Just like other festivals, the legends of the Mid Autumn Festival have been passed down from generation to generation. Various versions explain the origin of the celebration, and during the festival, the Chinese love to recite these ancient folk tales to their children.
The Lady Chang’e Flying to the Moon
There are different stories about the fairy lady or the Goddess of the Moon – Lady Chang’e. One of the most famous ones goes as follows.
A long time ago, there lived an archer by the name of Hou Yi. At the time, there were ten suns in the sky that were burning and killing the people and crops on Earth. Hou Yi was summoned by the Emperor to shoot down nine of the suns, which he did successfully.
Life on Earth went back to normal after that, and as a reward, Hou Yi was gifted the elixir of immortality. However, he did not want to consume it without his beautiful wife Chang’e and requested the Queen Mother to give him enough for both of them. The Queen Mother agreed and gave him what he wanted.
Hou Yi and Chang’e decided to drink the elixir on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month together. However, a wicked man named Feng Meng, who was envious of Hou Yi’s skills, overheard them and decided to steal it for himself.
On the 15th day, when Hou Yi went out hunting, and Chang’e was alone, Feng Meng went to their house and forced her to give up the elixir. Since she knew she would not be able to defeat him, she drank it all by herself. On doing so, Chang’e started to fly and was lifted to heaven. She then decided to live on the moon as it was the closest to Earth and her love, Hou Yi.
When Hou Yi returned, he heard the news and was very sad. He prepared the food that Chang’e loved and placed it on a table in his garden, under the moon, hoping that she would return. Since then, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, people admire and worship the moon by offering food for her to bless. Chang’e, who is believed to be fair and beautiful herself, is said to bestow those who worship her with beauty.
Other tales even say that Hou Yi became a tyrannical ruler and wanted the elixir of immortality to rule forever. To put an end to this, Chang’e stole it and drank it all so that her husband could not find her.
On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, children look up to the moon and try to find the shape of Lady Chang’e.
Hou Yi Making Cakes
Traditional mooncakes are generally imprinted with Chinese characters, which represent longevity or harmony, and its packaging is designed with images of Chang’e, her companion – the Jade Rabbit, the moon, or sometimes flowers.
After Lady Chang’e flew to the moon, it is said that she and Hou Yi missed each other a lot. Hou Yi was then told by an immortal that he should make round cakes using flour. He was instructed to place them in the house towards the northwest and shout his wife’s name. It was believed that he would be able to reunite with his wife on the Mid-Autumn Festival Day if he followed these directions. Hou Yi obeyed the immortal’s words and was finally able to meet Chang’e. These cakes eventually became the famous mooncakes which are used widely during this time of the year.
Wu Gang Cleaving Sweet Osmanthus Tree
Another famous story is that of the woodcutter, Wu Gang.
Wu Gang used to live on Earth but was more fascinated by the magical power of the Gods and did not want to be a woodcutter. His behaviour offended the Almighty, and he was banished to the Palace on the Moon where Lady Chang’e lived. He was told that once he cut down the sweet-scented Osmanthus tree there, he would attain magical powers.
The tree was more than 1600 meters tall, and Wu Gang would try to cut it with his axe every day. Strangely, no matter how many times he tried, he could not fell the tree, and the mark from the axe would heal by itself. He would try day after day but was never able to cut down the tree, and the cleaving scar would vanish after each blow. What he did not know was that it was actually a self-healing tree. Hence, it continued to grow, and Wu Gang was punished with the task of trying to cut it down.
The Chinese believe that repeated and never-ending labour is one of the cruelest punishments a man can be given. The spirit and flesh of a man are destroyed by this pursuit.
There are many versions of this narrative as well, and the reasons he was sent to the moon vary with each one.
Jade Rabbit Mashing Herbs
The Jade Rabbit, too, has made its way into many Chinese folk tales.
One day the Emperor of Heaven wanted to test the animals on Earth. He took the form of an old man and appeared to a fox, monkey, and rabbit. He told them that he was hungry and needed food to eat. The animals immediately went their separate ways to find the man some food.
The fox brought back some fish, and the monkey collected some fruit. However, the rabbit could not catch anything. Knowing that he would not be able to offer the old man food, he asked the fox and monkey to prepare a fire and jumped into the fire, thus offering himself. Deeply moved by this gesture, the Emperor of Heaven sent the rabbit to live on the moon, where he was put in charge of preparing the elixir of immortality.
Lady Chang’e and the Jade Rabbit got along immediately and became the best of friends. On hearing about Chang’e and Hou Yi’s fate, the Jade Rabbit sympathized with her and wanted to make a special medicine to help Chang’e go back to Earth. He mashed herbs for thousands of years to prepare the elixir but was never successful in preparing it.
It is held that if you observe the moon on the Mid-Autumn Day, you can see an outline of the Jade Rabbit pounding with a pestle.
Some legends say that Hou Yi turned into a rabbit to give his wife company, but she never knew that the rabbit was actually her husband.
The Jade Rabbit, a sign of devotion, altruism, and sacrifice, is a widely used and beloved symbol during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Lady Chang’e and the Jade rabbit are depicted together in many works of art.