Updated: Nov 30, 2020
In ancient times there were ten suns that took turns rising into the sky. One day, however, all of the suns rose together, blazing cruelly upon the world’s living creatures and scorching the earth. The emperor solicited the help of mythical archer Hòuyì 后羿 who tried to reason with the suns. But when they would not listen, the archer shot down nine of them, leaving a single bright orb for the people. Houyi was rewarded with an immortality elixir by goddess 西王母 Xīwángmù and asked his beloved wife, Cháng’é 嫦娥, to keep the elixir safe in their home. Chang’e happily safeguarded her husband’s treasure until another fateful day, when Houyi was out hunting, one of his apprentices broke in to steal it. The man threatened Houyi’s wife, demanding she hand over the elixir. In desperation, Chang’e swallowed the elixir herself. She was immediately transformed into an immortal and rose to the moon, the nearest place to earth in the heavens, where she could stay close to her husband. Houyi missed his beautiful wife desperately so every full moon thereafter, for the rest of his life, he placed her favorite foods outside on moonlit tables as an offering and remembrance.
The old photo album with the faux green and black snakeskin cover holds no photographs. Instead, its cardboard edge-worn pages, coated in plastic that can be peeled back, are filled with childhood artwork I made from ages three to seven and a half. Crayon, pen, and marker drawings (and a few watercolors) of people, animals, places, the Easter Bunny, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a spaceship. Most of the people I drew have blonde or brown hair and are plain with nondescript clothes. Simple drawings, except for three immaculate portraits drawn in great detail with a lot of color. Two of three of those portraits lovingly depict Asian women: “Chinese Lady” drawn at 5 ¾ years old, and “Chinese doll” drawn at 6 ½ years old.
Because I have a white mother and Asian father and am not close to the Taiwanese women in my extended family, I never had a direct line to understanding my Asian girlhood and later, womanhood. What did it mean to be an Asian girl? What did it look and feel like? How did one live it and move through the world? As a child, I tried to answer my own questions with the few images of Chinese women I could find. My father briefly imported Chinese dolls to the U.S. I was obsessed with the beautiful dolls, their flowing robes, jet black hair, porcelain white skin (“Chinese doll” is a drawing of one of these). When I lived in Beijing as a third grader, I bought stickers with illustrations of ancient Chinese women floating on clouds, wearing long tunics. I loved and treasured those stickers more than anything.
I was also fairly enamored with Guanyin and goddesses in general, of which there are an abundance in Taiwan. Today is Moon Festival 中秋節 (aka Mid-Autumn, Mooncake, and Lantern Festival) which, in essence, is nationally observed moon and goddess worship. The festival dates back thousands of years to when Chinese venerated the moon for bountiful harvests. Offerings are made to Chang’e, the Moon Goddess of Immortality, who lives in the Moon Palace with her companion 玉兔 Yùtù (Jade Rabbit).
I didn't grow up celebrating Moon Festival in the U.S., but it's one of the biggest celebrations of the year in Taiwan. It's a public holiday, held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the evening of the brightest, fullest fall moon. The roundness of the moon symbolizes harmony, unity, and family reunion. People share mooncakes, display lanterns for prosperity, and gather with family for food and moon viewing. Barbequing is a popular modern tradition particular to Taiwan, started by a local BBQ sauce manufacturer ad campaign three decades ago. Other traditional foods include persimmons and especially pomelos.柿子 Shìzi (persimmon) is a homophone in Mandarin for "things go smoothly." 柚子 Yoùzi (pomelo) is a homophone in Mandarin for “bless the children.” Pomelo skin is peeled in a flower shape and placed upon children’s heads so Chang'e may see and bless them. My father, smiling warmly, remembers running around with peel flowers on his head during Moon Festival when he was growing up in Keelung.
As with all legends, there are many versions of Chang'e's story. Some involve suns. Some do not. In my favorite–the one I’ve chosen to open with here–she is the beloved wife of legendary archer Houyi who self-sacrifices so that her husband’s immortality elixir doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. (In other versions, Chang’e is a conniving wife who steals the elixir for herself, or, Houyi is a cruel tyrant and Chang’e swallows the elixir to keep it away from him). I think it's important to uplift the power of women to love, be loved, and love ourselves. I also know I'm still searching for a way to embrace my own Taiwanese womanhood. To that end, I shared the most loving version of Chang'e's story and on this moonlit night, I will celebrate the Goddess too.
Happy Moon Festival everyone 中秋節快樂！
Header image: Mid-Autumn Festival 2020. Harvest moon rising over Keelung River, shot from Wugu District, New Taipei City.
© 2020 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