Excerpt from The Moon Year – The Origins of the Mid Autumn Festival and Mooncakes

An excerpt from The Moon Year – by Juliet Bredon



THE eighth moon is the Harvest Moon par excellence. Though Chinese farmers gather several crops a year, this is the time when they cut the giant Kao Hang, green as jade and red as burgundy, when they carry home the golden maize. The simple rhythm of the flail resounds from every threshing-floor in North China, and the creak of the stone mill turned by blindfolded donkeys is heard in every village.

Their heavy labours over, the peasants again worship their earth-gods with the same old- fashioned rites used in the second moon. (1)  How antique such harvest thanksgivings are, the special hymn quoted in the Book of Odes (VIIIth century B.C.) proves: “With offerings of millet and of sheep, we sacrifice to the Gods of the Soil and of the Cardinal Directions. Our fields have been reaped and the people rejoice. Let us play upon the lute and upon the lyre, let us beat upon the drums to invoke the Father of Husbandry (probably Shen Nung is meant). Let us humbly beg of Him the blessing of the soft, warm rain that our grain shall multiply during the coming year, and the land be blessed with abundance.” The second half of the petition refers to the new crop of winter-wheat, sown late in autumn to be harvested in the next fifth or sixth moon.


Village Theatricals

Present-day Chinese farmers no longer play upon the lute and the lyre in honour of their divinities. We may, however, trace a remembrance of this custom in the theatricals held in almost every village. Although a precious amusement to the local communities, their real motive is to entertain the gods whose reactions in China are always very human. For this reason, the stage of the open-air theatre, generally attached to the temple although outside the compound, faces the main shrine so that the “Invisible Ones” may have a good view of the play over the heads of the audience.

Attempts have been made to compare these temple-dramas with the old miracle-plays per-formed in the porches of European cathedrals. But there is no real kinship between the two. In China, such plays have no religious significance, and are not usually connected with religion, even if held on holy ground. Their plots are taken from legend, or history, or episodes from famous novels.

Village Theatricals

Failing a temple-theatre, a matshed will be erected for the performance—put up the night before the play begins, and taken down immediately afterwards. Indeed, when actors come to town, a secondary mushroom-village grows up with restaurants, cook-shops, and peddlers’ booths. The stage paraphernalia may be brought by the dramatic company, or transportation may be provided by the village hiring it. Such arrangements are made by the local elders with the pao tan ti, or “programme-bearer” who corresponds to our advance agent.

The performers are professionals,—travelling troupes who wander about the country-side seeking engagements. They may be financed by some rich town-dweller who puts up the capital for costumes and properties, and is known as the “Master of the Chest.” Their season begins in spring and lasts, with an interruption for the heavy summer rains, till autumn. It ends with the grand galas of the harvest moon.

Luckily, peasant audiences are not hard to please. They require no seating accommodation but patiently stand, squat on the ground, or, if there be room, unharness their mules and watch the performance from their carts ranged in a row facing the stage. They want no dramatic novelties, no elaborate properties. The stage is a simple affair, entirely open to inspection, but imagination supplies all deficiencies of scenery. Finally, they ask no all-star companies, but are content with even a rude troupe of mummers.

In their eyes, the coarse but gaudy costumes make a brave show. The hero strutting across the stage in his soiled “dragon robes” and turning a somersault at the critical moment, the “flower-faced” (hua lien) clown poking fun at the villain, the heroine whose shrill falsetto shrieks accentuate moments of intense feeling, the supers flashing gilded spears in the sunshine, are wonderful enough. And the orchestra is a never ending delight to them, though terrifying to our unaccustomed ears. Gongs and cymbals bang loudest at the most dramatic crises; long-necked guitars, bellied into round bodies covered with snake-skin, twang in a furious crescendo; squat instruments with goitered necks squeak as if in pain, and gourd-like mandolins wail.

To the ignorant foreign spectator, the village crowd is as good as the play, and better. These wide-eyed farmers, whose natural love of amuse-ment is generally starved and suppressed by hard work, know delights the brighter for the usual homespun tints of their lives. Their narrow perspective enhances the significance of any amusement, however trivial, which is not a portion of the daily round. We, who thrill only to “first nights” that cost a fortune, wonder if their capacity for enjoyment of simple things is not a sign of the superiority of Oriental civilisation—in this respect at least. Watching, there comes to mind the eternal question: is it better to be backward according to the Western definition of the word, and content; or progressive, and restless? The answer may be our responsibility —and a heavy one.

Sometimes the farmers themselves form amateur theatrical companies after the harvest, and give “little theatre” performances. They enjoy the change and excitement of the boards, in the most literal sense of the word, and, though their earnings are meagre, they get their food free and their fun into the bargain.

Lion Dancers

Akin to the strolling players are the “Lion Dancers” who wander from village to village. Each troupe is composed of two or three mountebanks with rude but picturesque properties. Their entertainment has been handed down from the Indian jugglers and itinerant animal trainers who first appeared in China under the T’ang dynasty. As live lions are not obtainable in this country, a cloth lion serves their purpose, being manipulated by two men under a skin, one carrying the cardboard head, the other the hind quarters. The dances, called Shua Shih Tzu, or “Exercising the Lions,” were originally supposed to have the power of a demon-expelling ceremony, because the lion was an emblem of Buddha and protector of religion. “In Peking, companies of acrobats have been organised to cultivate this specialty. The blue and yellow lions perform a contra-dance, displaying astounding skill and agility, the eyeballs, tongues, jaws, ears and tails in rapid motion, while the bells of neck-collars tinkle to the accompaniment of gongs. Because lions are credited with a fondness for playing with a ball, the main feature of the performance is their pursuit of an enormous globe thrown in front of them or across their path. They will even leap after it on to the roof of a one-storeyed house, or jump down from there into the courtyard.”

