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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

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The Legend of the Mid-Autumn Festival

Asia, China
Folk Tale

Thousands of years ago, the jade emperor ordered each one of his 10 sons to become a sun. Every morning, a son would take a turn traveling across the sky. Although the sons begged their father to enlist some lesser gods for such lonely and tedious work, the jade emperor ignored his sons' request. So one day the sons decided to take the matter into their own hands. A solitary son in the sky, they reasoned, could not rival the mighty power of the jade emperor, but 10 suns in the sky could rule the world.

The next morning, the emperor's 10 sons flew up to the sky together, stunning the Earth with their fiery glares. By noon the rivers and seas had become dry, hollow caverns; the rice fields had turned to rotted mush; and the rich green forests of China had become nothing more than ashes.

The jade emperor ordered his sons to come down, but they refused. The emperor then asked the great archer, Hou Yi, who was known to be a skillful orator, to craft a speech that would pierce the hearts of his sons and deflate their insolent pride. With dazzling clarity and brilliant precision, Hou Yi spoke. His words greatly moved all the gods in heaven and caused the few remaining mortals of Earth to weep dry tears of salt. The 10 sons, however, mocked Hou Yi's impassioned pleas. Angered by such blatant disregard for poetry, the great archer pulled out his bow and drew back his arrow. One by one, he shot the snickering suns. Just as he was aiming for the last sun, the mortals of Earth held him back. "Stop!" they cried in unison. Only one sun remained. Without him, the Earth would be sentenced to unending darkness. Not a moment too soon, Hou Yi threw his bow and arrow down to the ground.

The jade emperor, who had asked him to speak, not shoot, was furious at Hou Yi for killing nine of his sons. He refused to let the hero return to heaven and ordered that Hou Yi and his wife, Chang E, be stripped of their divine rights and be cast down to Earth.

Now, Hou Yi and Chang E—the most beautiful of all goddesses—were deeply in love. But life on Earth was not as blissful as life in heaven. While Hou Yi traveled around the world teaching the art of archery, Chang E stayed at home. She soon became acquainted with the mortal sufferings of aging, sickness, and death. And she soon became bitter and depressed.

One evening, just as her husband was arriving home, Chang E met him at the door. That day she had discovered wrinkles on her forehead and extra weight around her hips. Earth, Chang E informed her husband, was obviously not a suitable place for the most beautiful of all goddesses. In no uncertain terms, Chang E declared that she wanted to go home. She then closed the door behind her with a bang, leaving Hou Yi outside in the cold.

Hou Yi, aware that his marriage was in crisis, knew he had to find a way back to heaven, and he had to find it quickly. He begged the jade emperor for mercy, but the emperor refused.

Han Cho, one of Hou Yi's archery students, overheard his teacher talking to the jade emperor. When Hou Yi was alone, Han Cho approached.

Now, Han Cho was envious of Hou Yi's talent, and was secretly plotting to overthrow his teacher and claim the title of world's best archer. Feigning sympathy for Hou Yi's plight, Han Cho explained that the royal mother, who resided at the top of the Kunlun Mountain, possessed an elixir of immortality. The elixir was derived from the nectar of a flower that had blossomed 3,000 years before. One sip of this elixir could restore Chang E and Hou Yi back to their godly state. Han Cho failed to mention, however, that no one had ever been able to climb Kunlun Mountain. The journey was considered impossible, and certainly no one had ever returned with an elixir of immortality. But then, Han Cho did not count on the fact that Hou Yi was a man in love.

Immediately Hou Yi set out for Kunlun Mountain. Though he battled torrential storms and death-defying cold, Hou Yi scaled the mountain with ease, never once losing his step. When he finally reached the uppermost peak, the royal mother greeted him with open arms. Enthralled by Hou Yi's courage, she handed him the elixir without further ado. The power of the elixir could only be released, the royal mother instructed, on the fifteenth night of the eighth lunar moon—when the moon is at its fullest and brightest. Hou Yi thanked the royal mother and waved goodbye. There was little time to waste. It was the twelfth day of the eighth lunar moon and only three days remained.

When Hou Yi entered the courtyard of their home, Chang E ran out to meet him. Never had the two experienced such happiness on Earth. Han Cho watched the couple embrace from outside the courtyard. He had not expected to see Hou Yi alive again, and could not bear to stand aside while his teacher ascended to glory. Still, as Han Cho entered the courtyard, he greeted his teacher warmly. When they were alone, he casually informed Hou Yi of another elixir which might be of interest. This was a jade elixir, he said, found at the top of the Tienshan Mountains. One sip of it could wipe away all signs of aging.

Hou Yi carefully considered the situation. He knew Chang E was not pleased to be entering eternity with wrinkles and large hips. Such an elixir would be a much appreciated gift for his wife. But could Hou Yi journey to the Tienshan Mountains in less than three days? Han Cho assured his teacher that the trip was a very short one. He then urged Hou Yi to keep the trip a secret from his wife. Wouldn't the jade elixir be a wonderful surprise? Hou Yi agreed and, shaking Han Cho's hand, set out once more.

Meanwhile, Chang E waited at home. Three days passed and there was no sign of her husband. On the morning of the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, Chang E was frantic. Seeing her husband's student, Han Cho, passing through their courtyard, Chang E called out to him and asked if he knew where her husband was. Han Cho lied that Hou Yi had traveled to the Tienshan Mountains to visit a woman rumored to be quite beautiful.

Chang E was devastated. Her husband had abandoned her! As the moon slowly rose, she took out the bottled elixir. Standing outside in the courtyard, Chang E looked up at the night sky. Memories of the life she had known in heaven overwhelmed her: no hunger, no sadness, no pain.

Chang E pulled out the elixir and drank it all. At once she felt her body becoming lighter and lighter until the night breeze carried her away. She soared up to heaven like a dove.

Just then, Hou Yi arrived in the courtyard carrying the surprise gift that he had brought for his wife. Seeing the empty bottle of elixir on the ground, he turned his eyes up to the sky to see Chang E hovering above Earth.

Angered that his wife had betrayed him, Hou Yi whipped out his bow and arrow. But he could not shoot her. In despair, he broke his bow and arrows into pieces. What use were they if he did not have the woman he loved? Chang E then realized her mistake. Her husband did indeed love her. She could not bear to enter heaven without him. Changing direction, she headed for the cold and lonely moon.

Han Cho, who had been hiding behind a tree, saw that his teacher was easy prey. Taking out his own bow, he shot an arrow straight through Hou Yi's heart.

From the moon, Chang E cried in agony and reached out her arms to embrace her dying husband. But it was too late. She was separated from Hou Yi forever.

The suffering of Chang E was so great that the gods took pity on her. Each year, on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar moon, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest, Chang E and Hou Yi reunite. On this day, the Chinese bake moon cakes as an offering to Chang E and carry red lanterns to witness the couple's long-awaited embrace.

"When the moon is full," the Chinese say, "all mankind is one." 

About the Author

Kristi Balsanek

"The Legend of the Mid-Autumn Festival" is told by Kristy Balsanek (Peace Corps Volunteer, China, 1997–1999). Kristy taught English at a teachers college in Dachuan, a small town in eastern Sichuan, China. "One day my students invited me to a class party celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. The students had decorated the blackboard with a drawing of a young woman and a bright yellow moon. I asked one of the teachers to explain the meaning of the drawing. She told me the story upon which the 'Legend of the Mid-Autumn Festival' is based."

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