Updated: Jun 4, 2018
with Hanfugirl in Nanjing
Since time immemorial, the moon has always captivated the human imagination, featuring in the myths and legends of many cultures around the world.
One such legend is the story of Chang E (the moon goddess) and the Jade Rabbit - a story still recounted today, especially during Mid-Autumn festival. This tale has existed since the Warring States Era (fifth century BC), and has interestingly evolved through the years, producing many variations of the story, and numerous ways of accounting for Chang E’s actions.
By examining the portrayal of Chang E in literature, we can learn more about the gender politics of the time, and trace the changing symbolism of the moon in the Chinese imagination.
The earliest version of the story simply recorded Chang E stealing the elixir (or pill) of immortality from Xi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West. After consuming it, she gained immortality and flew to the moon, residing there forever. No other characters featured in this narrative, though there were unrelated tales of the Jade Rabbit—another legendary resident of the moon—circulating around the same time. But more on that later.
Subsequent variants of Chang E’s story added to its characterisation by giving Chang E a husband, Hou Yi. He was described as a powerful archer who shot down nine suns (sons of the Jade Emperor) to save the earth from burning. However, the Jade Emperor was upset about the deaths of his sons, and banished Hou Yi and his wife to the earth to live as mortals. Chang E was extremely miserable about the loss of her immortality, so her husband, out of love for her, decided to search for the pill of immortality so that she could have eternal life again. He braved many dangers and eventually got the pill from the Queen Mother of the West, but it was only enough to make one person immortal. Hou Yi took it and returned, but did not immediately tell Chang E about the pill. When Chang E found out, she thought that Hou Yi wanted to keep the pill for himself. She swallowed the pill and became immortal again, but was later punished by the Jade Emperor, who banished her to the Palace of Vast Coldness on the moon.
This version of the story functioned as a sort of cautionary tale about women, extolling the sacrificial love of Hou Yi, while portraying Chang E as a selfish and vain wife who betrayed her husband. The tale also extolls the value of love and family, making us question the value of immortality in the absence of warm human relationships.
One of the most famous poems about Chang E written by Li Shang Yin expresses this sentiment - “Chang E must regret stealing the elixir of life; night after night, she bitterly faces the endless blue seas and skies alone.” (translation by Hugh Grigg). Poetic justice is served - immortality becomes eternal hell, and the poet imagines Chang E plagued by regret and eternal separation from her loving husband. Other poets portray her as an unfaithful wife, and even refer to her as a traitor who hides on the moon (”后羿遍寻五觅处，哪知天上却容奸").
In some variants of the myth (especially those before the Tang dynasty), the speakers are harsher in their critique, telling of how Chang E transforms into an ugly three-legged toad, or rabbit, condemned to pound herbs eternally as punishment. These versions find it necessary to demonise her by making her moral ugliness explicit, turning her story into a negative example for wives and women.
But before being conscripted into the legend of Chang E, the Jade Rabbit had a story of its own.
Once upon a time, three immortals decided to transform themselves into pitiful old men, and go down to earth to see if anyone would show kindness to them. They came across a fox, a monkey and a rabbit, and asked if they could be given some food. The monkey gathered fruits from the trees and the fox connivingly stole some food from others, but the rabbit could not offer anything as it could only chew grass. The poor rabbit was upset that it could not be of any help, so it decided to offer himself to be eaten, and jumped into the fire that the old men had started. However, it was not burnt. Touched by this act of self-sacrifice, the immortals revealed their identities and took the rabbit up to heaven. It was given a place in the Moon Palace so that mortals can look up and remember the rabbit's noble virtues of righteousness and self-sacrifice. Since then, many claim that they can see the shape of a rabbit on the moon, pounding away at a mortar and pestle to make herbs for the immortals as its sacred duty.
It's not quite clear how Chang E and the Jade Rabbit came to live together though. Another story tries to make sense of this, while staying close to the original presentation of the Jade Rabbit's character.
In this version, a rabbit spirit who had attained immortality heard about Chang E's plight in the Moon Palace, and felt pity for her as he felt that her suffering was undeserved. Yet there was nothing he could do to change the will of the Jade Emperor. He then thought of sending one of his four daughters to accompany Chang E on the moon. His wife and children were obviously mortified at the thought of being separated, and started to weep. However, the rabbit nobly told them that Chang E had sacrificed herself for the sake of the people, and one should not merely think of one's own happiness. Upon hearing this, the baby rabbits realised that they had been selfish, and were now willing to obey their father. The youngest rabbit was finally chosen and sent to the moon to be Chang E's companion! This tale of course continues to highlight the selflessness of the rabbits, although it is odd why the rabbit spirit did not accompany Chang E himself, but sent one of his children instead!
You may have also noticed the change in this story's treatment of Chang E - instead of being reviled, the rabbit's virtue is predicated on its show of sympathy for her. It became increasingly fashionable for Tang dynasty poets to write about Chang E as a pitiful character, even as subsequent versions of the myth describe her consuming the pill involuntarily, not out of greed.
