on the Mid-Autumn Festival began to spread in China.
The Jade Rabbit
This legend is considered to be an extension of Chang’e Flying to the Moon. It tells about three sages who transformed themselves into pitiful old men. One day they met a fox, a monkey and a rabbit, and they begged for food. The fox and the monkey shared their food with the old men; but the rabbit, with nothing to share, jumped into a blazing fire to offer his own flesh instead. The sages were so touched by the rabbit’s kindness that they sent it to live in the Moon Palace, where it became the Jade Rabbit. Chang’e, who lived alone after arriving in the moon, liked the Jade Rabbit at the first sight, and therefore kept it company. As time went on by, Chang’e and Jade Rabbit became inseparable friends.
Hearing about the story of Chang’e and Hou Yi, the Jade Rabbit felt sympathetic to them and decided to make a special heavenly medicine, which could help Chang’e return to Earth. Unfortunately, the Jade Rabbit has still not been able to make it even though he has worked hard for thousands of years. Observing the moon on the Mid-Autumn Day carefully, we can still see the Jade Rabbit making his heavenly medicine.
Wu Gang and the Cherry Bay
Wu Gang was a woodchopper. He always wanted to become an immortal, but he never tried his best to learn the necessary theurgy. The Jade Emperor got angry with him because of his attitude. In order to punish him, the Jade Emperor planted a huge cherry bay, which was 1665 meters (5460 ft) high, on the moon and ordered Wu Gang to chop it down, then Wu Gang could become an immortal.
This time, Wu Gang was very serious, but he could never finish his work. The cherry bay healed every time that Wu Gang chopped it. Wu Gang wouldn’t give up. He tried time and time again.
On unclouded nights people can see some obvious shadows on the moon. They are made by the huge cherry bay.
A version of this post appeared on September 21, 2013 on here.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons