Chinese Stories/Houyi and Chang'e

Look into any good Chinese calendar and you will find that one of the days is called Mid-Autumn Festival. As you may know already, there are three myths regarding this festival. We will talk about them in the three consecutive chapters.



According to legend, Chang'e and her husband Houyi 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 Houyi for help. Houyi, using his legendary archery skills, shot down nine of the sons, but spared one son to be the sun. The Jade Emperor was obviously not pleased with Houyi's solution to save the earth: nine of his sons were dead. As punishment, the Jade Emperor banished Houyi and Chang'e to live as mere mortals on earth.

Seeing that Chang'e felt extremely miserable over her loss of immortality, Houyi 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 rewarded him with a pill for his heroic deeds of saving the realm from the scorching suns, but warned him that each person would only need half the pill to become immortal.

Houyi 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 too curious; she opened up the case and found the pill just as Houyi was returning home. Nervous that Houyi would catch her discovering the contents of the case, she accidentally swallowed the entire pill. She started to float into the sky because of the overdose. Although Houyi wanted to shoot her down 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. There is also another version, where someone wanted to steal the pills. Chang'e could not bear for another being to eat the pills, and she swallowed it. She floated away from Houyi to the moon.

While she became lonely on the moon without her husband, she did have company. A jade rabbit, who manufactured elixirs, as well as the woodcutter Wu Gang, also lived on the moon.

In another version of the story, Xi Wang Mu (Queen Mother of West) had given Hou Yi just enough immortal elixir for one person, and he did not wish to be immortal if his wife could not live at his side for eternity. Ultimately, Hou Yi decided to remain mortal and hide the elixir under his bed. Chang’e soon found the elixir under their bed and drank it to the last drop without knowing what it is while her husband was out for hunting . After coming back from the hunt, Hou Yi found her drifting into the night sky after realizing that his wife consumed the immortal elixir.

Hou Yi was so angry that he grabbed his bow and tried to shoot Chang’e down; but he missed every shot. As time went by, Hou Yi’s anger subsided and he began to miss his wife. He would often stare up at the moon and think about how lonely Chang’e must be. In the hopes that it might make Chang’e feel less alone (and to show that he was no longer mad at her), Hou Yi started leaving her favorite desserts and fruits out every night. He continued this practice until the day he died. This tradition continues today, as many people leave annual offerings to Chang’e during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Cultural symbol


This story was adapted in 2003 into a Chinese TV period drama titled Moon Fairy, starring Singapore actors Fann Wong and Christopher Lee. Chang'e appears in Wu Cheng'en's novel Journey to the West and also in TV adaptations of the novel. Her story was slightly changed in that she did not go to the moon on her first try but went to the heavens instead. She would later be rewarded by being allowed to live on the moon after an incident which involved her and Zhu Bajie. China's chairman, Mao Zedong, mentions Chang'e in his most famous poem, about his murdered wife Yang Kaihui. The legend of Lady Chang-O plays a prominent role in Amy Tan's children's book, The Moon Lady, retold from her more adult novel The Joy Luck Club.

The moon goddess was mentioned in the conversation between Houston Capcom and Apollo 11 crew just before the first moon landing:

Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning there's one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill for immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is only standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not recorded.

Collins: Okay, we'll keep a close eye for the bunny girl.

In 2007, China launched its first lunar probe, named Chang'e 1 (Chinese: 嫦娥一号; pinyin: Cháng'é Yī Hào) in the goddess's honor.