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The Moon Goddess and Mid-Autumn Festival

The sad love story behind mooncakes and China's annual celebration

09·08·2011

The Moon Goddess and Mid-Autumn Festival

The sad love story behind mooncakes and China's annual celebration

09·08·2011

The trappings of Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations goes back to an old Chinese legend that includes the ingredients for any good story: mad love, irresponsible hunting, and unadvisable pill-popping. I’m talking of course about Houyi and Chang’e, aka the Moon Goddess of Immortality.

There are a number of versions of this story, so we’ll boil it down to the most entertaining  one. It all started around 2100 BC, when Houyi, who was an immortal, and his wife Chang’e, who was mortal, got booted from their celestial service to the Emperor of Heaven as a result of slander propagated by jealous comrades. Banished to Earth, and with nothing better to do, Houyi became a skilled archer. Arise conflict: at this time, there were ten suns, which were actually birds – sun-birds, if you will, and they lived in a mulberry tree in the eastern sea. Every day, one of the sun-birds would circle the earth in a carriage driven by Xihe, the Mother of the Suns.

One day, the sun-birds decided they’d had it with this arrangement, and they decided to fly, all ten of them, across the sky. When the earth started scorching, a panicked Emperor Yao asked Houyi if he would use his archery skills to shoot down the birds. Houyi graciously shot down nine of the ten birds, saving the earth, and was rewarded with a pill that would grant eternal life. Immortality is, as always, a big step, so Houyi decided to stash the pill away in his house and reflect on the matter. One day while Houyi was out, Chang’e discovered the pill and swallowed it. She immediately became immortal and flew out the window up to the moon. Houyi caught Chang’e on her way out, and pursued her halfway to the moon, but wasn’t able to make it. He ended up building a palace on the sun, which came to represent yang (the fiery male principle) as a counterpart to yin (the cooler, more liquid female principle). Now once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Houyi visits his wife on the moon, which is why it appears so bright on that night.

 

Okay, so you’ve got the mythology down, but what’s the best way to honor the Moon Goddess during the festival?