“May we live long and share the beauty of the moon together, even if we are hundreds of miles apart.”
This line from a famous Song dynasty poem written by Su Shi, better known as Su Dongpo, perhaps best captures the spirit of the Mid-Autumn Festival (August-September). An age-old event with roots in both Chinese and Vietnamese cultures.
Love stories have a special place in my heart. If they are tragic, they become unforgetable, because who remembers the ordinary if not with a tinge of sorrow, sadness, regret and forever-ness to the lives of star-cross lovers.
Such is the story of Chang E – The Chinese Goddess of the Moon as the most widely accepted tale regarding the moon and the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
As with every Chinese festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival has its own special food – Moon Cake. A kind of cookie with various fillings and different artistic patterns on the surface depicting the legends of the festival. Generally, it is round, as the Mid- Autumn Festival is a time for family reunion, and “round” has a similar pronunciation with “reunion” in Chinese. During the festival, people sacrifice these cookies to the moon as offerings, eat them for celebration and present them to relatives and friends for good wishes. Accounts of the origin of the mooncake are many and vary. Historians generally agree that they first appeared during the Tang dynasty (618–907), but one particularly patriotic legend has it that during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Han revolutionaries smuggled messages inside mooncakes to orchestrate an uprising against Mongolian.
Intrigued and curious, I set out to ask some of my Chinese friends on how did the Mooncake come to be. Most surprisingly, many did not know the whole story correctly, so I set about to find out myself.
Three popular Chinese legends prevail (mentioned here), though there are six other legends also passed down as stories. Do read.
Legend 1. Chang’e and Hou Yi — Love Story of a Beautiful Lady and a Hero
Hou Yi (/ho ee/) was an excellent archer. Chang’e (/chung-er/) was his wife. Long, long ago, there were 10 suns in the sky. The suns burnt all the plants on Earth. People were dying. One day Hou Yi decided. He used his bow and arrows to shoot down nine of the suns. All the people on Earth were saved. The Queen Mother of the West gave Hou Yi a bottle of elixir that could make him immortal. But the elixir was only for one person. Although Hou Yi did want to become immortal, he wanted to stay with Chang’e. Therefore, he didn’t drink the elixir and asked Chang’e to keep it safe for him. Hou Yi became more and more famous after he had shot down the nine suns. People wanted him to be their master. Most of them were accepted by Hou Yi as his students. However, not every student had a good moral conscious. Pang Meng, one such student wanted to seize the elixir for himself.
One day, Hou Yi went hunting with his students, but Pang Meng (/pung mnng/) pretended to be ill and stayed at home. After making sure Hou Yi had gone, he went to his teacher’s house and tried to force Chang’e to give him the elixir. Chang’e knew she couldn’t defeat Pang Meng, so she drank the elixir immediately. The elixir made her fly higher and higher into the sky. Chang E’s great love for her husband drew her towards the Moon, which is the nearest place to the Earth in the heavens. She became a goddess, an immortal.
On realizing what happened to his wife, Hou Yi was so grieved that he shouted Chang E’s name to the sky. He was amazed to see a figure which looked just like his wife appear in the Moon. He came back home and moved a table under the moon as an altar to his wife, preparing some of her favourite foods as a sacrifice. He hoped Chang’e could come back to stay with him.
After hearing that Chang E had become a goddess, the folk people of her village also offered sacrifices to Chang E to pray for peace and good luck. Since then, the custom of sacrificing to the moon has been widespread amongst the folklore. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival when the moon is very bright, children try their best to find the shape of Chang’e on the moon, and offer her mooncakes.
Legend 2. Wu Gang Chopping the Cherry Bay — He Could Never Cut It Down
Wu Gang (/woo gung/) was an ordinary person who wanted to become immortal but didn’t work very hard, and never tried his best to learn the necessary theurgy.
The Emperor of Heaven got angry with him because of his attitude. In order to punish him, the Emperor of Heaven planted a huge cherry bay tree on the moon which was 1,665 meters (5,460 feet) high, and ordered Wu Gang to cut it down. If Wu Gang could cut it down, he could become immortal.
This time, Wu Gang was very serious and worked hard on chopping down the tree. But, he could never finish his work because the cherry bay was healed every time Wu Gang chopped at it. Wu Gang wouldn’t give up. He tried time and time again, and is believed to be still trying till date. On clear nights, people can see an obvious shadow on the moon, which is believed to be the huge cherry bay.
Legend 3. The Jade Rabbit — Self-Sacrifice Rewarded
The jade rabbit is also a widespread character related to the Mid-Autumn Festival and the moon. The Chinese believe that the jade rabbit is a companion to Chang’e on the moon. The legend goes that once upon a time there were three animals living in a forest: a fox, a rabbit, and a monkey.
One day, the Emperor of Heaven wanted to test the animals’ virtues. So he came to Earth and changed his appearance to that of an old man. He said, “I heard that you three are good friends, so I came a long way to meet you. Now I am very hungry. What will you offer me?”
“Please wait here. We will come back with food soon,” said the three animals who went their separate ways to find food. The fox caught a fish in a river; the monkey collected fruit from the forest; but the rabbit found nothing and came back with nothing. The old man said, “It seems that you three are not united and work alone. You two kept your promise and brought back food. But the rabbit hasn’t brought back anything.”The rabbit felt very sorry. “Please help me to get some firewood. I want to cook some food for him,” she said to the fox and the monkey. After they set the firewood on the fire, the rabbit said, “Sorry, I didn’t fulfill my promise. But I can give myself to you. Eat me, please!” and the rabbit jumped into the fire.
The Emperor of Heaven was deeply moved by the rabbit. He picked up the rabbit’s bones and said, “I am so touched. To honor her, I will let her go to the Moon Palace, so that the people can see her forever.”
As a hopeless romantic myself, I am now even more invested in the Mid Autumn Festival this year. May we have True Love and may Chang’ e bless us all.
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