Sunday, September 14, 2008

Happy Moon Festival

The Legend of Chang E

No one is certain of all the details of the Chang E legend, but the story goes something like this:

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 Hou Yi 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 one one, blazing the earth. Hou Yi, 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 Hou Yi grew to become a despot. 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 Hou Yi, 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 Hou Yi tried to shoot her down with arrows, but without success. Once on the moon, Chang E became a three-legged toad, as punishment from the Queen Mother, according to one version of the legend. Her companion, a rabbit, is constantly pounding the elixir of immortality in a large mortar.

The moon is also inhabited by a wood cutter 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 Hou Yi ascended to the sun and built a palace. So Chang E and Hou Yi came to represent the yin and yang, the moon and the sun.

Origin of Mooncake

Mooncakes have played a central role in Moon Festival traditions. Once, according to Chinese legend, mooncakes helped bring about a revolution. The time was the Yuan dynasty (AD 1280-1368), established by the invading Mongolians from the north. The Mongolians subjugated the Han Chinese.

According to one Chinese folk tale, a Han Chinese rebel leader named Liu Fu Tong devised a scheme to arouse the Han Chinese to rise up against the ruling Mongols to end the oppressive Yuan dynasty. He sought permission from Mongolian leaders to give gifts to friends as a symbolic gesture to honor the longevity of the Mongolian emperor. These gifts were round mooncakes. Inside, Liu had his followers place pieces of paper with the date the Han Chinese were to strike out in rebellion — on the fifteenth night of the eighth month.

Thus Liu got word to his people, who when they cut open the mooncakes found the revolutionary message and set out to overthrow the Mongols, thus ending the Yuan dynasty.

Today, far from the exotic and heroic legends, Chinese communities all over the world make and consume mooncakes during the traditional autumn Moon Festival. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, during the eighth annual Moon Festival, many stores will be selling modern-day mooncakes, the continuation of an honored tradition.



raining sheep said...

I am so happy I stumbled onto your blog. These legends are wonderful, I truly enjoyed reading them, actually I felt like a was reading an Amy Tan book. Thank you for posting the legends.

Barbara said...

What a great story yoli. Thanks for sharing