Immortality and Rockets: the Legend of Chang E

David Leffman Uncategorized Leave a Comment

China’s Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. The roundness of the full moon that night represents “wholeness”, the getting together of communities and families to gather in the harvest or to simply enjoy each other’s company by eating mooncakes.

“Chang E Escapes to the Moon”

These two prints, both collected around 1930 by the Reverend Hallock, tell the story of Chang E, the deity most associated with the moon and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Chang E was the wife of Hou Yi, described in the frankly insane Chinese bestiary, the Shan Hai Jing, as a mighty archer with a red bow and short white arrows. In mythology, he’s famous for shooting down nine extra suns which had been scorching the Earth, for which he was given the elixir of immortality.

Bottom right corner is 月下老人 (“Old Man Under the Moon”, a marriage deity); the moon hare runs left from him towards a bridge to the Guanghan Palace. Dancing in front of a group of women is Chang E herself; the others are the heavenly spirits 氷桃 (“Ice Peach” carrying a bowl full of peaches of immortality), 素娥 (Su E, sometimes another name for Chang E, but here a separate being), 雪藕 (“Snow Lotus”, proffering a plate of crunchy lotus roots) and two maids (侍女).

But Chang E ate the elixir and then, fleeing her husband’s wrath, escaped to the moon. Here she lives in the cold Guanghan Palace with her companion the moon hare, who pounds the herbs of immortality in a giant mortar. She has become something of the patron deity of women, protecting them from loneliness; China’s space programme is also named after her.

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