Lion Dancers

Lion Dancers

As popular as the “Lion Dancers” are the stilt- Stilt-walkers, with their carnival spirit. These groups walkers of masqueraders, with false beards, painted faces, and humorous make-ups, sing as they parade through the villages. Men dress as women, with costumes of exaggerated gaudiness, and mimic the mincing steps of small-footed ladies. To amuse the rural population, they impersonate familiar – the Fisherman, the Begging Priest, the Old Woman, the Wood-Cutter, etc. A living parody on life and manners, the performers stride along in single file, capering and cavorting, the more proficient turning somersaults in a crude spirit of merry-making, every man competing with his neighbour and trying to out-do him in fantasy and weirdness. Sometimes an equilibrist follows in the wake of the party, a man astride a pole carried on the shoulders of two companions. His attempts to maintain his poise, with a dead crow in one hand and a fan in the other, are very funny. In distant Kansu province the stilt-walkers’ procession has been modified in a curious way. Here little girls, standing upon a small wooden board fixed to a high pole, are carried about by men whose dancing movements remind one of a hieratic cake-walk. The custom is called yang ko, yang meaning “to raise.” It is a survival of an old “No” procession intended to drive away pestilential diseases. Legend has it that Confucius himself once “came from his house in his court robes” to watch a similar spectacle, as “an indication of his desire to conform to the habits of the country-side.” The religious character belonging to the ceremony in his age has died out, and nowadays stilt-walkers perform to get and give amusement, nothing more.

After they have had their fun, it is usual for Chinese peasants, should they be fortunate enough to possess a spring in their neighbourhood, to give thanks for the water so precious to their crops. We have ourselves seen this thanksgiving service at the “Black Dragon Pool, Hei Lung T’an, near Peking. Half a dozen farmers, delegates from the nearest village, gather beside the water. One acts as leader of the humble band. He kneels, all kneel. He bows his forehead to the flagstones, once, twice, three times, and his companions follow his example. Then, in the name of the countryside, he burns a prayer written on yellow paper and lights a bunch of fragrant incense-sticks. As the smoke drifts slowly across the pool, a fish swims by in a shining coat-of-mail and a kingfisher with metallic blue plumage swoops down over the water.

The Moon Festival, Third Feast of the Living

The Harvest Festival coincides with the Moon’s The Moon Birthday, so that the fifteenth of the eighth month Festival, is a double feast, one of the most important in the Chinese calendar. The Queen of Night re- presents the fluid element of the universe, because the Chinese early discovered her connection with the ocean tides. “The Moon,” they say, “consists of the Yin fluid, or water.” Now nature, according to their theory, is controlled, as we have seen, by two great principles, the Yang and the Yin, the Yang being male and the Yin female. The Sun personifies the Yang, source of virile energy, light and heat, the Moon the Yin, source of moisture, especially in the form of clouds and rain. The sun’s cool companion of the night, she early came to be regarded as a feminine deity typifying darkness, water, cold, and womanly submissiveness—as opposed to light, heat, and masculine domination,—symbol of the Empress, and of officials whose allegiance to the throne was like a wife’s allegiance to her husband.

The two form a heavenly couple who have charge of the world and its affairs—an idea not confined to China. The marriage of the Sun and Moon is reflected in the myths of most peoples. We find distant echoes of this belief in the stories of Zeus and Europa, of Minos and Britomartis. The fancy of our forefathers pictured the moon as a coy or wanton maiden who either fled from, or pursued, the sun every month, till she was overtaken at the moment when the luminaries are in conjunction; that is to say, in the interval between the old and new moon. (2)  It is supposed that the Olympic Games originally celebrated their mystical marriage though, later, these sports came to be held in honour of the dead. (3)

The Chinese fixed the date of the Moon Festival in the eighth moon—the season when the female principle began to take the upper hand in Nature; that is to say, when summer heat gave place to autumn coolness, and summer brightness to winter darkness. Its fifteenth night is the moon’s apogee. At no other time is she so bright or brilliant. Then, and then only, the Chinese say “she is perfectly round.”

Feminine herself, the night lantern is, not unnaturally, the patroness of women, and in every family it is the duty of the women to worship her. There is a saying: “Men must not worship the Moon, women must not sacrifice to the Kitchen God.” The single exception was the Emperor who honoured his Celestial Sister.

Once upon a time, the Wu Ko, or “Song Posturing Dance,” was an essential part of the ceremony. Sometimes one girl, sometimes two, took part, one dancing while the other sang verses in praise of the mid-autumn moon. “It is as if polished,” so ran the antique chant; “it is also entirely spotless. Nothing dims its splendour. Here is the symbol of conjugal love as conjugal love should be.”

The Moon has lost her Sovereign Brother. The vestal virgins dance no longer. Present-day rites are simplified, yet, nevertheless, still picturesque.

Under the exacting eye of the “Mother,” daughters and daughters-in-law dress the open altar. Five plates are set out filled with round fruits, apples, peaches, pomegranates (hinting at numerous posterity), grapes, and melons like little green balls. Their shape not only symbolises the moon but stands for family unity. But mooncakes (yueh ping) are the distinctive offering of the feast. They are made of greyish (moon-coloured) flour—and piled thirteen in a pyramid, because thirteen represents the months of a complete Chinese year (see “The Chinese Calendar”) and, likewise, a complete “circle of happiness.”

