CHINA: Mid Autumn Festival Mythology

Historically, the Mid Autumn Festival was a time to enjoy the successful reaping of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Also known as the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, or simply the Mooncake Festival, it also celebrates the legends of  Chang’e 嫦娥, the Goddess of Immortality and her companion, the moon rabbit, called also 月兔 Yùtù or Jade Rabbit.

The Mid-autumn Festival 中秋節 is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the 8th lunar month, close to the autumn equinox and dates back over 3.500 years. For people in China, Malaysia, Singapore,  Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and Korea the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, is still an occasion for outdoor reunions among friends and relatives to eat moon cakes and watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity.

mooncakes- earthstoriez
©mariefranceasia.

In September I was lucky enough to try delicious Moon cakes in Georgetown, Malaysia where, they are baked with a surface imprinted with the name of the bakery as well as auspicious Chinese characters and symbols for “longevity” or “harmony.” The fillings are traditionally  of red bean, lotus paste or assorted nut with a medley of almonds, melon seeds, walnuts and dried winter melon.

The Mid Autumn Festival mythology: Mooncakes, the Jade Rabbit, Chang’e and the archer

Mooncakes and Revolution- History and legend

Many traditional customs practiced by Chinese people today all over the world are based on events and rituals that have been passed down through thousands of years of Chinese culture, and many originate around remembered events of great crisis or strife.

Similarly, the tradition of giving mooncakes to friends, relatives and colleagues during the Mid-Autumn Festival is a reminder of the rebellion which succeeded in overthrowing the Mongol dynasty, which ruled China from 1271-1368 AD.

The Mongols had attempted to invade China many times in ancient times and eventually succeeded under the leadership of Kublai Khan during the 13th century.

During the century that the Mongols were in power, their rule was oppressive, forbidding Chinese people to gather in public or own weapons, as well as levying heavy taxes, while making bad land management decisions that led to poor crops yield.

The story goes that Liu Bowen, the confidant of the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, suggested that the rebellion be timed to coincide with the Mid-Autumn festival.

Zhu applied for and got permission to distribute thousands of mooncakes to Chinese residents in the Mongol capital as a blessing to the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake was a piece of paper saying, “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eighth month”.

The plan succeeded, since Mongols did not eat mooncakes, and they were overthrown, retreating back into Mongolia, while Zhu founded the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

Although some Chinese historians are sceptical that the cakes were used in this way, mooncakes have historically been made with specific moulds and always include three to six Chinese characters imprinted into the top.

How the Jade Rabbit got to the moon

George Ewart Evans and David Thomson comment that “…the moon and the hare occur together in myth and folklore – in India, China, Africa, Mexico, North America and Europe…”

In Chinese folklore, the hare is often portrayed as a companion of the Moon goddess Chang’e, 嫦娥, the Goddess of Immortality, constantly pounding the elixir of life or immortality for her. In other Chinese versions the rabbit pounds medicine for all the immortals. For Japanese and Koreans , the Jade rabbit is pounding the ingredients for rice cake.

O ne day, the Jade Emperor decided that he wanted some help preparing the elixir of life for the immortals. Fearing that humans would be too selfish and untrustworthy for such an important role, he thought an animal would be better suited to this responsibility. The Jade Emperor came down the Earth disguised as a beggar and went to search for a worthy animal in a forest. As a famished and frail man, he cried out for help and food and eventually three animals came to see if they could help; the monkey, the fox, and the rabbit.

The monkey, the fox and the rabbit were sympathetic to the old beggar’s plight and went into the forest to search for food. The monkey returned laden with fruits he had gathered from up in the trees. The fox returned with some fish he had caught in a nearby stream.

Despite searching throughout the forest, the rabbit could not find any food for the old man from the woodland floor. When he returned much later, and saw the beggar sat next to the fire eating the fruits and the fish, the rabbit felt sad that he had been unable to find him any food. Realizing that he could sacrifice himself so that the man

could eat, the rabbit threw himself into the fire in an ultimate act of selflessness.

But at that instant the beggar turned back into the Jade emperor and stopped the rabbit from being burned. Having found the most noble of creatures to take on the role of creating the elixirs, the Jade Emperor carried him up to the moon, where he learned to make divine medicines and be kept safe from humans wishing to steal the elixir of life.

The rabbit worked hard and learned to create the divine medicines, eventually mastering the skills required to pound the right ingredients together to create the elixir of life. The Jade Emperor was so delighted with the rabbit that he made the rabbit’s fur a dazzling white. The heavenly glow from the rabbit’s smooth and bright fur was so bright and beautiful, that it looked like precious jade, which is why the other heavenly beings came to call him the Jade Rabbit. Han Dynasty poets call the rabbit on the moon the Jade Rabbit or the Gold Rabbit, this words were also used to refer to the moon.

