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Chang'e & The Elixir of Immortality

Adrian



As the Mid-Autumn Seasonal Point and its festivities start to come to close, I want to take this opportunity to honor the tale of Chang'e, mythical Goddess of the Moon and the symbol of this significant holiday.


嫦娥


雲母屏風燭影深

長河漸落曉星沈

嫦娥應悔偷靈藥

碧海青天夜夜心


李商隱


During the time of the Tang Dynasty, poet Li Shang Yin wrote a poem (above) dedicated to the immortal, Chang'e, Goddess of the Moon and the Mid-Autumn Festival.


Her story is told in the legend of Hou Yi, the heroic archer who saved the world from the sun. Long ago, the earth orbited 10 suns which surrounded it in the galaxy. Hou Yi shot down 9 of those suns and thus saved the world from eternal inferno. As a reward for his deeds, the Great Mother of the West, Xiwangmu gifted him a vial of the Elixir of Immortality.


How the legend continues from here has historically been up to the storyteller. Hou Yi was married to the beautiful Maiden Chang'e, then a mortal. Some say when she found out Hou Yi had the Elixir of Immortality, she stole it out of selfishness and drank it herself. Others say Chang'e accidentally drank the potion when trying to stop Hou Yi's apprentice from stealing it. However one might tell the story, Chang'e does take the Elixir of Immortality and in her transformation into an immortal, she ascends to the heavens and becomes the Goddess of the Moon, where she spends her life for all eternity. Chang'e's story is historically one of great sadness and regret. One version even tells that as punishment for stealing the potion, she is turned into an ugly toad. A magic white rabbit takes pity on her, transforming her back into a beauty, and follows her up to the moon where Chang'e is to live addicted to the Elixir of Immortality, desperately concocting more for all eternity. A fate not to be envied.

Even Li Shang Yin writes in his poem, 嫦娥應悔偷靈藥 "surely Chang'e regrets stealing the potion". But as is with the structure of Chinese poetry, the meaning of the words are left to interpretation. I do not speak Chinese and my reading of Chinese characters is elementary at best but based on my research, this is the literal translation:


雲母屏風燭影深

Yúnmǔ píngfēng zhú yǐng shēn

mica, screen, candle, shadow, dark


長河漸落曉星沈。

chánghé jiàn luò xiǎo xīng chén

long river (milky way), gradual, descend, morning star (venus), lower


嫦娥應悔偷靈藥

Cháng'é yīng huǐ tōu líng yào,

Chang'e, probably, regret, stealing, soul, medicine


碧海青天夜夜心。

bìhǎi qīngtiān yè yè xīn

jade-sea-blue-sky (where sky and sea meet forever), night, night, heart



For centuries now, the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chang'e have been a source of joy and celebration for people across the world. I have spent the last 38 years of my life romanticising about Chang'e and seeing her as a kind of guardian angel. As a child, my Mom would tell my sister and I the story of "the lady in the moon" and we would spend Mid-Autumn evenings looking up into the stars trying to find her. Back then, I thought she was real. I thought I might find her floating through the sky, her robes trailing behind her like wings. And even today, when I look up at the moon, I still catch myself trying to find her face. And when I imagine that I can see her, I see her smile. I see my Grandma's smile. I see my Mom's. I see the faces of all the women elders in my life who have been a guiding force for me. My guardian angels. So when I go into a deep nerd-hole (as I often do) and research the stories, the poems, the texts- with my dictionary and translators in hand- I often find myself frustrated with the way in which Chang'e is portrayed in the old stories. She is always described as beautiful, and then in the same sentence, as selfish, hasty, reactive or naive. As in, "she stole and drank the elixir", "she must regret stealing it", "she is lonely in the moon because she is without her husband". History is history, and the past is past, but I have never seen Chang'e as someone who is any of these things. I have always seen her as a source of inspiration, awe, respect for nature, for women and for the strength and beauty- physical or otherwise- that they bring into this world. When I think of Chang'e, I think of the feminine aspect of my own being: my source of strength. I think of happiness. I think of joy.


Li's poem is often interpreted and translated to reflect the sadness of Chang'e and the choices she made that rendered her allegedly alone, remorseful and regretful. But I like to think of her as eternally joyful in her freedom, her power and in her role as protectress of us all.

To commemorate the happy memories of celebrating the Goddess of the Moon, I offer my own translation of this poem. I hope you enjoy it.



Chang' e


By candle light, a pearlescent screen
reflects from shadows, barely seen.

Shimmering rivers in the sky
the Morning Star is drawing nigh.

O' Chang'e, so filled with strife
that you did take the elixir of life.

Or like sea-meets-sky do you go on
with a joyous heart from dusk to dawn.


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