In the XIVth century these cakes were the means of conveying secret instructions to Chinese patriots suffering from Mongol oppression. The conquerors had billeted one of their own men on every household. These spies proved overbearing, “taking to themselves the powers of rulers in the homes, and causing all to bow to their wills… The women, especially, were as slaves under their yoke.” Great indignation underlay their help-lessness, till someone hit upon the idea of writing a secret message on the little paper squares stuck on the moon-cakes. When sent, as they still are, from neighbour to neighbour and friend to friend, the pasties carried the order for a rising en masse at midnight. Though the oppressed people were without weapons save their kitchen choppers, hatred strengthened their arms. The surprise attack succeeded and the revolt ultimately led to the complete overthrow of the stranger dynasty.

Some women bake their moon-cakes themselves as an act of piety, in remembrance of the deliverance of their forbears from the oppressors, and stuff them extravagantly, if they can afford it, with bits of lard, spices, melon-seeds, almonds, orange-peel and sugar. In cities, confectioners present them to the poor—for, says the proverb, “even to dream of a moon-cake foretells riches,” —and in villages “moon-cake societies” are often formed. A skilled baker acts as treasurer, and all the members contribute a few coppers monthly so that, when the festival comes round, every family is supplied with the luscious yueh ping, decorated with rude pictures of the Moon Hare or the Moon Toad.

The Moon Hare appears also on every altar, represented by a special tablet, or a little clay statue, and near by is placed a bunch of beanstalks, his favourite food.

Just at the hour when the moon is clear of the tree-tops and sails like a full-rigged ship into the high heavens, the service begins. The courtyards in millions of small, poor homes are changed to fairyland because the Goddess touches them with her silver fingers. She hides the poverty and ugliness of everyday things. She smoothes away the wrinkles from tired faces, and lends a grace to awkward silhouettes as they approach her table. One after another the women go forward and make their bows. Two candles are lighted because it is customary to offer them in pairs. Bundles of incense-sticks are stuck flaming in the family urn, but their light glimmers faintly in the floods of moonshine. The whole service lasts but a few moments and concludes with the pasting of a brilliant poster against the wall of the house—a poster showing the Moon Rabbit under the Sacred Cassia Tree, pounding the Pill of Immortality in his Mortar. Ceremonious salutations are ad-dressed to this quaint little animal figure. Then his picture is taken down and burned. Thus end the religious rites proper to the Moon Festival.

Now come the social pleasures, longer or shorter, more or less elaborate, according to the means of the celebrants. The inevitable feast is usually at midnight—the hour when the moon illumines the highest palaces. General festivities continue for three days. The evenings are devoted to moon-viewing parties which date from the time of the Emperor Wu Ti (about 100 B.C.) who had a special terrace, called the Toad Terrace, constructed to look at the toad in the moon, and gave elaborate banquets on it. The ladies adjourned to a verandah or a flat roof by themselves, out of sight of their men folk, as in old-fashioned Chinese society the sexes did not mingle. Blind musicians were called to sing for them the famous poem of Li T’ai-po, who made a cult of the Queen of Night and addressed his last ode to her.

The story goes that one evening, when the moon was full and he himself had drunk too much of the wine he loved too well, Li T’ai-po fell into the water and was drowned. His parting words were verses in honour of his idol.

“How long, O moon, hast thou honoured heaven with thy presence?
“I lift my wine cup and question the blue night sky.
“On the wings of the wind I yearn to visit thy paradise,
“Yet I fear the chill of thy jade and crystal palaces.
“Better remain on earth and watch thee entering our halls
“By painted doors and latticed windows,
“Taking the sleepless by surprise …
“Just as we mortals suffer joy and sorrow,
“Thou, Goddess, suffereth light and darkness.
“Now thou art round and full and brilliant,
“Now broken like the finger-nail of my beloved.
“Here, then, is proof that perfection exists neither for gods nor men.
“The best wish we can wish is that you and I may long enjoy thy light together.” (4)

The Moon’s birthday was an occasion to consult the future. A lady would slip away from the company for this purpose. Secretly, as if half- ashamed, she lit three incense-sticks, whispered her question and awaited the answer, hidden behind the gate. The reply came through the phrases, lucky or unlucky, pronounced by the first passers-by. Much the same superstition existed in Europe, proving once again how the minds of all simple folk think and imagine along similar lines.

During the three days dedicated to the moon, it was customary to send presents to doctors, especially to those who practised electro-biology, a kind of hypnotism especially popular in Kuang-tung. “The person willing to be operated upon was placed directly in the moon rays. He had to stand leaning with his forehead on the top of a pole which he grasped with one hand while the other rested upon the ground. Burning incensesticks were then waved over his head and about his body, and the operators, of which there were usually two or three, repeated prayers in a low tone to the moon. In the course of half an hour the mesmerised person fell down to be raised again, placed upon his feet, and made to go through various movements. As a result, the disease, or devil, disappeared.”

It was customary also at this festival to invite friends to view the family curios which were unpacked and arranged on tables and in cabinets for the temporary exhibition. Children showed their toys to one another and, especially, the presents they had received. Toy-fairs were in full swing, and most charming gifts for the little ones could be purchased for a few cents. There was a whole group of clay statuettes to choose from, genii, fairies and godlets a few inches high. There were variegated pagodas and coloured clay Moon Rabbits dressed up as officials, —some very quaint in civilian robes, others as old-style warriors carrying flags. A certain kind of doll was popular in some provinces, notably Fukien. Parents who had a child born during the twelvemonth bought one of these and wrote the name of their baby on it. Henceforth it was regarded as the child’s double, used to represent it in various home ceremonies, and, in case of death before maturity (sixteen years of age), buried in the same grave.

