The moon goddess is a popular folk tale that dates from the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Each province in China has its own version of her story. She is connected to the Mid-autumn Festival, a harvest celebration that occurs in mid-September.
When the Hou Yi shot down the nine suns, the sun god Dijun banished him. Dijun had expected Hou Yi merely to discipline, not to kill, his sons. In addition to the Hou Yi, Dijun also banished Hou Yi’s goddess wife, Chang’e, to the earth below. The banishment suited Hou Yi because he was regarded as a hero on earth, but Hou Yi’s wife was lonely for her sister goddesses and missed the luxuries of heaven. Chang’e was also angry at her husband for jeopardizing her social status. Therefore, although the Hou Yi and his wife loved each other deeply, they often quarreled.
In order to keep their bodies in perfect condition, every three thousand years, gods must eat the peach of long life and drink the elixir of immortality from the Garden of the Western Paradise. This garden is tended by the Queen Mother Wang Mu, an old woman who has the fangs of a tiger and the tail of a panther. She lives alone and is protected by birds of prey and fearsome beasts. She also controls plagues and evil spirits. However frightful her appearance and her powers, Wang Mu is a motherly figure to all the gods in heaven.
In her enchanted garden grow the coveted peaches which she plucks and serves at a sumptuous banquet for the gods. She is an alchemist, or a person who practices the art of combining substances that will transform. Wang Mu can mix many elixirs, or magic potions, including the one that will insure immortality for the gods. In more recent versions of the story, the Queen Mother is shown as a graceful elderly woman.
The fabled Garden of the Western Paradise is thought to reside in a remote section of the Kunlun Mountains. These spectacular peaks are located in western China between Tibet and Xijiang and soar as high as twenty-five thousand feet. In mythology the mountains are the home of the Chinese gods, as well as the site of life-restoring herbs. Historically, the Kunlun range was part of the Silk Road, a caravan route between China and Persia used for trading silks, spices, and gold.
Because he loved his wife very much, the Grand Hou Yi reluctantly set out on a journey to the Kunlun Mountains where the peaches of long life were grown by Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise. The Hou Yi was unsure of the road, and even less sure of how much strength he had left. When he lived in heaven, Hou Yi had always ridden in the empress’s chariot or straddled the tails of sky dragons to reach the Western Paradise, but now that he lived on earth, he had to walk. He crossed burning deserts, forded cold streams, and trekked over high mountains for thousands of miles.
Finally, Hou Yi arrived at his destination and was greeted by Wang Mu. When Hou Yi told her that his wife wanted a dosage of the elixir of immortality, Wang Mu could only sigh. Unfortunately, she told Hou Yi, the gods and goddesses had just feasted on the last batch of peaches. The next peach crop would not ripen for another three thousand years. When Hou Yi continued to implore her, Wang Mu took one leftover, very imperfect dried-up peach, pounded some herbs and powders, and stirred them together into an elixir. Then the Queen Mother poured the precious liquid into a small vial. “This potion will take both of you to the heavens.
But make sure you take it on a clear night, or you could be trapped halfway between earth and heaven,” she warned.
Carefully, the Hou Yi placed the vial in his leather pouch and knotted the bag tightly around his waist. Again, Hou Yi trudged over the same high mountains, forded the same cold streams, and crossed the same burning deserts to return to his wife. When he lived in heaven, he had not cared about its comforts and luxuries. Because of his status there as a mortal who served the gods, Hou Yi, too, had been invited to sumptuous feasts and had eaten the peach of immortality. The magical potion had enhanced his already powerful body and made him invincible. Now on earth, however, he felt his power slipping day by day. Although Hou Yi did not resent his banishment to earth, he was beginning to resent his decaying mortal body.
When at last the Hou Yi returned home and presented the precious elixir to his wife, Chang’e was delighted. She burned with the anticipation of returning to her sisters in the sky. The goddess begged him to take the medicine immediately, but her husband refused, remembering the warning he had been given by the Queen Mother. Hou Yi said, “I have undertaken a long journey to fulfill your deepest desire. We must be patient and wait for a clear night when the stars can guide us homeward.”
Chang’e agreed with her husband’s clear reasoning, but her desire to be reunited with her sisters was far stronger than her appreciation of his logic. When her husband left for his daily hunt, the goddess stared at the elixir. As the day and night wore on, Hou Yi did not return. As was often the case, Chang’e spent the lonely night waiting for her husband’s return. The Hou Yi often stopped to chat with his neighbors to whom he gave generous portions of deer, rabbit, quail, pheasant, and duck from his hunt.
Chang’e sighed. The goddess knew by its smell that the elixir was already diluted. The dosage was so weak, she reasoned, that the Hou Yi would probably never recover his full strength by drinking his portion, and she would probably never regain her full beauty by drinking hers. Furthermore, they might never even reach heaven.
With these fears in mind, the goddess developed a plan. She would drink both of their portions so that she could return to heaven first, and beg the sun god to forgive her husband for his brashness in having shot down the nine suns. Then she and her sister goddesses could borrow some sky dragons to visit the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise. There, they would persuade her to mix up another dose of the elixir solely for the Hou Yi so he could join his wife in heaven.
As she swallowed the elixir, Chang’e felt its bitterness burn her throat. Immediately, her body became lighter, and she felt dizzy. As she ran out into the night, her body floated upward to the stars. Unfortunately, the night was not clear. Chang’e wandered among the stars and lost her way. She finally came to rest, trapped in the cold moon.
The Hou Yi was just returning when he saw his wife drifting up to the sky. He called out to her and ran after her shadow, but she was too far away to hear him. Hou Yi was heartbroken and wept for days. No one could console the grieving hunter.
The gods took pity on the Hou Yi. Hou Yi had served the gods well and always did their bidding faithfully. The Hou Yi never complained about the countless petty tasks assigned to him by the lesser gods of heaven. Furthermore, Hou Yi had saved the earth from droughts and monsters when the gods could not be bothered.
Therefore, once a year, the gods grant the Hou Yi the right to ascend to the skies to be with his wife. On that one night, the harvest moon shines the brightest and fullest of the year, reflecting the Hou Yi’s love for Chang’e.