If you look up at the full moon and squint slightly at the markings, you can still see the Jade Rabbit with his pestle and mortar, making the elixir of life for the immortals.

“Can you see the hare on the moon?” I am asked “Yes, I do.”

moonrabbit- jade rabbit- moon-hare
Its head and ears are formed from the Mare Tranquilitatis, the Mare Foecunditatis and the Mare Nectaris. The tail (or bun) is the mare Nubium. The hare appears to run, be holding an egg or pounding (the Mare Imbrium).

Variant II

O nce upon a time, there were three animals living in a forest: a fox, a rabbit, and a monkey.

Three immortals, pretending to be beggars, went through the forest asking for food. The fox and the monkey quickly offered them food.

The rabbit, who was less resourceful but very pious, felt guilty. She said, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t offer any food to help you, but I can give myself,” and jumped into the fire.

The three immortals were moved by the rabbit’s sacrifice, and decided to make the rabbit an immortal, sending it to live in the Moon Palace with Chang’e.

Variant III

A ccording to the Buddhist Jataka tales, a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit resolved to practice charity on the day of the full moon, believing a demonstration of great virtue would earn a great reward.

When an old man begged for food, the monkey gathered fruits from the trees and the otter collected fish, while the jackal wrongfully pilfered a lizard and a pot of milk-curd.

The rabbit, who knew only how to gather grass, instead offered its own body, throwing itself into a fire the man had built. The rabbit, however, was not burnt.

The old man revealed himself to be Śakra and, touched by the rabbit’s virtue, drew the likeness of the rabbit on the Moon for all to see. It is said the lunar image is still draped in the smoke that rose when the rabbit cast itself into the fire.

嫦娥 Chang’e

The Moon festival is intimately linked to the legends of Chang’e or Hêng Ô, the Goddess of Immortality.

There are several popular versions of the tale of Chang’e and Houyi. The most popular version states that Chang’e and the archer Houyi were once immortals, a married couple living in heaven.

O ne day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor in heaven transformed into ten suns, which caused the Earth to scorch and all the plants to die.

The Jade Emperor summoned Houyi to stop his sons from ruining the Earth, so Houyi shot down nine of the Jade Emperor’s sons, leaving just one to be the sun.

To punish Houyi for killing nine of his sons, the Jade Emperor banished Houyi and Chang’e to live as mortals forever on Earth.

Chang’e was incredibly upset at losing her immortality so Houyi went on a long quest to find the Pill of Immortality or Elixir of Immortality.

In one version of the story, Chang’e consumes the elixir to prevent Houyi’s evil apprentice Feng Meng from getting hold of it, while in another version, she finds the pill out of curiosity and consumes it by accident.

In all versions of the legend, Chang’e becomes immortal and flies to the moon, where she has only the company of a jade rabbit.

She and Houyi are separated forever, although some retellings claim that during the Mid-Autumn festival, Houyi can cross the milky way and get closer to Chang’e as the distance between them is lessened by the new moon.

The tradition of holding lanterns is thought to be people on Earth holding and waving the lanterns near where Houyi is crossing the milky way, so that Chang’e knows where to look for him.

Chang’e and Houyi

A ccording to legend, Chang’e and her husband Houyi were immortals living in heaven. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor transformed into ten suns, causing the earth to scorch. Having failed to order his sons to stop ruining the earth, the Jade Emperor summoned Houyi for help. Houyi, using his legendary archery skills, shot down nine of the sons, but spared one son to be the sun. The Jade Emperor was obviously not pleased with Houyi’s solution to save the earth: nine of his sons were dead. As punishment, the Jade Emperor banished Houyi and Chang’e to live as mere mortals on earth.

Seeing that Chang’e felt extremely miserable over her loss of immortality, Houyi decided to journey on a long, perilous quest to find the Pill of Immortality so that the couple could be immortals again. At the end of his quest he met the Queen Mother of the West who agreed to give him the pill, but warned him that each person would only need half the pill to become immortal.

Houyi brought the pill home and stored it in a case. He warned Chang’e not to open the case and then left home for a while. Chang’e became too curious: she opened up the case and found the pill just as Houyi was returning home. Nervous that Houyi would catch her discovering the contents of the case, she accidentally swallowed the entire pill. She started to float into the sky because of the overdose. Although Houyi wanted to shoot her in order to prevent her from floating further, he could not bear to aim the arrow at her. Chang’e kept on floating until she landed on the Moon.

While she became lonely on the Moon without her husband, she did have company. A jade rabbit, who manufactured elixirs, also lived on the Moon. The mythologies of Japan and Korea also feature references about rabbits living on the Moon.

Another companion is the woodcutter Wu Gang. The woodcutter offended the gods in his attempt to achieve immortality and was therefore banished to the Moon. Wu Gang was allowed to leave the Moon if he could cut down a tree that grew there. The problem was that each time he chopped on the tree, the tree would instantly grow back, effectively condemning him to live on the Moon for eternity.

