Houyi & Chang'er

The story of Chang’er and her flight to the moon is familiar to every Chinese, and a favorite subject of poets. In his poem " Chang’er", the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (c.813-858) wrote:
Chang’er remorseful for having stolen the elixir
Nightly pines amid the vast sea of the blue sky.

Tradition places Hou Yi and Chang’er in the reign of the legendary emperor Yao, shortly after that of Huang Di. A version of the tale known at least since the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) describes how, in Yao’s reign, ten suns filled the sky. Their heat parched fields, wilted crops , and left people lying breathless and unconscious on the ground. Ferocious animals and birds fled fry rivers and flaming forests to attack human beings.

The immortals in heaven were moved by the people’s suffering. The Emperor of Heaven sent the archer Hou ( Prince) Yi to help Yao bring order. Hou Yi, with his beautiful wife Chang’er , descended to earth carrying a red bow and white arrows given him by the Emperor of Heaven. People greeted the archer joyfully , as hero who might save them from their torment. Ready for battle, Hou Yi strode to the center of the square, drew his bow and arrows, and tool aim at the imperious suns. In an instant, one after the other, nine suns were shot from the sky. As Hou Yi took aim at the tenth, Yao stopped him -for the last sun might be of benefit to people. So end the story of Hou Yi and the nine suns . Other stories tell of how he slays fierce beasts, birds and snakes, and becomes a hero to the people. But Hou Yi has aroused the jealousy of the other immortals, who slandered him before the Emperor of Heaven. Soon the archer sensed an aloofness, a lack of confidence, in the Emperor’s attitude. Finally, Hou Yi and his wife were banished forever from heaven and forced to live by hunting on earth.

This description appears in written form in two Western Han dynasty ( 206 B. C. -A. D. 24) collections; Shanhaijing (Classic of the Mountains and Seas, a book of travels and tales) and Huainanzi (scientific, historical and philosophical articles named for the Prince of Huai).

There are several versions of Chang’er flight to the moon. According to Huainanzi, Hou Yi, sorry that his wife has to lead a mortal’s life for his sake, obtained an elixir of immortality from Xiwangmu the Queen Mother of the West. He hoped that, even though condemned to earth, he and his wife could live together happily and forever. Chang’er , however, resented her new hard life, and while Hou Yi was away from home she swallowed all the elixir and flew to the moon.

There, lonely and solitary, she missed the companionship of human beings and the kindness of her husband. Mencius, the Warring States period philosopher, and Huainanzi say that Hou Yi was murdered by Pang Meng, one of his archer was murdered by Pang Meng, one of his archer trainees who hopes to become tip bow-man. Versions differs as to whether Hou YI was beaten to death with a peach -wood club or shot from ambush by an arrow. Another version has Chang’er drink the elixir to keep it from Pang Meng.

A recent dance drama, Flying to the Moon , adds to the story of Hou Yi and Chang’er several new plot twists which resolve the inconsistencies of the older stories and highlight the tragic fate of the couple. In this version, Chang’er is a village girl who marries Hou Yi. Pang Meng the sorcerer-chieftain, seeing his position threatened, tricks Hou Yi into believing that Chang’er has been unfaithful. Still deeply in love with his wife, Hou Yi feeds her the elixir of immortality and banishes her to the moon. Too late, he realizes his error, and dies gazing at her image in the sky.

The noted historian Gu Jiegang (1893-1980), in a study of Huainanzi and other classics, uncovered some stories making Hou Yi’s soul reincarnated in the legendary hero Zhong Kui. Zhong Kui, appearing in a dream to a Tang dynasty emperor, claimed that his mission in life was to destroy all the evils that plagued human beings. Professor Gu pointed out that both Hou Yi and Zhong Kui were revered by the ancient Chinese as heroes who dedicated their powers to the service of humanity.

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