Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The sun and the moon are often attributed to significant figures and stories in mythology. In Chinese culture, two personas are closely related to these celestial bodies. Chang’e (嫦娥; soeng4 ngo4) is a moon goddess, often depicted as kind, gentle, and caring. Meanwhile, Hou Yi (后羿; hau6 ngai6) is a legendary sun-slaying archer. In this latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we dive into the stories surrounding Chang’e and Hou Yi, an iconic couple in Chinese culture.
The legend of Chang’e rushing to the moon (嫦娥奔月; soeng4 ngo4 ban1 jyut6) is one of the most popular stories in Chinese mythology, while the tale of Hou Yi shooting the suns (后羿射日; hau6 ngai6 se6 jat6) is closely related to it, but not as widespread. Both stories are believed to have taken place during the mythological dynasties—also dubbed the “Three Sovereigns, Five Emperors” dynasty—approximately four to five thousand years ago. In the canonical version of Chang’e’s myth, the event of Hou Yi shooting the suns precedes Chang’e’s journey to the moon, so let’s start there.
Legend has it, the Jade Emperor and the Sun Goddess (羲和; hei1 wo4) had 10 suns together (yes, you read that right; the suns were also boys, and therefore they had 10 sons). All 10 suns were instructed to work shifts in the mortal realm, ensuring there will always be one sun in the sky during daytime. However, one day, the brothers decided to visit Earth together, and the combined glare of their shine scorched the earth, dried up rivers, and took countless lives.
The cause of this sudden and terrible catastrophe is, expectedly, unbeknownst to us humans. But it does not take the brightest of minds to figure out why it was a problem—nine extra suns in the sky are pretty hard to miss, and not even the strongest of SPF sunscreens can protect you from this much exposure. Fearing for their lives, many humans prayed to the Jade Emperor and Sun Goddess for forgiveness and mercy. When the deities heard the people’s pleas, the Jade Emperor sent for a legendary archer to deal with the situation caused by his troublesome progeny.
While it is unclear whether Hou Yi was already an immortal (仙; sin1; “xian”) at this stage of the myth, all retellings agree that the archer wielded a magical bow. Having borne witness to the despair and destruction around him, Hou Yi was more than happy to obey orders and annihilate the suns.
Picture this. The archer scales the divine Kunlun Mountain and draws his bow exactly nine times, bringing down the extra suns, but he does not stop there. Blinded by rage, the archer aims for the one and only sun remaining in the sky. Luckily, an onlooker stops Hou Yi just in time before he plunges the world into complete and eternal darkness.
Despite nearly dooming all of humanity in a fit of vengeance, Hou Yi was and still is celebrated for ending the fiery destruction of the 10 suns. Many who admired the accuracy and great skill he displayed with his bow and arrow begged to become his apprentice, to which he happily agreed.
Once Hou Yi had become a well-known archer and sun slayer, he went back to his wife Chang’e, who is said to be a kind-hearted young woman who looks out for her neighbours, always lending them a hand in times of need. As such, husband and wife were both highly respected within their community—but the couple soon after encountered trouble in paradise.
The story goes that, not long after his feat, Hou Yi was sent for by the Queen Mother of the West (王母娘娘; wong4 mou5 noeng4 noeng4; “queen mother goddess”), from whom he received two pills of immortality. Once consumed, not only would these pills grant immortality, but also divine power. Hou Yi understood the Queen Mother’s intention—for him to take the pills and become one amongst the mythological pantheon. Not wanting to leave Chang’e behind, the archer politely declined, returning home with the pills, and a story to tell his beloved wife. The couple stored the divine pills safely in their home.
Now comes in Peng Meng (逄蒙; pong4 mung4), one of Hou Yi’s many apprentices. Not only was he a fast learner, but the man also had quite the eye for shooting. Under the legendary archer’s patronage, he quickly became one of the brightest archers of his generation. However, he was prone to jealousy, and realised that no matter how much he learned from his master, his skill would never surpass the sun slayer’s. This jealousy was to be the end of Chang’e and Hou Yi’s peaceful life, when Peng Meng somehow learnt of the pills’ existence and decided to steal them.
One night, when Hou Yi was out training with his other apprentices, Peng Meng sneaked into his master’s house and forced Chang’e to hand over the pills of immortality. In a desperate act to keep the pills away from her husband’s deceitful apprentice, Chang’e ingested the pills herself. At once, she felt lighter and her body began to float before she finally flew out of the window, heading straight for the moon.
When Hou Yi returned home, it was already too late. He rushed out searching for Chang’e, only to look up at the moon and see his wife’s shadow there, standing by a tree with a bouncing rabbit, gazing down at him longingly. Hou Yi tried to chase after the moon, but it seemed to move further and further away every time he stepped towards it. The archer was left devastated and alone.
Meanwhile, on the moon, Chang’e encountered the Jade Rabbit and Wu Gang—dubbed the Chinese Sisyphus. She begged for their help in searching for a cure to immortality that would allow her to return to Earth. Legend has it, she is still searching to this day.
As it often happens in mythology, there are many variations to Chang’e and Hou Yi’s tales. The core aspects remain the same, but some discrepancies seem important enough to mention.
While Chang’e presumably takes the pills to prevent the evil force that is Peng Meng from immortality, some versions of the story suggests that she steals the pills from Hou Yi, and sometimes even from the Queen Mother herself. Some of these sources say Chang’e stole them out of greed for eternal life, beauty, and youth; others say husband and wife agreed to take one pill each to spend eternity together, but Peng Meng interfered, causing Chang’e to take both pills.
In the stories where Chang’e takes the pills for herself, Peng Meng does not appear until after she has flown to the moon. Here, the persona is a house boy that cares for Hou Yi. Plagued by heartbreak and sadness, Hou Yi resorts to drinking. Peng Meng is diligent and able, and his master quickly picks up on his qualities, offering to teach him to shoot. Here too, Peng Meng is a fast learner, but jealousy of his teacher quickly grew. Peng Meng plots a failed assassination attempt, but Hou Yi good-naturedly offers the man a second chance, to his doom: the story ends ending with Hou Yi’s murder by hammer. The verdict of Hou Yi versus Peng Meng: Peng Meng guilty on all counts.
According to the most widespread account of the “Chang’e Rushes to the Moon” story, she is missed dearly by her friends and neighbours after she is gone. Knowing what had happened and where she had flown to, people began placing Chang’e’s favourite food in their gardens from where the clear moon could be observed, as a prayer for her well-being.
Some believe that these offerings to Chang’e during the full moon evolved into Mid-Autumn Festival customs. However, it is unlikely that the story of Chang’e alone gave rise to the festival, which mostly celebrates the autumn harvest. Nevertheless, many people still make the connection between the star-crossed lovers and the festival today.
Some of the most popular references to this ancient myth focus on Chang’e’s part of the story. Fans of the famous Japanese manga series Sailor Moon have suggested that the myth of Chang’e inspired the plot and character’s relationships. While no official sources have confirmed this suggestion, the similarities between the two stories are hard to miss.
To cite other examples that more directly adapt the story of Chang’e in pop culture, the Netflix animated film Over the Moon (2020) is based on this myth. The film follows Fei Fei, a 14-year-old girl coping with the loss of her mother while holding a strong belief in Chang’e’s existence. As the story progresses, Fei Fei travels to the celestial kingdom of Lunaria, where she meets Chang’e, the Jade Rabbit, and various Chinese mythological creatures. Malaysian author Sue Lynn Tan’s novel, Daughter of the Moon Goddess (2022), also references and reimagines the myth of Chang’e in an empowering narrative.