The gate towered overhead—a behemoth symbol of Chinatown nestled among the buildings of sprawling Bangkok.
Just across from the imposing gate a stone rabbit grinned at all the people milling around on the small concrete island. Traffic circled by like bored sharks.
It wasn’t hard to imagine the stone rabbit was a visiting spirit chuckling at the excited crowd. Darkness was falling but the area glowed like a class 1 star within the galaxy of Bangkok. Lanterns, Christmas lights and streetlights displayed the merry festivities.
Welcome (albeit belatedly) to the Chinese Autumn Festival—also known as the Moon Festival. In Chinese culture there is a deep appreciation for the moon. In the past the moon defined the changing seasons and was used to track time. In fact, using the moon as a calendar is a tactic shared by most cultures in the world.
After visiting this festival I learned that there are many legends connected to the event.
The first is about the goddess of the moon.
As with most legends and stories you’ll find many different versions of the woman, Chang Er’s, ascent to the moon.
So I’ll share these two variations and you can look at more if you find it interesting.
Chang Er Flies to the Moon
One day 10 suns appeared in the sky. The Earth began to scorch under the heat. No plants would grow and the people could not take the heat.
A skilled archer named Hou Yi decided to deal with the problem. He shot down nine of the ten suns and saved the Earth. He was heralded as a hero.
He met Chang Er, happily married her and people flooded to his side to learn from him.
While travelling Hou Yi was greeted by the Queen of Heaven, Wangmu, who presented him with an elixir which could take him directly to heaven. He didn’t drink it because he didn’t want to leave Chang Er’s side. Instead he gave it to her to keep safe.
While Hou Yi was away, a follower of his named Peng Meng came to Chang Er and demanded the elixir. To protect it Chang Er drank it and began to fly away from Earth. Her great love for Hou Yi drew her to the moon so she could be as close to her husband as possible—since it is the closest edge of heaven to Earth.
She’s been there ever since and Hou Yi—after seeing her shadow pass over the moon—in his mourning, placed her favourite foods at alters on nights of the full moon.
In another version there were again ten suns scorching the Earth. This time however they were the sons of the Jade Emperor. Failing to stop his sons from transforming into the suns, the Emperor summoned the immortal Hou Yi who lived in heaven with his wife Chang Er.
Hou Yi chose to shoot down nine of the ten sons to save the Earth. The emperor was unhappy with this solution and banished Hou Yi and Chang Er to Earth to live as mortals.
Chang Er missed immortality so Hou Yi decided to seek out an elixir that would grant them their immortality again. He found it in a pill, which the couple had to break in two and share.
He gave the pill to Chang Er (or in another version put the pill under his pillow) and she swallowed it herself (either on purpose or by accident). Upon consumption of the pill she flew through the window and landed on the moon.
If you go to YouTube there are dozens of animated shorts displaying the different versions of the story. This video was inspired by the first version I shared and here is one where Hou Yi is not such a kind character and Chang Er is a heroine for keeping him from becoming immortal.
Because of her deeds people like to send their wishes to Chang Er during the mid autumn festival. This is how we sent our wishes to the moon.
Chang Er is said to be accompanied by a rabbit and a man forced to forever chop down a moon tree.
The Jade Rabbit
Three immortals reincarnated as poor old people and begged food from a fox, monkey and rabbit. The fox and monkey found food and offered it to the starving people but the rabbit had none to give.
It then turned to the immortals and said, “you can eat me” and leapt into the fire.
The immortals were so moved they made the rabbit immortal and sent it to the moon to live with Chang Er.
Wu Gang and the Laurel Tree
Wu Gang was a man who lived during the Han Dynasty. He followed the immortals to cultivate himself in the hopes of becoming immortal too. One day in heaven he made a mistake and was sent to the moon to chop down the tree there. However, each time Wu Gang cuts the tree down it grows back. Wu Gang continues to chop the tree down to this day. Perhaps he’ll never be allowed to stop.
The final legend of the Moon Festival doesn’t actually involve the moon. It’s a story about the moon cakes eaten during the festival. Moon cakes are little buns filled with different goodies: lotus seed paste, sweet bean paste, jujube paste and sometimes a collection of five kernels. Moon cakes are also said to be Chang Er’s favourite snack.
Mooncakes, Mongols and Revolution
It is said that during the Yuan Dynasty the people of China were not happy with their government (mostly mongols) and rose in revolt. Zhu Yuan Zhang, the founder of the next time period, the Ming Dynasty, attempted to unite the resistance forces.
Government control proved too great for the flow of rogue messages until a counselor called Liu Bowen suggested they be passed along inside of moon cakes. The strategy worked and the resistance was a success. Yuanzhang celebrated by giving moon cakes to everyone and ever since then people have eaten moon cakes during the autumn festival.
There have been an interesting discussion about whether the moon cake story reflects the reality of the event it emerged from.
The festival’s celebration of moon cakes could be a relic of a very interesting political tactic created for Zhu Yuan Zhang’s rule. He certainly immortalized his name with the tale.