On Chang E

By Craig Dietrich

Chang E, the lady in the moon, appears in different versions of Chinese folk legends.

She is usually paired with her husband, Hou Yi. The two immortals get demoted to mortals. Hou Yi manages to acquire a pill of immortality, but Chang E swallows it and flees to the moon. (Husbands take note.)

In one version, the heavenly couple are doing just fine, when Hou Yi notes that the Jade Emperor’s ten sons have transformed themselves into ten suns (son/sun is not a pun in Chinese, in case you wondered). To rescue mortals from this situation, he shoots down nine of the suns with arrows, leaving just one remaining. Not amused, the Jade Emperor banishes Hou Yi and Chang E to earth and makes them mortals.

Now the Queen Mother of the West gets in the act, when Hou Yi talks her into giving him a pill of immortality. For some reason, he brings the precious medicine home, puts off taking it, and is shocked when he learns that Chang E has popped it in her own mouth. Immortal again, she floats heavenward, and ends up on the moon. She is stuck there because, after all, the Jade Emperor is still mad, so she can’t go to heaven, and she can’t get back to earth, where she would have to deal with a cranky Hou Yi.

Another version has her as an immortal, banished to earth by the Jade Emperor for accidentally breaking something. Down there she meets Hou Yi, who shoots the nine suns from the sky. Now a hero, he wants immortality. Hence the pill, and hence Chang E’s taking and swallowing it and floating off to the moon. (What is it with wives? A fellow can’t leave anything laying around!)

Seems that Hou Yi always ends up lonely on earth and Chang E ends up lonely on the moon.

More recently, Chang E is the name given to the Chinese lunar probe space program, which began a couple years ago. “Chang E 1”, the first probe satellite, is scheduled for launch this year.

[From the September 2007 CAFAM Newsletter]

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