The Moon Rabbit

The Rabbit and the Toad are two recognised inhabitants of the Chinese Moon, which has a picturesque population. Indeed, the moon-folk, both human and animal, are among the most interesting figures in Chinese mythology.

How did they get there? What is the explanation of the actual mainsprings of the miracle? It seems probable that the world’s moon-myths, including those of the Chinese, were originally derived from the same source—shepherds that watched their flocks by night, or primitive nomads who lived under the open sky and, when darkness came, lay down with eyes turned heavenwards. Darkness stimulates imagination. As they gazed up at the moon, they saw, or thought they saw, figures outlined on her silver disk. Soon they spoke of these visions to one another, and thus the myths were born to be carried down to our own days by the flowing stream of tradition.

Moon Rabbits in Toy Stall

Open Air Altar for Moon FestivalAmong all nations, the lunar spots have afforded a rich subject for the play of human fancy, but it is curious how often, and among what widely diversified peoples, we find the Hare an inhabitant of the pale planet, or associated with her. We read in Pausanias that the Goddess of the Moon, having been consulted by the soothsayers as to where they should build a city, gave the cryptic reply: “Where a hare makes its burrow.” In Russia, there is a superstition that if a hare runs between the wheels of a carriage containing a betrothed couple, their married life will be unhappy. The idea is that, as the hare represents the moon —patroness of conjugal life— she sends him to show her disapproval. Should she herself deliberately cross the path of lovers, they are doomed to misery.

The Hottentots, and many other African tribes, say the Moon chose the Hare as her messenger to inform men that, as she faded and came to life again, so mortals should die but achieve resurrection. The Hare started off in a great hurry just to show how quick he was. More haste, less speed! Arrived, all out of breath and flustered, he got the message wrong: “The Moon says,” he stammered, “as she dying will be born again, so you dying, shall be forever dead.” Sorrowfully they believed what the Hare told them, until a second messenger, the Tortoise, who had been overtaken on the way, delivered a message of consoling immortality. Thereupon, those who had listened to the Hare grew angry, and one among them seized a stone in an attempt to kill him. But the missile only cut his lip open, and that is why the hare has a cleft lip to this day, and we still speak of a “hare lip.” In some versions of the myth, the Hare, maddened by rage and pain, is believed to have flown at the moon and scratched her. She still bears the marks of his claws on her face. (5)

In China, the connection between the Hare and the Moon is obviously very old, since the ancient Li Chi, or Book of Rites, mentions the hare as one of the moon-sacrifices and calls this animal: “The One Who Looks At the Moon.” Hence, the superstition common to both Japan and China that the hare (whose eyes never close) gives birth to her young with her eyes fixed on the moon, and the belief that, according to the brilliancy of the Lady of Night on her Festival, there will be few or many hares during the next year. An old proverb recalls the same connection: “Two only sleep with their eyes open, the hare and the moon.”

But Buddhism is really responsible for the general popularity of the Moon Hare in China, because Buddhism brought from India the ex-planation of how and why he reached the moon. Hear this pretty and pathetic parable designed to teach the beauty of sacrifice, the virtue of un-selfishness, this legend soft and tender with the patina of ages!

Once upon a time, there was a forest glade where holy men came to meditate, a beautiful natural garden filled with fruits and flowers, carpeted with tender grass and refreshed by the waters of a sparkling stream, blue as lapis-lazuli. Now in this little paradise there lived a hare, a creature whose many virtues gave him ascendancy over all the other animals. By precept and example he taught his companions to perform their religious duties in a manner approved by the pious, until “their renown reached even the world of the Devas.”

Open Air Altar for Moon Festival

One evening the Buddha came to this garden. Certain of his disciples accompanied the Holy One, sitting reverently at his feet and listening while he preached the Law. All night long he discoursed and until the next day at high noon, when the sun darts his sharpest beam; when the horizon, enclosed in a net of trembling rays of light and veiled with radiant heat, does not suffer itself to be looked upon, when the cicadae shriek their loudest; when no living creature leaves the shelter of the shade, and the vigour of travellers is exhausted by heat and fatigue.

In that time of the day, the Buddha chose to assume the figure of a Brahman, crying out like one who has lost his road and is consumed with weariness and sorrow: “Alone and astray, having lost my companions, I am a-hunger and a-thirst! Help me, ye pious 1” All the little forest-dwellers heard the cry of distress, and one by one they hastened to the Holy Man, begging him wander no further but remain with them and accept tho.ir hospitality. And each, according to his means, brought food for him. The otter brought seven fishes, saying: “Accept these, and remain with us.” The jackal brought his kill, saying: “Honour us with thy presence and grant us thy instruction.” When it came to be the turn of the Hare, he approached empty-handed, and said humbly: “Master! I, who have grown up in the forest nourished by the grass and herbs, have nothing to offer thee but my own body. Grant us the boon of resting Thy Holiness in this place, and vouchsafe to me the favour of feeding thee with my own flesh, since I have nothing else to give thee!” Even as he spoke, the Hare perceived a heap of magic charcoal burning without smoke near by. He was about to leap into the flames when he paused and began gently picking out the little creatures lodging in his fur. “My body I may sacrifice for the Holy One,” he murmured, “but your lives I have no right to take.” He placed the tiny insects safely on the ground and then, “with the utmost gladness, like one desirous of wealth on beholding a treasure, threw himself into that blazing fire.”

