Every year around September in the Gregorian calendar, the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and China gather with their families to celebrate the Moon Festival (Mid-Autumn Festival).

The festival involves the serving of mooncakes and, in Taiwan, often involves barbecue parties with family, friends and neighbours. Central to the folklore of the Moon Festival is the telling of the story of the moon goddess, Cháng’é.

Photo: Moon cake
Moon cake

Cháng’é was, remarkably, mentioned in the records of the Apollo 11 mission—when humans first set foot on the moon in 1969. It went something like this:

Flight Control in Houston, Texas:
Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

Michael Collins (Apollo 11 Crew):
Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

The bunny and the lady on the moon are two separate legends. This time on Island Folklore, we explore the story of Cháng’é, the East Asian Moon Goddess.

Ming-era Chinese painting: The Moon Goddess
Ming-era painting of the Moon Goddess
Unknown artist, after Tang Yin (1470–1524) [Public domain]

According to this ancient story, a long, long time ago, the heavens was home to ten blazing suns. The ten suns scorched the surface of the earth mercilessly and the earth’s inhabitants – the animals, plants and people – struggled desperately to survive in this fiery world.

One day, a brave and powerful archer decided to take matters into his own hands. His name was Hòu Yì and he took his bow, climbed up the highest peak he could find and challenged the suns.

One by one, Hòu Yì succeeded in downing the fiery orbs. Just as he was about to shoot down the tenth and final sun, however, a beautiful village maiden appeared and begged him to stop.

“If you shoot down the final sun,” she pleaded, “the world will be plunged into icy darkness forever. Spare this last sun and the world will thrive – neither too bright or too dark, too hot or too cold.”

Hòu Yì heeded the maiden’s advice and permitted the last sun to remain in the sky.

The gods rewarded Hòu Yì’s bravery by gifting him with a bottle of elixir which, when imbibed, would turn mortals into immortals and enable them to join the gods.

In addition to the heavenly gift, the village maiden, thankful for Hòu Yì’s bravery, pledged herself to be his wife. The maiden’s name was Cháng’é.

When Hòu Yì received the elixir, he did not immediately consume it. He put away the bottle in what he felt was a safe place in his home and went on a hunt, leaving his dear wife to guard the elixir. The two had decided that, at a later time, they would both take the elixir and be able to live with the gods together, never to be separated.

It was at this time that bandits who knew of the elixir’s existence, intruded upon Hòu Yì’s residence, demanding that Cháng’é give up the elixir.

The maiden, unwilling to hand over her husband’s hard-won prize to bandits, took the decision to consume the substance herself.

This ill-timed and supposed blessing of immortality had become a curse – forever separating Cháng’é from her husband who must remain a mortal man.

Cháng’é felt her body become lighter and lighter. She began to float up towards the sky, eventually landing on the Palace of the Moon, where she took up residence.

Hòu Yì, separated from his beloved wife, could do nothing. But thenceforth, he began, on the anniversary of his wife’s ascent to the moon during mid-autumn, to place fruits and cakes on altars to honour her.

This practice began by Hòu Yì during this time of year is the reason, this story says, behind the mid-autumn festival so popular throughout East Asia.

Photo: Mid-autumn full moon
The full moon at mid-autumn—around the time of the Moon Festival
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Posted by:The Island Folklore Society

A society for the collection, preservation, translation, promotion and celebration of Taiwanese Tales & Traditions. Visit islandfolklore.org to learn more.