One version claims that Chang E accidentally swallowed the pill to protect it from falling into the hands of a villain. One day, when Hou Yi was out hunting, Feng Meng, Hou Yi's disciple, broke into his house and tried to force Chang E to give him the elixir. She refused and swallowed the pill herself out of desperation, floating up to the moon. Hou Yi was grieved after discovering what had happened and continually displayed the fruits and cakes that Chang E had liked, hoping that she would come back again. Some even claim that Hou Yi missed her so much that he sought the advice of an immortal to be with her on the moon as well. The immortal granted him his wish, on condition that he could never reveal his true identity to Chang E. After Hou Yi agreed, the immortal turned him into a rabbit and sent him to the moon. As such, Hou Yi continues to silently accompany his wife on the moon, while she never truly realises the depth of his love for her.
Another version portrays Hou Yi as a horrible tyrant who ruled harshly over the people after his heroic deeds propelled him to fame. Chang E feared for the well-being of the people, if Hou Yi should eat the pill and become immortal. After failing to change him for the better, she swallowed the pill as a last resort and drifted away to the moon. This account presents Chang E as a courageous and sacrificial woman, in contrast to Hou Yi, who became corrupted by power. Interestingly, this version of the story now accords Chang E's previously undesirable traits to Hou Yi (greed and vanity), elevating her to a goddess-like figure in her willingness to suffer alone for the benefit of society.
The greater social standing of women in the Tang dynasty may have influenced these alternative interpretations, together with the greater presence of female voices in the literary scene. Here, the feminine becomes a redemptive force, instead of a threatening presence that defies masculine authority.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, women in the Tang dynasty would bow to the moon and lay out offerings and moon cakes for Chang E to bless. They would also pray to her for beauty and a blessed marriage. However, many of the poems (including those written by women) continue to identify with Chang E's pitiful state instead of lauding her beauty or bravery; as if women writers too could not even think of themselves as autonomous subjects in a society dominated by men. This goddess that women worshipped on Mid-Autumn Day offered no salvation from the prevailing patriarchy; though Chang E escapes the confines of Hou Yi's (domestic and political) authority, she is trapped in the moon and confined to a lonesome eternity.
Only in the Late Tang and Song dynasty did Chang E receive newfound veneration from the literati. More women were educated in this time, and female entertainers were also valued for their talents in the arts like the geishas and gisaeng. (Read Hanfugirls' post here for more about Song Dynasty women!) For instance, the poem in the photo above explicitly refers to Chang E as a goddess, 神女, unlike those before. Her beauty was also increasingly emphasized in mythology and and literature, with poets writing of maidens who could only dream of rivaling Chang E with their looks, or beautiful women they knew whom Chang E might be jealous of.
These late Tang and Song dynasty poets made her symbolic of the unattainable and mysterious woman - a beautiful goddess whom they could only desire from a distance. Su Shi, a Song dynasty poet and statesman, lamented how he could not be with Chang E as he could not forsake the warmth of human society （“我欲乘风归去，唯恐琼楼玉宇，高处不胜寒，起舞弄清影，何似在人间”), while Li Bai, a Tang dynasty poet famous for his poems about the moon, saw Chang E as his muse and often wrote about her and toasted her when he got drunk under the moonlight.
Besides being beautiful, Chang E was also portrayed as skillful in song and dance. Yuan dynasty poets wrote of her dancing under the trees, while the Jade Rabbit grumpily pounds medicine on her behalf ("庭中捣药玉兔愁，树下乘鸾素娥舞"). In these poems, Chang E is no longer someone to be pitied - rather, her life on the moon and her talents are enviable; she lives happily with little regret.
Chang E also gains the companionship of other beautiful fairies in later portrayals, where she and her maidens are happily talking, smiling and dancing while emerging from the Moon Palace. Ming Dynasty novelist Wu Cheng'en came up with his own original mythology for Chang E and the Jade Rabbit in Journey to the West, and interestingly, Chang E's name is now used as as a title for all female immortals living in the Moon Palace. From a place of punishment and isolation, the Moon Palace ultimately becomes a place of liberation and female empowerment which men are denied access to - somewhat like the fictitious 女儿国 in the recent Monkey King movie.
Finally, one cannot talk about Chang E and the Jade Rabbit without discussing China's Lunar Exploration Programme. The moon goddess and Jade Rabbit now embody another type of fantasy - China's ambitions to lead the space race, and the potential to explore new lunar territories for the progress of humanity. If all goes according to plan, China will have done something no other space-faring superpower has been able to do: land on the far side of the moon. To accord this once-spurned goddess the privilege of representing national ambition magnifies the significance of the myth, and tells (perhaps rather simplistically so) of the elevated status of women in modern Chinese society today.
The Future of Mankind?
The tales of Chang E and her Jade Rabbit take many forms, just like the moon, which takes many shapes with its waxing and waning. The portrayal of these characters continue to provide fascinating insight into the discourse about women in society - and although Chang E and the Jade Rabbit may merely be the stuff of fiction, who knows what new significance they might have in the future!
Tung, Jowen R. Fables for the Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse. Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.