Resuming his own form, the Buddha praised the loftiness of the sacrifice: “He who forgets self, be he the humblest of earthly creatures, will reach the Ocean of Eternal Peace. Let all men learn from this example and be persuaded to deeds of compassion and mercy.” Moreover, to reward the Hare, Buddha commanded that his image should adorn the disc of the moon, a shining example for all time. As for the other animals of the forest, they were translated to the world of the Devas, thanks to their holy friend. Ever since these happenings in the forest, the moon has been known to the Buddhist world as the “Hare-Marked.”

With his irresistible appeal to the popular imagination, the Beloved Hare, looking down from the moon, and establishing himself on family altars, was a sharp pin-prick to the Taoists. They could not hope to oust him. Consequently, as usual in such cases, they adopted him and renamed him “the Jade Rabbit.” (6) According to their fancy, he is pictured with very short front legs, very long hind legs and a white tail curled over like a feather. They too have set him—or left him—in the moon where he pounds the Pill of Immortality, sometimes called the Elixir of Jade (hence his title), that confers life everlasting and has all the qualities of our own “philosopher’s stone.”

To stand eternally pestle in hand is a dull duty. But, at least, Taoist imagination has given the Moon Rabbit an enchanted setting. Overhead droop the branches of the Sacred Cassia Tree, of miraculous powers and supernatural beauty. Poets praise its fragrant flowers that open for the moon’s birthday, and physicians declare its aromatic bark a cure for all disease. In their musty treatises, dating from the IVth century A.D., we find a quaint prescription: “Thoroughly mix cassia-bark with bamboo-juice and frog’s brains. Then drink this potion, and seven years later you shall walk upon the waters,”—in plainer words, become an Immortal.

Companion to the Moon Hare is the Wood-Cutter, engaged in the task of attempting to cut the Cassia Tree down. He chops at it and at it, this poor man, in life a scholar and condemned to play the role of a Chinese Sisyphus for some misdemeanour. But no matter how hard he works, his task is hopeless. The tree miraculously repairs its own injuries. Giver of life to others, it is itself immortal. A noble tree, it bears no grudge but has, among its many virtues, the virtue of forgiveness. A scholar seeks to destroy it, yet the cassia is a friend of scholars, and the elegant euphemism for taking the second literary degree (7) is to “pluck a cassia flower from the topmost branch by the Pavilions of the Moon.”

These Moon Pavilions are palaces of exquisite enchantment, whose towers and pinnacles are indicated on the posters burned in honour of the Jade Rabbit. But such crude drawings give scarcely a hint of their ethereal loveliness. Imagine a surging glitter of all the colours of earth and heaven, pagodas of crystal reflecting the shadings of the rainbow, storeyed silver pavilions, one shining tier rising above another, enclosed in walls of jade and perfumed wood, staircases of agate leading from terrace to terrace in fairy gardens with mysterious flowers and dark trees, with birds white as camphor nesting in their boughs!—All this, and more, is found in that enchanted place.

Yet, only once have mortal eyes looked upon its loveliness. The fortunate man was the Emperor Ming Huang who, on the fifteenth night of the eighth moon in the first year of his reign (A.D. 713), while walking in his Palace enclosure with a learned priest, inquired of what material the moon was made. “Would Your Majesty care to go and see for yourself?” the Sage replied. Of course, the Emperor said he would. The holy man threw his staff—some say his girdle —into the air, and it became a bridge by which Sovereign and Sage reached the Moon. They saw everything there was to be seen, the Moon Hare making his pills under the Cassia Tree; they saw Heng 0, the lovely chatelaine, whose legend we shall presently recount; they saw her attendant fairies, singing and dancing in the gardens of delight and, finally, they saw a terrifying white tiger, whereupon Ming Huang decided it was time to leave.

On the return journey His Majesty, who was renowned for his skill as a musician and had taken a lute with him, enlivened the road by playing sweet airs. This celestial music brought the people of his capital running from their houses into the streets where they fell upon their knees. The Sage advised the Emperor , to shower cash upon the city. It was an astute suggestion— confirming evidence of an adventure the Sovereign, not unnaturally, later thought must be a dream, until an official report arrived from the Governor, describing- the music and the rain of copper coins. (8)

The Moon Lady

Ming Huang’s hostess, the Lady of the Moon, is metamorphosed into a three-legged toad, according to a myth of Indian origin like that of the Moon Hare. The legend fell on fruitful soil since, long before Buddhism arrived, the Chinese already had established a connection between the Moon and the waters, and believed that amphibious animals belonged by their essence to this element.

Now Heng O, the Moon Lady, was not in-carnated in an ordinary rain-calling frog of the rice-fields, as she doubtless would have been had her myth been invented by the Chinese themselves, but in the miraculous Ch’an, or three-legged toad. In his throat the character for “eight” is always traced, so he belongs by right to the eighth moon. He secrets water in his feet, so that identifies him with moisture. He has power to deflect arrows with his mail-coat skin, hence his connection with the Divine Archer, husband of Heng O. Finally, he lives forever—the faculty of toads to live long is well known—which fits in very well with the Pill of Immortality swallowed by the Moon Lady, and bears out the idea of the Eternal or Indestructible.