Variant II – Chang’e and Houyi the Archer

C hang’e was a human in the mortal world. She was a palace maid. Suddenly, 10 suns appeared in the sky and the earth became very hot. The king looked for a person with accurate archery skills to shoot down nine of the suns. A commoner called Hou Yi saw that the situation was getting bad. He took out his arrow and bow and shot down the nine suns with nine arrows. The King was pleased and wanted to reward him.

Hou Yi was in love with Chang’e and wanted to marry her. The king gave her to him as a reward. The two lived happily until one day, a mysterious old man came and gave Hou Yi an elixir that could make him live forever. Hou Yi hesitated whether to take the pill. He was unsure and left the pill under his pillow on the bed. Chang’e found the pill. She did not know what it was and just swallowed it. Chang’e became immortal and flew to the moon. Hou Yi was devastated and died.

People now use lanterns to light up the earth so that Chang’e can see them on the Earth.

Variant III

Chang’e was a beautiful young girl working in the Jade Emperor’s palace in heaven, where immortals, good people and fairies lived. One day, she accidentally broke a precious porcelain jar. Angered, the Jade Emperor banished her to live on earth, where ordinary people lived. She could return to the Heaven, if she contributed a valuable service on earth.

Chang’e was transformed into a member of a rich farming family. When she was 18, a young hunter named Houyi from another village spotted her, now a beautiful young woman. They became friends.

One day, a strange phenomenon occurred—10 suns arose in the sky instead of one, blazing the earth. Houyi, an expert archer, stepped forward to try to save the earth. He successfully shot down nine of the suns, becoming an instant hero. He eventually became king and married Chang’e.

But Houyi grew to become greedy and selfish. He sought immortality by ordering an elixir be created to prolong his life. The elixir in the form of a single pill was almost ready when Chang’e came upon it. She either accidentally or purposely swallowed the pill. This angered King Houyi, who went after his wife. Trying to flee, she jumped out the window of a chamber at the top of the palace—and, instead of falling, she floated into the sky toward the Moon. King Houyi tried unsuccessfully to shoot her down with arrows.

In contrast to the first version, her companion, a rabbit, does not create elixir of life. Aside from the rabbit, the Moon is also inhabited by a woodcutter who tries to cut down the cassia tree, giver of life. But as fast as he cuts into the tree, it heals itself, and he never makes any progress. The Chinese use this image of the cassia tree to explain mortal life on earth—the limbs are constantly being cut away by death, but new buds continually appear.

Meanwhile, King Houyi ascended to the sun and built a palace. So Chang’e and Houyi came to represent the yin and yang, the Moon and the sun.

Chang’e has become synonymous with the Moon. She has been featured in many poems and stories, including Journey to The West and Mao Ze Dong’s most famous poetic composition.

The Moon was a common subject of Chinese poetry.

The famous Tang poet Li Bai wrote:

“Seeing moonlight here at my bed,

thinking it is frost on the ground,

Looking up, I gaze at mountain moon,

and back, dreaming of my old home….”

Li Bai supposedly died drunk, trying to embrace the moon in a river.

In another Version, Hêng Ô flies to the moon and vomits the Jade rabbit. This story comes from Myths and Legends of China, by E. T. C. Werner. 1922.

Variant IV- Hêng Ô flies to the Moon

H êng Ô, during her husband’s absence, saw a white light which seemed to issue from a beam in the roof, while a most delicious odour filled every room. By the aid of a ladder she reached up to the spot whence the light came, found the pill of immortality, and ate it. She suddenly felt that she was freed from the operation of the laws of gravity and as if she had wings, and was just essaying her first flight when Shên I returned. He went to look for his pill, and, not finding it, asked Hêng Ô what had happened.

The young wife, seized with fear, opened the window and flew out. Shên I took his bow and pursued her. The moon was full, the night clear, and he saw his wife flying rapidly in front of him, only about the size of a toad. Just when he was redoubling his pace to catch her up a blast of wind struck him to the ground like a dead leaf.

Hêng Ô continued her flight until she reached a luminous sphere, shining like glass, of enormous size, and very cold. The only vegetation consisted of cinnamon-trees. No living being was to be seen. All of a sudden she began to cough, and vomited the covering of the pill of immortality, which was changed into a rabbit as white as the purest jade. This was the ancestor of the spirituality of the _yin_, or female, principle. Hêng Ô noticed a bitter taste in her mouth, drank some dew, and, feeling hungry, ate some cinnamon. She took up her abode in this sphere.

As to Shên I, he was carried by the hurricane up into a high mountain. Finding himself before the door of a palace, he was invited to enter, and found that it was the palace of Tung-hua Ti-chün, otherwise Tung Wang Kung, the husband of Hsi Wang Mu.

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REFERENCES, ATTRIBUTIONS AND FURTHER READING