A Mid-Autumn Night’s Dream: Chinese Moon Folktales

Illustration - Michael
Illustration by Michael Baptista

“A sky-dog is eating the moon.”

“天狗吃月亮”

– Chinese folktale

This is how my mother described the eclipse we barely saw Sunday night, because some Chinese folktales tell of the deities’ dogs that occasionally happen upon the moon and mistake it for a treat, causing an eclipse. Our family was gathered around the dinner table, a rare and happy occasion. It was sheer coincidence that we were together on the night of the total eclipse, because we were actually celebrating the mid-Autumn festival (中秋节) but it was a great reminder of the speculative elements behind the festival.

For myself and many others, this celebration has always been about getting family together for a good meal and copious consumption of mooncakes. However, we often forget that there are many myths and folktales associated with the holiday as well, stories which can especially be lost in diasporic communities here in Canada. Those tales were often passed on from the older generation to the younger as bedtime stories or life lessons outside of school. In that spirit, nonfiction editor Janice To and I sought out the versions our own families told rather than attempting to present an overall summary of the myths and their many iterations.

Janice: As with all of my mother’s stories, this one begins with the refrain, “I hope you don’t think this is real.” Ironically, the legend of Chang’e incited a very heated debate between the women in my family about whose version of the tale was the most authentic – whatever that meant.  My mother won, as usual.

The following is the story she grew up hearing as a child in Hong Kong:

Four thousand years ago, there was an Emperor by the name of Houyi, a skilled archer who ruled over “Poor Country” (窮國). Above the sky, ten scorching suns emanated such powerful rays of heat that nothing could grow on earth. And thus, the land came to be riddled with poverty. Bothered by the unbearable warmth, Houyi shot down nine of the suns. While this act saved the citizens and their land, Houyi had done it primarily for his own benefit, for he was a cruel and vindictive man who cared little about his people.

Chang’e was Houyi’s beautiful, gentle, and kindhearted wife. She found out that her husband was in possession of the Elixir of Immortality and feared for the bleak future her country would have to face under Houyi’s immortal rule. Sacrificing herself for the country, Chang’e secretly drank the elixir. Immediately, she took on incredible lightness and began drifting up towards the Moon Palace.

When her husband discovered Chang’e’s betrayal, he was livid. Furious at losing the chance for immortality, Houyi sought revenge by attempting to shoot Chang’e down from the sky. Alas, he was too late, and Chang’e became known as the Goddess of the Moon.

Today, we can still see her graceful ascent toward the moon displayed on many mooncake boxes.

Victoria: According to my mother, the ten suns were actually golden birds (金乌jinwu), ten mischievous brothers who were meant to take turns shining as the sun. They wreaked havoc in the skies together, however, cackling as the people below suffered from the burning heat and drought. At last, the hero Houyi (后羿) shot the birds down one by one, until an old farmer stopped him at the final bird. “We still need a sun, or else we will be plunged into darkness and unable to feed ourselves,” he explained to the great hero. So the final bird was asked: “Will you behave from now on, and attend to your responsibilities by rising around dawn, crossing the sky during the day, and departing at dusk?” In fear of the great archer who had shot down his brethren, the bird agreed, and the days and weather became regular again. Houyi was rewarded by the deities with an Elixir of Immortality (仙丹xiandan) that would have made him and his wife deities on earth, with long lives and eternal youth.
Eventually, the hero married a beautiful woman, Chang’e (嫦娥) and became an excellent teacher of archery. One of his students was arrogant and sought to kill Houyi, in order to prove himself the best archer in the land. When he succeeded and became desirous of beautiful Chang’e, she fled and found the potion, which she ingested lest it fall into the wrong hands. Having taken a portion meant for two people, she floated straight to the moon and now inhabits the enormous, cold palace there (广寒宫guanghangong). We worship her now as the moon goddess and eat mooncakes (月饼yuebing) in her honour.

However, she isn’t alone up there. According to my mother, the moon already had inhabitants: the white jade rabbits (玉兔yutu) indigenous to the moon, who are tasked with using mortar and pestle to make medicines for the deities out of mysterious herbs only found on the moon. These elixirs can be like the Elixir of Immortality, or other strange potions that increase your abilities or confer special powers.
I can recall looking up to the full moon as a child in an effort to find the rabbit in the moon sitting beside a man perpetually chopping away at a tree. This futile lumberjack is Wugang (吴刚), the latest immigrant to the moon in these myths. He is a man from the Han dynasty who followed a master (師傅shifu) in an effort to become immortal, but made a mistake along the path. In punishment, he was sent to the moon and told he could leave when he could fell the tree there. Unfortunately for him, this was a Sisyphean sentence, for the tree regenerated with every swing of the axe. He’s still up there now, and if you glance out your window at the moon tonight, you might see Wugang toiling away at his immortal tree.

Upon hearing this, my little cousins asked if the Americans had encountered Wugang, Chang’e, and the rabbits when they landed on the moon. My father offered an answer: that there were a Chang’e and Yutu on the moon, in the form of the China National Space Administration’s lunar orbiter and rover. The rover’s name, which was chosen through an online poll, speaks to the way these folktales continue to be a real presence in many people’s lives all over the world. They are told and retold, taking on new forms as our mediums for storytelling expand.

So next time you look at the moon, perhaps you can wish Chang’e, Wugang, and their little rabbits well and hope for their sake that their home isn’t eaten by a hungry dog. Or perhaps you can take a page out of that dog’s book and eat a mooncake yourself!

-Contributed by Victoria Liao and Janice To

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