Following the Mid-Autumn Festival last week, a few friends and acquaintances have asked me about the story of the man on the moon. While the more popular legend of the Mid-Autumn Festival is about the lady on the moon, the moon goddess Chang-o, the legend of Wu-Kong was once quite well known among children. However, we seemed to have forgotten about the guy who is forever chopping down the laurel tree.
The story of Wu-Kong is not unlike many Greek mythologies of eternal damnation, such as that of Prometheus whose liver is being eaten by an eagle over and over, or the Titan Atlas who has to carry the world on his shoulders eternally. For the man on the moon in Chinese mythology, he has to cut down a giant laurel tree so big that we can see it from earth. And worse, the tree has super regenerative powers, and so it heals as soon as Wu-Kong stops chopping for a second. But how did he end up on the moon with the tree-chopping task?
Long, long ago, there was a man named Wu-Kong who had super human strength, but was very impatient and lazy. He tried many different occupations but always got bored in a short time and went on to do something else. Finally, he decided he wanted to be an immortal, so he went to an immortal and asked to be an apprentice. While Wu-Kong imagined that being an immortal would be fun as he could fly around and do nothing, his master explained that an immortal’s job was to find herbs and create medicines to cure sickness, and to help people using their powers. Only focusing on the flying around freely element to such a gift, Wu-Kong insisted, and so his training began.
The training of an immortal wasn’t as fun as Wu-Kong initially thought it would be. It involved only reading and meditating. He became bored and kept urging his master to fly him to the moon to play. The master continuously explained that he needed to accumulate the wisdom of the world to be an immortal, but Wu-Kong didn’t understand and continued to nag his master about flying. Finally, the master complied, but after getting to the moon, Wu- Kong noticed that there was nothing there but a giant laurel tree. Very soon, he was bored and wanted to go back. However, the master said he had to fly back himself. He explained that if Wu-Kong could chop down the laurel tree, then he would acquire the power of flight. At first, Wu-Kong thought it would be an easy task given his superhuman strength. He swung his axe into the tree three times and stopped, but as soon as he stopped, the tree healed and he had to start over again.
The immortal master explained that it takes a man of great patience and diligence to be able to cut down the tree because one needs to keep cutting until the tree drops, but once the chopping stops the tree grows back. No one knows if Wu-Kong successfully chopped down the tree and flew back to earth, but since we still see the shadow of a laurel tree on the moon, we can assume that he is still there trying to cut it down.
One thing different in this Chinese mythology from the western myths of eternal damnation is that Wu-Kong was not condemned to cut down the tree eternally. He could, maybe one day, with great patience and diligence, complete his trial and become an immortal who can fly among the stars.