04 October 2017


Chang’e 嫦娥

A happy Mid-Autumn Festival to all! 中秋節快樂!

One of the most popular Chinese observances, which (at least this year) falls in a ‘golden week’ along with National Day on the mainland, it’s a lunar holiday which is accompanied by the folk tale of the beauty Chang’e and her husband, the archer-hero Hou Yi.

There are many versions of the tale, but they follow the same basic story. In a Chinese farming village, a young girl named Chang’e 嫦娥 (or Heng’e 姮娥) caught the eye of Hou Yi 后羿, a boy from a neighbouring village who was skilled in archery. The two soon became sweethearts; later husband and wife. One day, instead of a single sun rising in the sky, ten suns rose, scorching the earth and threatening all life. Hou Yi volunteered to shoot down the suns, which he did – nine of them fell to his arrows, leaving only one sun in the sky. Later (possibly as a reward for saving the earth), Xiwangmu 西王母, the Queen Mother of the West, gave Hou Yi a pill that would make him immortal. Not wanting to spend an eternity without his beloved wife, he kept it at home in a box, and told Chang’e not to open it. He went out one day, and Chang’e got curious and opened the box, finding the pill inside just as Hou Yi got home. Startled, Chang’e swallowed the pill by accident, and began to float out the window. Hou Yi saw this and took out his bow to shoot her down, but he couldn’t bear to point an arrow directly at the woman he loved – so all of the arrows missed their mark. She floated straight up to the moon, where she stayed. Each year thereafter, the heartbroken Hou Yi would offer fruits and cakes – Chang’e’s favourite foods – as sacrifice to his wife’s memory.

The other versions of the tale that I’ve seen and heard differ in subtle ways. In some tellings, Hou Yi and Chang’e are already immortals, attendants of the Jade Emperor who are made mortal and sent down to earth as punishment for Hou Yi’s killing of the nine suns. In others, Chang’e swallows the pill of immortality to keep Hou Yi’s evil archery student, Peng Meng 逢蒙, from stealing it. In still others, Chang’e deliberately swallows the pill out of defiance of her husband. But the basic contours are the same. The story as a whole, in fact, reminds me strongly of Chesterton, and the ‘logic of Elfhame’ and the ‘doctrine of conditional joy’ which he explored. The story of Chang’e and Hou Yi appears to me to follow the same truly human kind of logic, West or East.
Touchstone talked of much virtue in an ‘if’; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”’; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.
The ‘conditional joy’ in the story of Chang’e and Hou Yi, the doctrines of Elfhame and the days of myth, highlight the very real, tangible and (seemingly) unconditional joys which the Mid-Autumn Festival itself celebrates. On any one day it might be that ten suns come up in the sky; thus, folk nowadays are grateful for the good weather they’ve had from the one. Hou Yi and his wife were mortal; folk take the opportunity to pray for long life and happiness. In swallowing the forbidden pill and becoming immortal, Chang’e found herself exiled from her husband and her hearth; folk are thankful for family and home. The bitter separation that Chang’e undergoes from her lover sweetens the moon cakes that folk now enjoy.

The enduring importance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the ubiquity of the lunar symbolism surrounding it, shows that China (in spite of all her Sisyphean efforts in that direction) never truly rid herself of ‘feudal superstition’. So much the better. If you ask me, a little healthy superstition (and, for that matter, a little healthy feudalism) is just what we need to keep us sane and rooted. Once again, a very happy mid-autumn to one and all!

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