This Chinese myth has several versions. Some are loosely related to the theme of the creation myth of Pangu
, with Yi the Archer
also restoring order from chaos. Others continue to provide a backstory to the Mid-Autumn Festival
. However, there is a cohesive factor, as people during the Shang Dynasty
(1500 - 1000 B.C.) may have believed there really were ten suns.
In some versions, Hou Yi is an immortal from heaven, and in others he is a mortal from earth, but he is always considered half-human, half-divine. In any event, we start when the world was young...
The fruits and vegetables were plenty. Humans and animals lived together in harmony because there was enough food and they did not have to hunt each other. Above the land travelled the sun, but little did the people know that the sun was not unique. There were in fact ten suns, whose mother was the wife of Di Jun, god of the east. Every morning she would give them a bath in a pool of hot water in the Tang Valley. The suns would then rest on a large mulberry tree, because at the center of each sun was a bird.
At dawn, one of the suns would ride a chariot to travel across the sky. The chariot was either horse-drawn or dragon-drawn. Each week had ten days, and each day a different sun would ride. The people did not notice because all the suns looked identical, and only one rode at a time.
However, one day the suns thought it would be pretty cool if they all rode together. Off into the sky they went, and their combined power scorched the earth. Vegetation burned, the rivers dried up, and many animals and people died. Since there was no food, humans and animals preyed on each other, and chaos ensued.
The people begged for relief, either from their emperor Yao. He called upon the services of Hou Yi the Archer, a General of the Imperial Guard known for his skill with the bow. He loaded up magic arrows and one by one, shot down nine of the suns. The people rejoiced and could begin again, and the story usually ends here.
The emperor was overjoyed and rewarded Yi with jewelry and lots of booty. With his newfound wealth, Yi could marry the woman he long pined for, Chang Er. Yi continued to be the people's hero, slaying monsters and beasts, until one day the emperor called on his services again.
You see, Yi was not only a great archer, but a great architect as well. The emperor wanted him to design the grandest, most lavish palace possible. So Yi did, and the grandest, most lavish palace was this built. The emperor was so overjoyed he rewarded Yi not with wealth, but an elixir of immortality. He instructed Yi to share the bottle with his wife, and to not drink the entire bottle.
Yi rushed home to tell his wife the news. He gave her the bottle, and in all the excitement, she drank it all! Her head started spinning and she dropped to the ground. Slowly, she started floating, for she was weightless. She grabbed on to furniture but the force was increasing. She grabbed onto Hou Yi but their hold was overcome. The last thing she grabbed onto was her pet white rabbit, and she kept on floating until she reached the moon.
There she is trapped for all eternity, living a lonesome life. However, once a year, during the eighth lunar month, a magic bridge forms between the moon and earth, and Chang Er and Hou Yi reunite. This version is the backstory for the Mid-Autumn Festival, as a celebration of lovers reuniting. It also explains why a woman is sometimes on the moon cake tins - it is Chang Er.
Other variations of the myth say Yi and Chang Er were already married, living in Heaven as immortals. The people plead this time with the Jade Emperor of Heaven, who sends Yi down to the mortals. After performing many heroic deeds and gaining the admiration of the mortals, other immortals in heaven are jealous and badmouth him to the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor then banishes Yi and Chang Er to mortal earth forever.
Yi, feeling guilt for getting his wife involved, pleads with the Queen of the West for the elixir. He brings it home, but his wife, in anger, drinks it all to flee him. This story of a wife fleeing a husband is probably inspiration for the title of the movie China Moon, and is similar to the story of Lilith.
Yet, other variations say an apprentice archer was jealous of Yi and killed him. Chang Er drank the elixir to flee the apprentice. Other variations involve a pill of immortality or a herb of immortality. Some put greater importance on the rabbit, calling it the Jade Hare. In a land as vast as China, with centuries of oral tradition, it is no surprise that there are so many differences.