In Chinese Mythology, Chang’e (嫦娥) is best known for stealing an elixir of immortality from her husband, Hou Yi (后羿), and becoming the goddess of the moon. Chang’e’s myth is one of the most important and well-known stories in the Chinese canon and is central to the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The goddess Chang’e’s name is comprised of a character completely unique to her name cháng (嫦) and é (娥) which means “pretty, young woman.” Chang'e (嫦娥) is also sometimes referred to a Chang’o in other styles of romanization.
Chang’e was actually once known as Heng’e (姮娥). Her original name had to be changed since an emperor, Liu Heng (劉恆) used a similar sounding and looking “heng” (恆) character in his name. An emperor’s name was supposed to be unique, so having a name so similar to another important Chinese cultural figure would have been considered very taboo. So, Heng’e’s name was changed to Chang’e.
Before she became the spirit of the moon, Chang’e was a very pretty woman renowned throughout China for her beauty. She had pale, milky skin, hair as black and silky as night, and lips like cherry blossoms.
In art, Chang’e is almost always depicted as a graceful, young lady wearing stylish hair ornaments and long, flowing robes. She is sometimes painted holding an elegant, pure-white rabbit. Depending on the version of the myth the artist might be referencing, Chang’e is also sometimes simply depicted as an ugly toad.
Chang’e is married to the legendary hero and archer, Hou Yi. Little is known about Chang’e’s family. In some versions of her myth, she was once a servant girl who worked for the Jade Emperor and was cast out of heaven and condemned to live as a mortal for accidentally breaking a porcelain pot.
Chang’e is often confused with the less popular lunar goddess, Changxi, who gave birth to twelve moons. Some myth historians believe that Chang’e may actually be the mother of Changxi because their names are so similar and the fact that they’re both moon goddesses.
Chang’e is associated with a number of different myths, but she is most well known for stealing the elixir of immortality; a myth that features a few variations. In some retellings, she’s forced to drink the elixir when her husband’s apprentice tries to steal it for himself. In others she is simply a greedy women who steals it out of selfishness. But in all of the myths, Chang’e drinks the potion, becomes immortal, and flies to the moon.
One of the first written records of Chang’e can be found in the ancient divination text, the Gui Cang (歸藏), where her deeds were recounted: “In the past Chang’e took the Western Queen Mother’s medicine of immortality and ate it, and subsequently fled to the moon, becoming the essence of the moon.”
Chang’e Drinks the Elixir of Immortality
When the earth was still young, there were ten suns in the sky. It was extremely hot all the time and there was no such thing as night. The extreme heat made it hard to farm crops and was just downright uncomfortable.
A skilled archer named Hou Yi (后羿) decided he had had enough one day and shot down nine of the ten suns. To reward him for his heroic deeds the goddess Xiwangmu gave him an elixir of immortality, a prize typically reserved for immortals who had achieved enlightenment.
But Hou Yi felt conflicted about his gift because Xiwangmu had only given him enough of the elixir for one person. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be immortal if his wife couldn’t achieve immortality as well. So, he decided to hide the elixir away under his bed in case he changed his mind in the future.
Chang’e, though, found out what her husband had received from Xiwangmu and began to devise a plan. That night, she found the bottle under the bed and drank every last drop. Hou Yi soon realized that his wife wasn’t in bed with him and ran outside only to find Chang’e already drifting up and away towards the moon.
Hou Yi was so angry that he grabbed his bow and tried to shoot her down but missed. But as time went by, Hou Yi’s anger subsided and he started to miss his wife. He would often stare up at the moon and think how lonely she must be all the way up there by herself. In the hopes that it might make Chang’e feel less alone (and to show that he was no longer mad at her), Hou Yi started leaving out her favorite desserts and fruits every day at night, and did so until the day he died. Today, people will still leave out annual offerings to Chang’e during the Mid-Autumn Festival which falls on the first full moon of the eighth lunar month of the year.
In an alternative ending, Chang’e is punished for betraying her husband and turned into an ugly toad, forever doomed to live out a lonely, repulsive existence on the face of the moon. Other variations to the story describe how she becomes addicted to the elixir of immortality and is forced to spend her days brewing and consuming it. In those versions of the my a white rabbit takes pity on Chang’e and flies with her to the moon where he keeps her company and helps her prepare the elixir by pounding the herb into a fine powder with his legs.
Journey to the West
In Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en, the pig demon, Zhu Baijie (豬八戒) is punished for flirting with Chang’e on a cloudless night. Once the heavenly commander of the Jade Emperor’s naval forces, Zhu Baijie is stripped of his post and banished to the mortal realm as a demon for his amorous advances towards the moon goddess.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the biggest holidays in the lunar calendar and is celebrated all throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia. The festival is also considered a harvest holiday since wheat and rice are usually harvested around the same time. The festival is a special time where people can reflect on the past year with family, friends, and food.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, people will commonly put out sweets and fruits on open air altars for Chang’e to bless. Mooncakes, often decorated with motifs of Chang’e and her pet rabbit, are a common treat people enjoy during the holiday.
With such a strong connection to moon, it should come as no surprise that Chang’e’s myth has also been referenced on lunar exploration missions. When the first astronauts of Apollo 11 landed on the moon, flight controller Ronald Evans told Michael Collins the story of Chang’e and how she lived on the moon with a white rabbit. Collins replied that he would keep an eye out for the “bunny girl.”
Additionally, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), is called the Chang’e Project (嫦娥工程). Commandeered by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), the project focuses on creating and manning a series of robotic missions that hope to help scientists gain a deeper understanding of the lunar surface and eventually establish a lunar research station.
Encyclopedia Britannica - https://www.britannica.com/topic/Change-Chinese-deity
China’s Chang’e Program - https://www.space.com/43199-chang-e-program.html
Chinese Lunar Exploration Programs - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ChineseLunarExploration_Program
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chang%27e
Yang, Lihui, and Deming An. 2005. Handbook of Chinese mythology. Handbooks of world mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576078068 ISBN 9781576078075