Posted on Sunday 8 October 2006
Cycles of ten and twelve crop in several places in Chinese dating and I was reminded of this the other night during the Moon Cake festival. In Western thinking, the Moon's cycle, which was the original basis for the length of a month, is divided into four phases: New Moon, First Quarter, Full Moon, Last Quarter. These quarters loosely correspond to our notion of a week (which divides a month into approximately four parts). The ancient Chinese settled on a cycle of three phases known as "upper week", "middle week" and "lower week", where a "week" in this case is ten days long. I can't help but think (perhaps spuriously) that the cycle of ten suns being associated with the cycle of the moon, go some way to explaining some of the curious symbolism in the famous tale of Change Er.
Di Jun, the God of the Eastern Sea and Xi He, the Sun Mother had ten sons, each of whom glowed as a radiant sun. Each week Xi He would take her children to the Valley of Light in the distant East where she wash them in a lake and dry them in the branches of an enormous mulberry tree there which is known as Fu Sang. Then, one at a time, she would permit one of them to make the journey across the sky in a chariot pulled by six dragons. Each sun-child would travel to across the to sky to the far West, to the mountain of Yen Tzu and in this way the light from each of their bodies was able to give just enough warmth to the world down below them.
After a time, however, the suns became quite bored with this daily routine and wanted to play with each other in the sky. They decided one day that all ten of them should journey across the sky together. Unfortunately, the combined heat of all these suns in the sky at once scorched the world below and caused the earth to crack. All of the rivers ran dry and the people and animals began to die. The great Emperor Yao pleaded with Di Jun and the gods of heaven to save the earth from this calamity.
At first, Di Jun called for his sons to return to their mulberry tree but the boys were enjoying themselves so much that they paid absolutely no heed to his requests. Angered by their insolence, Di Jun called for his best archer, Hou Yi to help frighten them into submission. The mighty Hou Yi descended from heaven and landed upon the Kun Lun mountain. He drew a white arrow from his quiver and inserted it into his red bow but rather than merely frightening them, he then proceeded to shoot down the misbehaving suns one at a time.
Hou Yi's swift and unerring arrows shot down nine of the suns but Emperor Yao requested that he spare the life of the last one so that the world would still receive just enough light and warmth. The divine archer had saved the world but when Di Jun learnt what had happened to his beloved children he grew very angry and cursed Hou Yi, banishing him from heaven and exiling him to live as an ordinary mortal upon the earth.
Terrible though his fate was for an immortal, Hou Yi made the best of it. After all, for his extraordinary efforts he had earnt the devotion and gratitude of all the many people on the Earth as well as the heart of beautiful woman by the name of Chang Er whom he married.
One day, Hou Yi journeyed back to the Kun Lun mountain where he intended to visit a friend. There he met Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West and out of respect for her he built a beautiful palace made of jade and fragrant timber. Touched by the obeisance of Hou Yi and impressed by his other good acts, she rewarded him with some pills made from the Elixir of Immortality, a gift which would enable him once again to live forever. Knowing that regaining his immortality would mean that he would outlive his beloved wife, Xi Wang Mu explained that she had given him enough elixir for the two of them. She also warned that before taking the pills they would need to purify their bodies through fasting and praying for twelve months.
Hou Yi went home and told to Change Er about the wonderful gift that the Queen Mother had bestowed upon them. He was determined to keep the precious elixir safe from harm so he wrapped it in silk and placed it in the roof of his house. Unfortunately their conversation was overheard by one of Hou Yi's servants, a wicked a treacherous man whose name was Feng Meng and his heart was so filled with envy that he decided to steal for himself this elixir of everlasting life.
One day while Hou Yi was out hunting for game, Feng Meng who was acting as his attendant attacked and killed him. Wasting no time, the evil Feng Meng returned to his master's home and accosted Change Er demanding that she immediately hand the elixir over to him. Chang Er guessed the fate of her loved one and when Feng Meng threatened her with violence she, without a moment's hesitation, swallowed the pills herself so as to deny the murderer his reward.
Chang Er at that moment became an immortal but, because she had taken a double dose of the elixir, also became lighter than air. She began to float off the ground and when Feng Meng rushed towards her, she flew out of the window and climbed higher and higher into the sky. In this way she travelled up into the heavens before finally settling on the Moon, it being the lowest point of heaven and closest to her beloved Hou Yi.
There she remains to this day, living in her palace on the barren and icy world and still mourning for her lost Hou Yi. People who remember her burn incense and make offerings on her behalf every year on the eight full moon.
Change Er on the Moon
I should point out that this is only one version of this popular story and it is by no means the authoritative one, I just happen to like it the most. Being a folktale that has grown up around some visual imagery rather than a literary text, the story has developed a wide range of variations. Like the intricate variations that crop up in the rules of mahjong from place to place, this one comes in a great many permutations and combinations. The only things that tend to remain constant are the names of the characters, especially Hou Yi and Chang Er.
Sometimes the tale becomes a critique of the haughtiness and selfishness of the beautiful Chang Er who stole the elixir from her great and pious husband and was sent to the moon in punishment. In these versions, she earns the additional penalty of losing her beauty by being transformed into a ugly three-legged toad. Other versions emphasise the vanity of power where Hou Yi becomes king and gradually develops into a megalomaniacal tyrant. As with so many despots in China's history, Hou Yi becomes obsessed with his mortality and in an echo of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, he attempts to procure the elixir of ever lasting life. Chang Er then recognises the danger of her husband obtaining immortality and in a selfless act steals it and swallows the elixir in order to keep it out of his reach. This version ends with Hou Yi, while enraged by his wife's disobedience, watching in despair as she floats up into the heavens. Impotently, he fires off his famous arrows, trying to shoot her down but of course to no avail.
Yet others claim that Chang Er too was originally divine but was banished from heaven for breaking a porcelain jar in the Jade Emperor's palace. These tales usually hinge around Chang Er's disappointment at being forced to live on Earth and tend to be critical of her motives and behaviour.
With all these versions, the image I can't resist is of a massive "Chinese whisper" with the tale being told and retold by countless parents to their children over the course of hundreds of years, the story changing minutely each time.
In all cases the outcome of the story is the tragedy of separation and longing. For whatever reason Chang Er must spend an eternity in isolation separated from her husband and the world. The Moon is seen as, while unquestionably very beautiful, a barren and frigid world and, in fusion with other folktales, she must content herself with only the companionship of a jade rabbit that is always pounding the elixir of immortality and a woodcutter forever chopping away at the cassia tree.
For those interested at looking at other versions of the tale, you could start with these: