Chinese tale: Chang E

“Chang E originally lived in the Sky Temple. Her husband, his name was Hou Yi, he was a very famous and strong archer. They fall in love. But you know, the Chinese gods who live in the Sky Temple, they’re not allowed to fall in love—with each other, with human beings. But they do. Their punishment was banishment to Earth. So they have to live on Earth as normal human beings. They want to go back, but you know, when they are thrown out of the Sky Temple, they lose their powers and they can’t fly anymore. So Hou Yi, he goes to someone called Xi Wang Mu, a very famous Chinese god, I can’t remember if it’s a she or he, she/he’s kind of mysterious. So Hou Yi, he runs across the whole land, the land is called Sheng Zhou, it refers to China. And there is a kind of water called ruo shui, weak water. And this water is called weak because any boat that tries to go across sinks because its density is very low so nothing can go across it. I don’t know how he gets across, I don’t think he swims, but he gets across somehow. So he gets to Zhi Wang Mu, and in the beginning Zhi Wang Mu doesn’t want to see him, but he begs again and again, “my wife is beautiful and staying on earth will make her old, and she’s sad and I’m sad,.” So Zhi Wang Mu gives him two pills. Zhi Wang Mu says, these two pills can’t get both of you back to the Sky Temple, and this is what Qin Shi Huang was searching for, because if you eat one of them, you live forever, but if you eat both of them, then you can fly back to the Sky Temple. So Hou Yi is very happy and he brings the pills back to Chang E and he says, I am going to go somewhere, to work I guess, and when I get back we will eat these together. But you know, when he goes out. After he goes out, Chang E eats both of them because she wants to go back to Sky Temple. So she eats two pills, both of them. And you know what happens? She starts rising, but this rising is different from the normal flying ability of Chinese gods—you cannot return. Gods, they can fly up and fly down. But after eating these two pills, you can only fly up, you can’t go back. So Chang E flies up to the Sky Temple, but the Sky Temple refuses to accept her back, because one thing, you’re being punished, and the second thing, you betrayed your husband. So the only place she can go is the moon, because there’s nobody living on the moon.

Oh, the husband. After Chang E leaves, he lives on Earth and becomes a normal human being. But he still has his archer skills. And in that time, there were nine suns. And every sun had his own mind. These suns are the sons of some god, I don’t know, he fathered these nine suns. And the suns walk over the sky every day, they take turns walking over the sky. But one day, the nine suns all came out at the same time. It’s really hot, and lots of people and trees and animals dies, and all the water evaporated. And everyone is very angry, Hou Yi is very angry too, his wife just betrayed him and went to live on the moon! And then this happened, and he cannot live forever, and he’s mad, yo guys are making trouble for me. So he gets mad, and pulls out his arrows, and shoots the first sun. and the first sun dies. And he shoots, shoots, shoots, and eight suns died. But when he was going to kill the last sun, someone stopped him, because we need a sun to live, so this one sun now has to walk every day because his brothers are all dead. Then there is peace and Hou Yi dies, because he’s human.”

My informant says that this is such a popular story that he can’t remember where he first heard it. The story is strongly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Moon Festival, since Chang E is the goddess of the moon and immortality.

I actually learned a variation of this myth from my grandmother when I was much younger. In my grandma’s version, Hou Yi and Chang E were banished to Earth as punishment after Hou Yi shot down the eight suns, who were the sons of the king of the Sky Temple. I also heard a different version in my Saturday Chinese School class in elementary school—Chang E ate both pills because one of Hou Yi’s assistants was trying to steal them for himself.

For my informant, the most compelling part of the story is Chang E’s betrayal of her husband after all of the effort he spent getting the pills at her request. I agree that this tale could be interpreted as a condemnation of female fickleness. It could also be a warning that betrayal or disobedience could lead to Chang E’s fate—being eternally lonely, banished from both the heavens and Earth.

Annotation: China launched its first lunar probe in 2007. It was called 嫦娥一號 (Chang E Yi Hao), Chang E Number 1, in honor of the moon goddess.