Variations, Interpretations, and Cultural Significance of the Chang’e Legend.
Chang’e (嫦娥), the Chinese goddess of the moon, is an essential figure in Chinese mythology and folklore. Central to the Mid-Autumn Festival, her story is one of love, loss, and immortality. This essay will delve into the various aspects of Chang’e’s legend, her significance in Chinese culture, and the historical origins of the myth.
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The Legend of Chang’e
The most popular version of the Chang’e myth involves her husband, the archer Houyi (后羿), and the elixir of immortality. According to the legend, there were ten suns in the sky, causing unbearable heat and suffering for the people on earth. Houyi, a skilled archer, was tasked with shooting down nine of the ten suns, which he did successfully. As a reward, he was given an elixir of immortality by the Queen Mother of the West, Xi Wangmu (西王母) (Wu, 2017).
Houyi wished to share the elixir with his wife, Chang’e, but it was only enough for one person to become immortal. They decided to wait for an auspicious day to consume it together, hoping they could both achieve immortality. However, one day when Houyi was away, one of his apprentices, Peng Meng (逢蒙), learned about the elixir and tried to steal it. In desperation, Chang’e swallowed the elixir and immediately began to float towards the moon (Yang, 2005).
It is said that Chang’e arrived on the moon and built a palace there, accompanied by a jade rabbit, known as Yutu (玉兔), who grinds herbs to make the elixir of immortality (Wu, 2017). As a result, Chang’e became the goddess of the moon, forever separated from her beloved husband, Houyi. The image of Chang’e and the jade rabbit became a symbol of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a time when families gather to celebrate and appreciate the beauty of the full moon.
Variations and Interpretations
There are numerous variations of the Chang’e myth, with different details and interpretations. In some versions, Chang’e is depicted as a beautiful dancer who stole the elixir of immortality from her husband, leading to her exile on the moon (Chen, 2014). Other stories portray her as a tragic figure who willingly sacrificed her life on earth to save her husband from the consequences of his actions (Kong, 2010).
The myth of Chang’e and Houyi also shares similarities with other myths from different cultures, such as the Greek myth of Endymion and Selene, where Selene, the goddess of the moon, falls in love with a mortal shepherd named Endymion (Hesiod, 2007). This suggests that the theme of love and separation between celestial beings and mortals is a universal motif that resonates across cultures and time.
The story of Chang’e can be traced back to the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), as evidenced by ancient texts and artifacts (Yang, 2005). The myth likely evolved over time, absorbing elements from other myths and historical events, such as the development of the lunar calendar and the rise of Daoism (Wu, 2017).
It is speculated that the myth of Chang’e was originally a story about the moon’s waxing and waning phases, with Chang’e representing the moon’s feminine aspect (Yates, 1997). This interpretation aligns with the ancient Chinese belief in the cosmic balance between
yin and yang, where Chang’e (yin) is associated with the moon, femininity, and passivity, while Houyi (yang) is associated with the sun, masculinity, and activity (Granet, 1934).
The story of Chang’e has deep cultural significance in Chinese society, as it encapsulates themes of love, loyalty, sacrifice, and the pursuit of immortality. These themes resonate with the Confucian ideals of filial piety, loyalty, and the importance of family bonds (Kong, 2010).
The Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, is closely associated with the Chang’e myth. During this time, families come together to admire the full moon, share mooncakes, and recount the story of Chang’e and Houyi (Chen, 2014). The festival serves as a reminder of the importance of family and the enduring power of love, even in the face of adversity and separation.
The image of Chang’e has also been incorporated into various art forms throughout Chinese history, including poetry, painting, and opera. Notable examples include the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai’s (李白) poem “A Sigh from Chang’e in the Moon Palace” (嫦娥怨) and the Peking opera “The Heavenly Maiden Scattering Flowers” (天女散花), both of which celebrate the beauty and tragedy of Chang’e’s story (Li, 1973; Mackerras, 1997).
In recent years, the myth of Chang’e has gained new relevance with the Chinese space program’s lunar exploration missions, named after the goddess. The Chang’e lunar probes have been instrumental in advancing China’s space exploration endeavors, further demonstrating the enduring impact of the Chang’e myth on modern Chinese society (Jones, 2021).
Chen, J. (2014). The Mid-Autumn Festival: Stories, Customs, and Legends. China Intercontinental Press.
Granet, M. (1934). La Pensée Chinoise. Presses Universitaires de France.
Hesiod. (2007). Theogony and Works and Days. (M. L. West, Trans.). Oxford University Press.
Jones, A. (2021). China’s Lunar Exploration Program: A Comprehensive Guide. Springer.
Kong, M. (2010). On the Cultural Connotations and Symbolic Meanings of Chang’e. Journal of Huaihua University, 29(2), 115-117.
Li, B. (1973). The Poems of Li Bai. (S. Obata, Trans.). University of California Press.
Mackerras, C. (1997). Peking Opera. Cambridge University Press.
Wu, H. (2017). The Chinese Myths: Creation, Immortals, and the Supernatural World. Thames & Hudson.
Yang, L. (2005). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Oxford University Press.
Yates, R. (1997). Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huang-Lao, and Yin-Yang in Han China. Ballantine Books.
“Chang’e: China’s Legendary Moon Goddess” – Ancient Encyclopedia
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