Heng O and her husband Hou Yi lived in the days of the Perfect Emperor Yao, about 2000 B.C. Hou Yi was a fairy-kind of person who trod on side-walks of air and fed on the essence of flowers. At the same time, he was an officer of the Imperial Guard and a skilled archer, but his bow was not an ordinary bow; it was enchanted. One day, ten suns rose in the sky. They shone so brightly that earth-dwellers could not endure the fierce heat. The Emperor called for his lieutenant: “Many times already,” said His Majesty, “hast thou served thy country. We recall when thy arrows, shot into an engulfing flood, caused the waters to subside. Shoot now at these false suns, and deliver my people from their miseries.” Hou Yi did as he was bid and achieved great fame. Even the Hsi Wang Mu (see “The Third Moon”) in the distant K’un Lun Mountains took notice of this promising young man, ordered him to build her a palace of multi-coloured jades,—evidently he had a streak of Jack-Of-All-Trades in him,— and for reward gave him the Pill of Immortality. Like a wise woman who knew men and their greedy instincts, she gave advice with her gift, saying: “Make no haste to swallow this pill, but first prepare thyself with prayer and fasting for a twelvemonth.” Like a wise man, he listened, feeling instinctively that Immortality must not be gulped, and, on reaching home, hid his treasure in the roof-thatch under a rafter while he began his moral dieting. Unfortunately, in the midst of it, he was called away to pursue a strange criminal called “Chisel Tooth.” While absent, his wife Heng O saw a beam of white light issuing from the roof, smelt a delicious perfume, discovered the pill, and ate it. Immediately, the laws of gravity ceased to affect her. She found she could fly, and when she heard her husband coming home ready to scold, fly she did right out of the window. Quickly he sped after her, bow in hand, and the pursuit continued half across the heavens. But he was turned back by the force of the wind, whereas she reached the moon and there, being breathless, coughed up the outer covering of the pill, which immediately turned into the Jade Rabbit, while she herself was metamorphosed into the Ch’an, or three-legged toad, probably for deceiving her husband. At any rate, since that eventful night she has lived in the Moon, while Hou Yi has built himself a palace in the sun. As Yang and Yin they direct the affairs of ‘the Universe, meeting once a month on the fifteenth of every moon when he comes to visit his wife. Moon-gazers will tell you this is the reason why the Queen of Night is most beautiful at this particular date.

The Old Man of the Moon

Another one of the moon-divinities in mortal shape is the Chinese Man in the Moon, Yueh Lao Yeh, the Matchmaker, an old greybeard who presides over all marriages made on earth. His duty is to attach betrothed couples with a red cord which shall bind them for life. The proverb says: “Marriages are made in Heaven, but prepared in the Moon,” and there is no escaping destiny, as we may judge from the following T’ang dynasty legend. A certain youth, named Wei Ku, when travelling, saw an old man sitting in the moonlight by the roadside with a book in his hand. The traveller, advancing, inquired politely what the book was about. “It contains,” said the Sage, “the marriage fates of those on earth. Look!” he added, producing a red cord from his sleeve: “with this I tie the feet of men and maidens whom fate decrees to be joined together. And joined they are, no matter if they belong to widely separated provinces, or clans at enmity with one another. Now, if you wish, I will show you your future bride. She is the daughter of that old vegetable-seller yonder.” The maiden, alas! was a mere infant of low descent, and, desirous of confounding the unfortunate prophecy, Wei attempted to have her done away with. But the man hired to kill her only succeeded in scratching her over the eyebrow. Fourteen years later and in another province, when Wei had quite forgotten about the Greybeard and his Cassandra talk, he married a handsome girl. As the bridal veil was raised, a scar showed over her eyebrow, and inquiries proved her to be the same maiden decreed for him by the Old Man of the Moon.

All the myths concerning the Yueh Lao Yeh are reflections of the mystical marriage of the sun and moon, and mystical allusions to the pale planet as emblem of marriage, because each month she throws herself into the arms of Her Radiant Lover, is absorbed by him, and leaves him only when he has rekindled new light in her. Wherefore Chinese maidens burn candles to the Matchmaker and to the Moon, seeking to know the handsome stranger whose home they shall enter in the red bridal chair. Scotch maidens, and English maidens too, bow to the brilliant Lady set in the soft black onyx of the sky, begging her to reveal in dreams the names of their future husbands. In Holland, as in China, lovers sighed to the moon twenty-five centuries ago. The expression “honeymoon” is rooted in moon beliefs. In fact, from India to the Orkney Islands the moon is thought to influence marriage.

Marriage Gods

Most peoples have special marriage gods, and the Chinese are no exception. Their Yueh Lao Yeh divides his matrimonial responsibilities with various divinities, some helpful, some hindering. Among them is an extraordinary personage known as Hsi Shen, God of Joy. He is a disreputable character, incarnation of the infamous Chou Wang, last ruler of the Shang Dynasty—a human vivisectionist sometimes called the Chinese Nero. In life, his fondness for women seems to have been exaggerated. He did not even respect the goddesses. One day, when worshipping at the temple of Nii Kua, the sister of the Perfect Emperor Fu Hsi—she of the female head and serpent body—he dared to praise her beauty by writing on the wall of her shrine, and express his desire for a woman as lovely to take to wife. To punish his impiety, Nu Kua devised a plan whereby not one, but three fairy women were sent him. The first of these ladies was a pheasant turned woman, all but the feet. Her attempts to hide her origin are supposed to have set the fashion for foot-binding among Chinese ladies. The second wife was a stone guitar miraculously transformed. The third—the spirit of a fox with nine tails, proverbial synonym for a flatterer. (9) It was she who became Empress, with a unique reputation for cleverness and cruelty. Why the husband of this malicious trio, this libertine, whose amorous adventures were by no means confined to what one might think was an adequate domestic love-nest, should typify the sane, safe, sensible joys of marriage, is a mystery. But he does, and it is to this gentleman of more than doubtful reputation—to whom no temples are erected and no sacrifices made—that every Chinese bride turns her eyes on her wedding day, looking towards him in the direction of the planet Venus where he now lives. She does it shyly, not daring even a whispered prayer, because he is not a fit person to be prayed to. Yet she does it—perhaps with the formless wish that her husband may have the ardour of the bon vivant without, of course, his fickleness. All women are like that, wanting the impossible.


