In Chinese mythology, Hou Yi (后羿) is considered to be the greatest archer of all time. He is best known for marrying the moon goddess, Chang’e (嫦娥), and for shooting down nine of the ten suns. Once an immortal who lived in the Jade Emperor’s palace, Hou Yi made the decision to become human in order to help humanity in times of need.
Hou Yi’s name is comprised of hòu (后), the Chinese word for “monarch”, and yì (羿), a character unique to Hou Yi’s name. In some ancient texts he is simply refer to as Yi (羿).
Hou Yi is described as being an inhumanly strong, young man. He carries a large bow made of tiger bone that only he can draw, and his arrows are crafted from dragon tendons. In art, Hou Yi usually appears dressed in a traditional soldier’s outfit and animal skins.
Hou Yi is married to Chang’e, who later betrays him and becomes the moon goddess. While Hou Yi and Chang’e are both popular figures in Chinese mythology, little is known about either of their families.
One verse in the famous ancient Chinese poem, “Heavenly Questions”, or Tianwen (天問), begins by asking the question: “Why did Yi shoot down the suns?” What follows is one of the most famous myths in Chinese mythology.
Hou Yi and the Ten Suns
In a time when the earth was still very young and the mythical Emperor Yao (帝堯) ruled China, there were ten suns that took turns illuminating the planet. The Jade Emperor (玉皇) told them that only one of them could play in the sky at a time, lest they destroy the earth. Being young children, however, they decided that going out together would be much more fun than going out alone.
When all ten suns appeared in the sky, the temperature on earth became unbearably hot. Mass chaos ensued. Crops shriveled up and people fainted in the streets as the earth began to burn. Seeing an opportunity, wild monsters emerged from the shadows and began to prey on humanity.
A skilled archer named Hou Yi saw the destruction the suns were causing and immediately went to the Jade Emperor. He told the Emperor that if the suns would not behave themselves, he would have to shoot them down in order to save the planet.
Fearing for the lives of his grandchildren, the Jade Emperor scolded them and begged them to return home. The suns were having so much fun, however, that they could not hear the Emperor over the sound of their own laughter. Though the Jade Emperor loved his grandchildren, he could see that there was no reasoning with them. At long last, he gave Hou Yi permission to do what must be done.
Armed with a massive bow made of tiger bones and arrows made of dragon tendons, Hou Yi set about slaying the monsters terrorizing the countryside. When he was finished, he climbed to the top of a tall mountain to confront the suns directly.
Before he began to shoot, Hou Yi gave the children a final warning and pleaded for them to return to the Emperor’s palace. Upon hearing this warning, the suns simply stuck their tongues out at Hou Yi and told him to mind his own business. Steeling himself, Hou Yi drew back his bow and loosed nine arrows upon the suns. Almost instantly, nine of them fell from the sky. The tenth sun was so scared that he ran away and hid in a cave.
The earth was now plunged into unbearable darkness and cold. Every living thing on the planet begged the last sun to come out, but he was so scared of Hou Yi that he covered his ears and ignored them. After everyone else had tried to coax the sun out, the rooster climbed to the top of his roost and shouted, “Gēgē! Gēgē!” (哥哥) or “Brother!” The rooster’s loud, shrill voice was able to reach the sun, and he finally decided to emerge from his cave. Now, whenever roosters crow “brother” in the morning, the sun rises to greet them.
Chang’e Drinks the Elixir of Immortality
To reward him for his valiant deeds, Xiwangmu (西王母) gave Hou Yi a bottle of her elixir of immortality so that he might return to the Jade Emperor’s palace as a god. The gift left Hou Yi feeling conflicted. While he wanted to be immortal, he did not want to leave his wife Chang’e to die alone. He hid the elixir away while he pondered his decision.
Before Hou Yi was able to decide, however, Chang’e stole the vial from him while he was sleeping. She drank the contents of the bottle and fled to the moon to escape her husband’s wrath. Hou Yi was so upset with his wife that he aimed an arrow at her, intending to shoot her down; in the end, he could not bring himself to do it. After some time and his anger had passed, Hou Yi started to leave out Chang’e’s favorite desserts and fruits each night to show that he had forgiven her. Hou Yi’s actions started a tradition that has continued into the modern era. Even today, people leave offerings to Chang’e during the annual Mid-Autumn Festival.
The legend of Hou Yi and Chang’e is one of the most famous in Chinese mythology, and is an integral part of the Mid-Autumn Festival. In China and other parts of Asia, the two are considered to be the original star-crossed lovers. Their story has been retold many times, and as such there are countless variations of their myth.
The tale of Hou Yi and Chang’e has been adapted into a number of songs, plays, dances, films, and TV dramas. The Chinese drama series “Moon Fairy” is based off of their whirlwind romance, and the Shen Yun Performing Arts dance troupe has a routine dedicated to them. Hou Yi is also featured as a character in the video game SMITE.