top 0

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get our top stories delivered straight to your inbox.

Copyright © 2024 LOCALIIZ | All rights reserved

Chinese Mythology 101: Wu Gang

By Celia Lee 4 December 2023

Header image: “Cassia-tree Moon (Tsuki no Katsura)” by Yoshitoshi (via Wikimedia Commons)

There is no shortage of stories surrounding the moon in Chinese mythology. Apart from the selfless Jade Rabbit, the noble Chang’e, and the Chinese “Man on the Moon,” stories speak of a fourth inhabitant, toiling away his infinite days under a tall osmanthus tree. Who is he, and what are the events that have led to his fate? In this latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we dive into the tale of Wu Gang, a lumberjack on the moon and the protagonist of a popular parable.

culture 1
0 4692183
Photo: Seele An (via Wikimedia Commons)

A lunar forest

To make sense of Wu Gang’s predicament, we first turn to one of the many origin stories in Chinese folklore that explain the different phases of the moon. Legend has it that a great forest thrived on the surface of the moon, much like any other on Earth. However, lunar trees bear fruit, lose leaves, and bloom monthly instead of yearly, corresponding to the waxing and waning of the moon. (If you’re wondering how on earth—or in this case, how on moon—trees can grow on this celestial body, the Han dynasty text Huainanzi suggested that they grew from the feet of a Taoist immortal.)

Photo: “Tsuki no katsura” (1886). Toshitoshi. Woodcut print. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An apprentice in immortality

While multiple versions of Wu Gang’s story exist, they all mention his quest to achieve immortality and his eventual banishment to the moon.

One story begins with a marital scandal. After three years of practising and perfecting immortality, Wu Gang returns home to find that his wife is having an affair with the grandson of the Yan Emperor (炎帝; jim4 dai3; “Flame Emperor”) who is one of the famed emperors from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors mythological dynasty. In a fit of rage, Wu Gang kills his wife’s lover. Now, it’s the Yan Emperor’s turn to be angry. He banishes Wu Gang to the moon as punishment for murdering his grandson, cursing him with the insurmountable task of trying to cut down a self-healing tree.

Photo: Tamara Menzi (via Unplash)

Other versions of the story are considerably less scandalous. In one, Wu Gang is simply a man—sometimes already a woodcutter—who wants to become a xian (仙; sin1; Taoist immortal). Woodcutter Wu Gang does not take his study of the Dao and perfection of immortality seriously, giving up halfway through the process, to disastrous results.

In another version, Wu Gang seeks out a teacher in the mountains to guide him on his quest; he is taught how to play Chinese chess, heal, and the ways to achieving eternal life. Yet, Wu Gang is equally lazily in this version of the story and gave up perfecting each skill as he is being taught them.

You may also like these stories 👇

By Celia Lee 30 October 2023
By Celia Lee 5 October 2023
Photo: Joshua Sortino (via Unsplash)

Wu Gang’s laziness in cultivating immortality enraged the Jade Emperor in the first story and his teacher in the other, who revealed himself to be a powerful xian. The same fate befalls Wu Gang in both versions of the story. He is lured to the moon with the promise of attaining immortality—all he has to do is simply chop down an osmanthus tree in the lunar forest. When Wu Gang enthusiastically swings his axe, the cut he inflicts is immediately healed over, making his task impossible and his attempts futile—he is doomed to hack away at this tree for eternity.

Photo: “Sisyphus” (1548–1549). Titian. Oil on canvas. 237 x 216 cm. Courtesy of Museo del Prado.

The Chinese Sisyphus

Wu Gang is sometimes dubbed the “Chinese Sisyphus” for the similarities between his legend and that of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. Sisyphus was the founder and first king of Ephyra who was punished for cheating death not once, but twice.

The first time, when Sisyphus was banished to Tartarus, the abyss of torture and suffering, for betraying Zeus’s secret, he tricked Thanatos—the literal personification of death—and escaped imprisonment. The second time, Sisyphus actually died, but tricked Persephone into releasing his spirit back to the Upper World; he had to be dragged back by Hermes.

For his craftiness and disrespect for the gods, Sisyphus was doomed to roll a large boulder uphill for eternity in the Underworld, only for it to roll back down every time it came close to the summit—another impossible task he is doomed to carry out for eternity.

Photo: “Viewing the Moon under a Pine Tree” (early 13th century). Ma Yuan. Album leaf, ink and colour on silk. 25.4 x 25.4 cm. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Wu Gang cuts the osmanthus”: a parable

The stories of Wu Gang are educational in several ways. They have since been adapted as a parable that teaches the importance of perseverance and warns against laziness and quitting something without really trying. The stories have also inspired the chényǔ (成語; a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expression usually consisting of four characters) 吳剛伐桂 (ng4 gong1 fat6 gwai3; “Wu Gang cuts the osmanthus”) which is used to describe any endless and futile task.

culture 1
0 4692183

Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.

Read next