A Soothsayer

Very different from this rake is the sedate goddess, the Tzu Sun Niang Niang (see “The Fourth Moon”), a popular Chinese female divinity, who has got her cult mixed with his. Our Lady of Many Children lived in the reign of the Husband of Many Wives. She was a high official’s consort, very virtuous—so virtuous that she committed suicide to escape the attention of this too ardent sovereign. Mother of a complete family—for she had the classical number of children, five boys and two girls—and a model of wifely chastity, she was deified as a shining example, and became a patroness of marriage. Her presence, spiritually speaking, at the wedding feast is recognised by the young couple when they eat the special cakes called tzu sun po po in her honour, as they sit side by side on the k’ang after the ceremony.

A very curious family is also connected with marriage in China. We remember Cheng Wu (see “The First Moon”), canonised as the Ching Tu Fo, or “the Buddha without Vitals.” The knife with which he disemboweled himself and the scabbard from which he drew the blade were transformed into a youth and maiden. This maiden, vowing chastity, has become an enemy of marriage, whereas her brother, with brotherly contrariety, attempts to counteract her influence by assisting lovers. In the larger temples father, son, and daughter sometimes appear in a group— little figures under glass tucked away in a side shrine. One runs across them, as it were, by accident—perhaps by following a group of women who have already burned incense to the more important gods, and have one fragrant stick left for the Little Man and his Little Family. Much rarer is the image of the wicked spirit Hsiung Shen, whom Cheng Wu’s daughter sometimes uses to disfigure and “spoil” brides; he is so ugly that, when he sees himself in a mirror, he runs away ten thousand li. In his destructive activities against the human race Hsiung Shen is assisted by two other evil spirits, the “Tall Jinx” and the “Short Jinx.” Tall Jinx helps people into the noose when they hang themselves. Short Jinx is useful for errands where you have to climb through small holes,—secret errands, we suspect rather caddish errands.


Wayside Shrine to a Fox-Spirit

Gods of Luck and Longevity

More sympathetic figures at the marriage-feast are the God of Happiness, or Luck, Fu Shen, dressed in blue official robes, and the God of Longevity, the old man with the high forehead painted or embroidered on birthday scrolls.

Fu Shen is rather young as the gods count youth,—a Taoist conception which owes its origin to the Emperor Wu Ti (A.D. 502-550) of the Liang Dynasty. This sovereign had a fancy for dwarf servants in his palace, dwarf comedians in his theatre. The number of these unfortunate Tom-Thumbs, levied from a certain district in Hunan, seriously affected family ties. Thereupon, a famous judge in the grand and fearless manner reminded His Majesty that, according to law, dwarfs were subjects like other men, not slaves. The Emperor saw the point, and ordered the levies stopped. How delighted the people were at being liberated from the hardship of sending their tiny husbands and fathers to be shut up in the Palace, instead of tilling their tiny fields! So delighted, they canonised the judge, and worshipped him as the Spirit of Happiness.

What, could he fairer than that? Many men have become gods, but none have found a simpler, more human way to popularity than Fu Shen whose portraits and images are spread all over the country, whose worship is as universal as that of the powerful Tsai Shen, God of Riches.

His colleague, Longevity, is unmistakable, wherever we find him, on account of that so high top to his head which always seems in danger of boiling over. (10) Legend identifies him with the star Shou Hsing, or Canopus, also known as the Southern Bear, or the “Old Man of the Southern Pole.” Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, after the unification of China, was induced by Taoist influence to build a temple to this star. The T’ang sovereigns recognised the stellar figure with sacrifices on the day of the Autumn Equinox. The Mings, on the contrary, neglected him. Cynical, the ups and downs of the Gods in China, faded and dejected under one regime, glittering and brilliant under another, dropped by one Sovereign, hotly taken up by the next! Only the people are faithful— sometimes — and they remain constant to “ The Old Man of the South,” or “ Southern Measure,” supposed to control life, and to his confrere, another old gentleman with a long white beard who personifies the North and the “Northern Measure,” supposed to control death.

The worship of the “Measure,” Northern or Southern according to the season, is very general, especially in South China. The Moon’s birthday, or the anniversaries of the children of the house, are favourite occasions for this little home ceremony. The standard measure in the north is the amount of grain that could be contained in a square stone box. One of these boxes stands on a marble terrace in front of the Emperor’s Palace, and we know of another in the courtyard of Fa Yuan Ssu, in Peking.

Mrs. Ayscough, in A Chinese Mirror, describes the worship of the “Measure” in Kiangsu province as she saw it. She says that every family has its own rice-measure, “made in an infinite variety of sizes and each filled (for the festival) with large pieces of sandal wood, and embellished with a gay paper Moon-Palace which rises from the centre around a pillar of incense sticks. Early in the morning, the tip of this pillar is lighted, and throughout the day it smoulders slowly till, by midnight, the whole erection is consumed. A figure of the Patron Saint of Literature is placed in the Palace, because he is supposed to inhabit one of the stars of the Northern Measure, the Great Bear Constellation.” How, we naturally ask, does the Patron of Authors get into this galere? The whole cult is mixed and tangled, and hitched to various stars (see “The Third Moon”). Old Man Longevity has a share in it too. His picture is on the chih ma (see “The Twelfth Moon”) burned before the altar, for no better reason, apparently, than the flimsy pretext of a legend. Long, long ago, a lad met a famous fortune-teller, all on a summer’s day when the white clouds flew up above the hills like a flock of enormous birds and spread over the sky. “You are a fine lad,” said the old man.

