Chang'e (mythology)

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Chang'e_flies_to_the_moon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15250.jpg.jpg
Chang'e flies to the moon, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner
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A depiction of Chang'e and the Jade Rabbit

Chang'e or Ch'ang-O (嫦娥; pinyin: chang2e2), also known as Heng-E or Heng-O (姮娥), is the name of the Chinese goddess of the moon. Unlike many lunar deities in other cultures who personify the moon, Chang'e only lives on the moon.

Most legends about her in Chinese mythology involve some variation of the following elements: Houyi the Archer; an emperor, either benevolent or malevolent; an elixir of life; and the moon. While Westerners may talk about the "man on the moon," the Chinese talk about the "woman on the moon."

Chang'e and Houyi the Archer

According to legend, Chang’e and Houyi were immortals living in heaven. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor transformed into ten suns (no pun intended), 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. Like Pandora in Greek mythology, 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. (Note that Japanese pop culture also has plenty of 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 on 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 the tree, the tree would instantly grow back, effectively condemning him to live on the moon for eternity.


Chang'e and the Cruel Emperor

Many years after she was already the moon goddess, Chang'e looked down upon Earth and saw that a terribly cruel and tyrannical emperor sat on the throne. To help the people, she allowed herself to be reborn into the mortal world. The other members of her mortal family were either killed or enslaved by the emperor, but Chang'e managed to escape to the countryside.

Meanwhile, the emperor was aging and obsessed with discovering the elixir of life. He had people all over the land brought to him and demanded of them how to find the elixir of life; nobody knew, of course, but the emperor would not accept ignorance for an answer and executed all those who could not answer.

In the countryside, Chang'e met the goddess of compassion Guan Yin, who proceeded to give Chang'e a small elixir. Chang'e brought the elixir to the emperor. The suspicious emperor worried that it was poison and demanded that Chang'e taste the elixir first. She did, showing no ill effects, so then the emperor took the elixir and promptly died. Then, Chang'e also left the mortal world; the effects of the elixir had only been delayed for her. However, instead of dying, she ascended to the moon to retake her place as a goddess.

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