Mid-Autumn Festival #1 – Chang Er flies to the moonPosted: September 17, 2012
There are mooncakes on the supermarket shelves again and that can mean only one thing – Mid-Autumn Festival. The harvest celebrations on the night of the full moon have been a big deal for centuries, probably millennia, and there’s a whole host of associated stories. Whether it’s the slaughter of the Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty, or a Tang dynasty emperor going up to heaven to learn a few tunes, the legends just keep on coming. I’ll try and write up a few of the best before the big day but, to start off, here’s the cream of the crop.
For a while, it had all been going so well. There Chang Er was, with a sweet job as handmaid to the Jade Emperor’s wife, the Queen Mother of the West, living in the Heavenly Palace. She was one of the most beautiful women in the whole of creation, spending her days accompanying her mistress to posh party after posh party, eating magic peaches that were going to make her live forever, and generally having a right royal time. It was all a bit like the old Ferrero Rocher ads, but slightly surreal, with more mysticism, immortality, and soft-focus. Of course, for every Yin, there’s a Yang. In her case it was her hubby, Houyi.
They’d married young, after only a few centuries of politely chaperoned dating. He’d cut a fine figure, always being ready to head off and decapitate an evil spirit, mainly for the bragging rights that came after. Rights he loved to exercise. If he wasn’t boasting about some battle he’d fought in, it was how much baijiu he could handle. Or, more likely, it was how hot his wife was. This kind of swagger didn’t exactly impress their little social clique. The ambience of the celestial realm being fairly rarefied and contemplative, the other immortals were getting a tad peeved at his unbecoming behaviour. Being keen to keep any hint of the hoi polloi out, they petitioned the sovereign and got the couple evicted. Chang Er suddenly went from living in a palace in the sky to a shack in a forest, and from a life expectancy around the infinity mark to one nowhere near it. She wasn’t exactly impressed, but Houyi assured her that it would all be an adventure. He went out to go do some manly hunting and left her with instructions to clean up their new home.
Now, in case you hadn’t guessed, this all happened a long time ago, way back while the Emperor Yao was on the throne in the Middle Kingdom. In those days the universe wasn’t run on the simple solar-centric system we all know today. Oh, no. There was nothing simple about the sunlight at all. Way out in the eastern ocean, on a small island, there was a giant mulberry tree, known as Fu Sang. In Tree Fu Tom style*, there was a whole family living in the branches – Di Jun, the god of the eastern sea, his wife, Xi He, and their ten suns. And that’s not a typo. Their brood just happened to be full-on, light-bringing, life-giving suns**. Each day, Xi He would take one of them out to fly over the world and get a bit of exercise. By the time of this story though, the kids must have been going through the whole teen rebellion thing. They decided to head out and party, all at the same time…
Back down on the surface, everyone was pretty chuffed by the sudden heatwave (Ten suns? Let’s go to the beach!), but things started getting bad pretty quick. The mercury kept on rising and the crops withered and died. Lakes and rivers started to boil, people and their livestock dropped from heat exhaustion, and even a few of the softer rocks started to melt. Di Jun decided to pay a slightly sheepish visit to the terrestrial Emperor Yao, apologising for all the mess. He’d lost control of his off-spring but, by way of recompense, he’d brought ten magic arrows that would kill them. If only they knew a great hero who would be able to use them.
As it happened, Yao did know of someone. Houyi had been putting himself about as much as possible, letting everyone know how cool he was. He’d been practicing his archery while out hunting too, becoming the best in the world. The ex-immortal was summoned and the arrows were handed over. He strung his bow and took aim. Sun after sun was killed and fell from the sky, extinguished. The archer was in the zone – notch, draw, loose, notch, draw, loose – he could do this all day. Yao, suspecting that this particular hero was getting carried away, snatched back the last of the arrows, in case Houyi took out the only sun left and plunged the world into eternal darkness. But, even with that last little bit of intervention that stopped some dangerous over-exuberance, the archer had saved the kingdom. In gratitude, the earthly ruler gave him a gift – a pill that would grant him immortality***. It did require a little discipline first though, and he’d have to meditate and fast for a year before taking it.
While all this was going on, Chang Er was doing her darnedest to be a good wife, staying at home and doing the dishes. She was, understandably, starting to get a little hacked off with her other half. He kept disappearing for weeks at a time, coming home with stories about all kinds of adventures, and she was left with all the chores. They were still living in the same shack and, even if he was some big-shot, monster-slaying hero, she sure as sugar couldn’t see what difference that made. When were they going to go on that holiday he’d promised? When was she going to get a chance to do something for herself? He’d come back this time with some story about magic arrows and killing the suns, but had he noticed her new hair? And now he was off again to fight some sea-beast? That was when she cast her eyes up, in a little prayer for strength, and noticed something glowing in the thatch.
Standing on a chair and reaching up, she found a small pill in a little bundle of cloth. She didn’t know what it was but, for fudge’s sake, it was clear Houyi had been hiding something from her. Probably something good, too. Deciding that this time it was her turn to have some fun, she popped it in her mouth and swallowed. Without the required year-long spiritual course, the pill started doing some strange things to her. She became lighter than a feather and floated up to the ceiling. A sudden draft sent her tumbling through a window. Outside, she carried on drifting upwards, starting to get a little freaked out by the whole thing now. The ground receded and eventually she made it all the way to the moon, where she landed. Wondering just exactly what kind of pills her husband had been hiding in their home, she was starting to think that it might all be some kind of dream. That was when the Jade Rabbit hopped up and told her that it was all real.
(On a side-note, it’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t just any old moon rabbit. Centuries before, three fairies had decided to change themselves into wizened old men and ask favours of animals, as you do. They asked a fox, a monkey, and our rabbit for a bite to eat. The fox and the monkey just handed over some food. The rabbit, though, didn’t have anything to give. Being a truly charitable sort, the floppy-eared fella jumped into a cook-pot and offered himself up as a meal, again, as you do. This impressed the ethereal beings so much that they built the creature a palace on the moon and sent him up there to live in luxury. You can see his outline in the lunar disk if you look up on a clear night…)
Chang Er, realising that she was a little bit stuck asked the rabbit to make her another pill. She figured, magic rabbit on the moon, must be able to do something, right? The little animal, quite glad of the company, and not really having any clue what to do, started pounding away at herbs in a giant pestle and mortar that he’d made. Unfortunately, neither of them being sages of ultimate wisdom, they’re still up there now, trying to get the recipe right.
Houyi had seen his missus as she drifted up into space, but he’d had no way to follow. As is always the way, he only realised what he’d lost once it was gone. Not being allowed back to heaven, he travelled to the eastern sea, to the most powerful being he knew and asked for help. Taking pity on him, Di Jun decided to let him build a home on his remaining child, now the one and only sun. That would let him get close, but not quite close enough. The god was still a tad upset with him after killing his other kids, even if they were tearaways, so he couldn’t let Houyi visit Chang Er whenever he wanted. He would have to wait until the sun had done its work each year, until the crops were ready for harvest. Only then, on the night of the full moon, would he be allowed to visit.
* I spent a lot of time watching CBeebies with my nephew this summer. No apologies. Andy’s Wild Adventures is great TV.
** I can’t help but think this would have caused a bit of confusion during ultra-sound scans. “So, Mrs. Xi He, do you want to know?” “Uh, yeah, why not?” “Well, you’re going to have ten suns.” “Boys?” “Uh, no, actual suns.” And so on…
*** If you think the US is obsessed with pharmaceuticals, just have a quick look at Daoism. Those guys have been advocating pill-popping for longer than Pfizer.