“What a pity your life is so short!”—“Tell me, tell me, how long?” he begged. “Well, it is best not to speak of such things, but if you urge me, I must. Nineteen years is the span of your life.” The boy ran home crying to his mother and she, crying also, sent him back post-haste to the soothsayer to ask what could be done about it. “My advice to you,” said he, “is this. Take a haunch of venison and a jug of wine, mount yonder hill, and there you will find two old gentlemen playing chess. Lay down your provisions without a word and await the end of their game. Then, and then only, make your request,”—and he whispered in his ear what the young man should say.

Immediately the youth set out, found the chess players, waited while they finished their game, waited while they enjoyed the food and drink. Then, with tears in his eyes, he besought them to save him from such an early death. So well and so politely did he strike the pathetic note that they took out their records, and there and then changed the one in nineteen to a nine, making the entry in the Book of Fate read ninety nine. “Now young man,” both said together, “return home and warn that fortune-teller never again to divulge to any mortal his appointed life-span. We can’t be changing our ledgers all the time. Besides, it is not good for human beings to know the future. It makes them uppish, or it makes them sad, and it’s none of their business anyway.”

We can picture the joy of the mother when her beloved son came back with a new lease of life. Probably, it was her gratitude,—though tradition does not fix the point,—which instituted the first sacrifices in honour of the Old Man of the Northern and the Old Man of the Southern Measure for, as you can guess, they were the chess players. Parents whose children are ill, or delicate, still burn incense to them for longevity and honours. Also to the Bushel Mother, a vague figure identified with another of the seven stars in the Great Bear constellation. A pretty custom, unfortunately dying out, made the host of an inn or tea-house fly a flag during the festival, with these seven stars arranged in proper order. It was a polite way of wishing long life to his guests.

The God of Thieves

As the “measure,” naturally associated with the harvest, suggests the season of plenty, we find the birthday of the God of Thieves fixed about the same date, on the seventeenth. Practical as always, the Chinese consider it suitable to burn incense to this doubtful divinity while the stealing is good. Not only his followers, busy with their nefarious trade, worship him, but many who are not professed thieves. From his title, “Midway in the Heavens,” it appears he is unwilling to come down to earth, unwilling to accept the shelter of a temple roof. That is why men make no images of him. Their prayers are said under the open sky. This horror of confined spaces is, doubtless, a characteristic acquired when he was on earth, a clever thief himself and not anxious to be caught in a trap. Robbers like room to run. Villainy implies liberty.

Now it would be suitable, and proper, to condemn the God of Thieves, to point him out as an example. But the blackest gods are not all black, and he had a redeeming feature. Filial piety off-set his crimes. True—he stole, but he stole food for his mother. The motive makes him seem more lovable. Sympathy dilutes our condemnation, as pure water crude wine.

(1) The Emperor also again made a solemn sacrifice at the She Chi T’an See: Imperial Ceremonies.”

(2) On the principle of sympathetic magic, this interval was considered a favourable time for human marriages. The ancients likewise chose this interlunar period for the sacred wedding-feasts of their gods and goddesses.

(3) The relation between the Emperor of China and his consort has been likened to that of the Sun and Moon, or the Yang and the Yin, because “the Ruler of Men regards Heaven as his father, Earth as his mother, the Sun as his brother, and the Moon as his sister.” Children of Heaven, the principal planets are, iso facto, kindred of the Sovereign Son of Heaven.

(4) the above is in no sense a translation of Li T’ai Po’s poem, but the freest possible adaptation in an attempt to render the Chinese attitude with regard to the Moon-Goddess, as expressed by her most famous poet.

(5) It is significant that most primitive peoples attribute human mortality to the perverted message of some creature – a duck, a sheep, even a lizard – and believe that, owing to the blunder or wilful deceit of the messenger, God’s beneficent scheme to make man immortal miscarried. See Folk Lore in the Old Testament, by Frazer.

(6) Or rather “the Jade Hare” – the true Rabbit does not exist in China.

(7) the examinations for this degree were held every three years in the eighth moon.

(8)The origin of the modern Chinese theatre is traced to this visit. Ming Huang was so impressed by the singing and dancing of the moon fairies that, on his return to earth, he taught their songs and postures to some of the palace youths, who were called the “Disciples of the Pear Garden,” a name that sticks to Chinese actors even now.

(9) The fox, in China, is a fairy beast with wonderful powers of transformation, and the fear of these animals, who are often malicious, is wide-spread. People especially dread were-foxes who take the forms of beautiful young women. It is always wise to be polite to a fox lest he become your sister-in-law, or even your wife. Fox-worship in China, though less universal than in Japan, is fairly prevalent and often carried on at very small shrines. Father Mullins, in Cheerful China, speaks of a shrine in Shantung of peculiar structure, with an opening so narrow that worshippers were obliged to crawl in and out on their hands and knees. Tiny women’s shoes were given as offerings, and fir-branches covered with paper flowers fixed into a ball of clay. This shrine was built to San Lao T‘ai Yeh, the fox-spirit, over a spot where foxes were supposed formerly to have had their dens.

(10) The proverb says: “The God of Longevity takes arsenic.” Meaning he cannot be killed.