These days, I have been hearing annual leave experts discussing how, by taking leave on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on 4 October – together with the Friday that week – you can have an extended nine-day vacation. Only then do I realize that Mid-Autumn (Chong Chao) is approaching, and this year, the festival contributes to a two-for-nine holiday during the golden week. That’s why the mooncakes are coming up early, and people seem to like Chong Chao more this year.
Among the many festivals we celebrate in Macao, I always find the Mid-Autumn Festival the most romantic of them all. It is a quiet festival about gatherings and strolls under the big bright moon with dimly-lit lanterns, and then there is the lady who flew to the moon – Chang-o. Most people only know that Chang-o took the elixir for immortality and then flew to the moon. The story seems to have a couple of different versions.
The most referenced legend I found on the Internet tells that Chang-o was the beautiful wife of Hao Yi, the archer. The ancient earth used to be surrounded by ten suns, and one can imagine what it was like living here on a burning earth. With godlike archery skills, Hao Yi shot down nine of the suns, leaving us with the one we have now. Aside from the people, even the gods were pleased with his work and decided to make him immortal. So the heavenly queen gave him an elixir of immortality.
Hao Yi did not take the elixir after receiving it, although no one knew why. I imagine he was trying to find out the side effects, and if he did, we may not have had the moon festival. Anyway, Hao Yi hid his elixir of immortality somewhere in his house, but his greedy apprentice wanted it for himself. When Hao Yi was not home, the evil apprentice threatened his wife, Chang-o, to give him the elixir. Seeing the greed and violence this apprentice might bring to the world if he was made immortal. Chang-o downed the elixir without knowing what would happen to her.
After consuming the elixir, gravity could not hold her to the ground, and she slowly ascended to the moon. Hao Yi saw his wife flying to the moon, but there was nothing he could do. In his grief, he stood looking at the moon night after night setting out his wife’s favorite food, fruits and cakes, perhaps waiting for his wife to come down or just to commemorate her. Soon, people heard his story, and felt for his loss. So they all set out altars of Chang-o’s favorite food as an offering to her, whom later generations know as the moon goddess.
In another version of the story, Hao Yi was raised to the emperor’s throne after shooting down the nine suns. But power corrupts. He became a violent and evil emperor, making the lives of his people difficult. In his pride, he wanted to be immortal and so he went to ask for it from the heavenly queen, who gave him the elixir of immortality. His beautiful wife Chang-o didn’t want the people to suffer forever under his rule, so she took the elixir and flew to the moon.
Whichever was the real legend, Chang-o took unknown medicine without knowing what side effect it may have for the good of the people. That is another thing that makes this festival romantic. Aside from the moon, lanterns and family gatherings, Chong Chao also has a legend of self-sacrifice for the greater good.