Chang E 嫦娥: Heroic Moon Fairy or Spoiled Frog Princess?

Traditional China was not known for its liberated women, but its people envisioned a woman on the moon long before the “man in the moon” was conceived in the West. The legend of Chang E (a.k.a. Chang Er, Ch’ang O or Heng O, but pronounced “Chang Uh”) is still prominent enough for the Chinese government to name moon landers after her, but did the ancient Chinese really mean to lionize a woman who betrayed her husband and fled to the moon to live as a spinster with a bipedal rabbit and a delinquent lumberjack? 


At the museum Moon Festival 中秋節 celebration each year, we recruit youngsters to re-enact the story of Chang E and Hou Yi 后羿, but we sacrifice a certain amount of nuance for the sake of simplicity. The tale as presented in the museum garden goes like this:

The people once suffered under the unbearable heat of ten suns until the heroic archer Hou Yi shot down nine of them with his bow. The people were so grateful that they proclaimed him king, and he married the beautiful Chang E. But Hou Yi began to abuse his power and made the people suffer. In a bid to rule forever he traveled to the Kunlun Mountains 崑崙山 and persuaded the Queen Mother of the West 西王母 to give him an elixir of immortality for he and his wife to share. However, Chang E seizes the elixir and drinks it herself to save the world from eternal tyranny. Hou Yi watched as this overdose caused her to float up to the moon, but he could not bring himself to shoot his love down. So he would gaze up at her on each full moon (Other endings to this version have a repentant Hou Yi build her a palace on the moon and/or deliver her pet rabbit, which becomes the Jade Rabbit 月兔).

This version always leaves me feeling a little sorry for Hou Yi. Sure, he engaged in some sort of vague tyranny (actually, one particularly colorful version has him making the elixir out of babies), but he did save the world from certain death by ancient Chinese global warming (and his methods were more exciting and efficient than Al Gore). Regardless, it’s unusual for a Chinese heroine to stab her husband in the back, even if he had it coming. But Chang E looks decidedly less heroic in other versions of the tale:


Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳 portrays Chang E in the Chinese Opera
One version claims that the two were a divine couple sent down from heaven to dissuade the ten suns from all shining at once, but they were not allowed to return after Hou Yi shot down the suns that were actually sons of the Jade Emperor. Other versions cast Chang E as a maid in heaven who broke a porcelain vase, for which the Jade Emperor banished her to earth where she married the hero Hou Yi. In either case, Chang E (and sometimes Hou Yi) was not entirely satisfied with ruling Earth as an aging mortal, so Hou Yi sought the elixir of immortality. In giving it to him, the Queen Mother warned that a year of fasting and mental preparation is necessary before taking it. Half would make one immortal; all of it would cause one to float up to the heavens. In some versions an evil villain (who sometimes kills Hou Yi) tried to take the potion and Chang E had to drink it to prevent him from stealing it. In others, she took the potion out of hiding against Hou Yi’s command. She was discovered, hid it from Hou Yi in her mouth and accidentally swallowed it. And a final version claims that she willfully took the whole potion for herself because she could no longer bear mortal life. But she never made it back to heaven, because she didn’t do the necessary preparations; or the Jade Emperor was still mad about his vase, her unfaithfulness, or failure to bear a grandson… Or the romantic version says she just wanted to continue gazing longingly at Hou Yi. Some also say she was transformed into a frog that swallows the moon during an eclipse as punishment for her theft.

Of course, it’s futile to try to distill the “true” story out of all this, but it’s equally futile to try to coach little kids into acting out all these different versions. To me, it makes more sense that she’s being punished. Any student of Chinese history can name several evil temptresses, but I can’t think of any Chinese heroines who are celebrated for betraying their husbands. Actually, it seems Americans would be more likely to prefer the first version in which a brave and independent woman takes the initiative to bring down The Man.

Furthermore, look at the other inhabitants of the Chinese moon: The woodcutter, Wu Gang 吳剛, is a Chinese version of Sisyphus, condemned to endlessly chop away at a regenerating cassia tree because of a past affront to the gods. There’s also the Jade Rabbit, who supposedly was sent to the moon as a reward for self-sacrifice, but is always depicted pounding away with a mortar and pestle to make the elixir of immortality (or mochi in Japan). I don’t claim to know what rabbits do for fun, but this hardly seems like a heavenly award, and the moon is starting to seem rather tedious and unpleasant… 

 So perhaps Chang E, who has become renowned as the “moon princess,” “moon goddess,” or “moon fairy,” could be better labeled “lunar temptress,” “wicked witch of the moon,” or “the princess frog.” I know, women in traditional China, and mythology in general, tend to get a bad rap, but there are usually more than two sides to any myth, and I, for one, feel it’s important to embrace all of them. As to which version of the story we’ll decide to present at this year's Moon Festival, feel free to recommend one here, but you’ll have to come to the museum Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010 to find out!

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