Thursday, September 11, 2008


Chang'e, Ch'ang-O or Chang-Ngo , also known as Heng-E or Heng-O , is the goddess of the moon. Unlike many in other cultures who personify the moon, Chang'e only lives on the moon. As the "woman on the Moon", Chang'e could be considered the Chinese complement to the Western notion of a man in the moon. The lunar crater is named after her.

Chang'e is the subject of several legends in Chinese mythology, most of which incorporate several of the following elements: Houyi the Archer, a benevolent or malevolent , an elixir of life, and the moon.


Chang'e and Houyi the Archer

According to legend, Chang'e and her husband Houyi were immortals living in heaven. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor transformed into ten suns, 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. The mythologies of Japan and Korea also feature 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 Houyi the Archer

Chang'e was a beautiful young girl working in the Jade Emperor's palace in heaven, where immortals, good people and fairies lived. One day, she accidentally broke a precious porcelain jar. Angered, the Jade Emperor banished her to live on earth, where ordinary people lived. She could return to the Heaven, if she contributed a valuable service on earth.

Chang'e was transformed into a member of a poor farming family. When she was 18, a young hunter named Houyi from another village spotted her, now a beautiful young woman. They became friends.

One day, a strange phenomenon occurred -- 10 suns arose in the sky instead of one, blazing the earth. Houyi, an expert archer, stepped forward to try to save the earth. He successfully shot down nine of the suns, becoming an instant hero. He eventually became king and married Chang'e.

But Houyi grew to become a tyrant. He sought immortality by ordering an elixir be created to prolong his life. The elixir in the form of a single pill was almost ready when Chang'e came upon it. She either accidentally or purposely swallowed the pill. This angered King Houyi, who went after his wife. Trying to flee, she jumped out the window of a chamber at the top of palace -- and, instead of falling, she floated into the sky toward the moon.

King Houyi tried to shoot her down with arrows, but without success. Her companion, a rabbit, is constantly pounding the elixir of immortality in a large mortar.

The moon is also inhabited by a woodcutter who tries to cut down the cassia tree, giver of life. But as fast as he cuts into the tree, it heals itself, and he never makes any progress. The Chinese use this image of the cassia tree to explain mortal life on earth -- the limbs are constantly being cut away by death, but new buds continually appear.

Meanwhile, King Houyi ascended to the sun and built a palace. So Chang'e and Houyi came to represent the yin and yang, the moon and the sun.

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 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 Buddhist 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.

Chang'e and Houyi the Archer

This version is very similar to Version 1, although in this instance Chang'e is bitter and abusive towards Yi for their exile from heaven. When Houyi obtains the Elixir of Immortality from the Queen Mother of the West, he is told that, if both he and his wife take half of it each, they will avoid death but remain on Earth. He informs Chang'e of this arrangement and trusts her with the knowledge of the Elixir's hiding place and goes out hunting to prepare a feast when they will both take the Elixir. Chang'e, however, is not content to simply avoid death so she swallows the entire Elixir herself and immediately begins to float up to Heaven. En route, she fears the wrath of the other gods for her selfishness in taking the Elixir and floats to the moon instead. Yet another variant of the story ends with Chang'e imprisoned on the moon in the form of a frog by the Queen Mother of the West as punishment for her selfishness.

Worship of Chang'e

On , the fullmoon night of the 8th lunar month, an altar is set up on the open air facing the moon to worship her. New toiletries are put on the altar for Her to bless. She endows her worshippers with beauty.

Literature and adaptation

This story was adapted in 2003 into a Chinese TV period drama titled Moon Fairy, starring Singapore actors Fann Wong and .

Chang'e appears in Wu Cheng'en's novel Journey to the West and also TV adaptions of the novel. Her story slightly changed from her going to the moon on her first try to going to the heavens, and would later be rewarded to live in the moon after an incident which involved her and Zhu Bajie.

The legend of Lady Chang-O plays a prominent role in Amy Tan's children's book, ''The Moon Lady'', retold from her more adult novel The Joy Luck Club.


The moon goddess was mentioned in the conversation between Houston Capcom and Apollo 11 crew just before the first moon landing:
: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning there's one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called ''Chang-o'' has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill for immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is only standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not recorded.

: Okay, we'll keep a close eye for the bunny girl.

In 2007, China launched its first lunar probe, named Chang'e 1 in the goddess's honour.

In Mother's Agenda The Mother tells that Chinese are originally from the moon, which they had to leave when the planet started to die. One may suggest that there are links between this and Chang'e legend.

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