myth and poetry

mythopoetry Scholar


Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives
Mythopoetry Scholar Ezine vol.3 2012
Myths and Moon Cakes
The Cosmological Symbolism of the Zhou Revolution
-Dave Alber

Why did Yi shoot down the suns?
Why did the crows shed their feathers?

                               Wang Yi, Late Zhou Period
                        “Questions to Heaven” (“Tianwen”)

Moon Festival in Taiwan

Last year I celebrated Chinese Moon Festival with a college friend and his fiancé in Taiwan. We were at a spontaneous sidewalk barbeque near the clinic where my friend’s fiancé worked. Bicycles were pulled to the side, chairs materialized out of nowhere, a grill was set up, and heaping portions of chicken, fish, pork, and vegetables were stabbed onto skewers and sizzled over the smoking coals. A group of old men played cards, drank beer, and laughed while passing around a large jug filled with potent homemade spirits. The doctor of the clinic ran back and forth from work at the clinic to greeting people at the barbeque. His industrious wife and her lady friends kept the grill heavy with meat, while children pulled at their skirts to show them their latest discoveries in schoolwork. It was a marvelous celebration of chaos, Confucian restraint, and time-honored tradition, shared communally, I knew, in Taiwan and across Mainland China, a nation almost as large as America and with four times the population.

“Do you know why we do this?” asked the clinic owner, an amazing man with perpetual energy who bounded over from the door of his elegant and obviously lucrative business. He pointed up at the full moon, fat and bright in the sky. “There she is.”

mooncake“The rabbit. The rabbit,” his young son said, pushing a crayon drawing into his hand.

“Chang’e. She is a beautiful woman,” the doctor said with a twinkle in his eye and tilting his head toward his wife who passed around a box of moon cakes.

“Have you had a moon cake yet?” ..

I took one of the small round cakes and bit into it. Its batter was soft and sweet with flaky egg yolk in the center.

“The moon cake reminds us of the moon,” she said, while her son pointed to his crayon drawing of a rabbit.

“Chang’e was married to Houyi,” her husband said, keeping an eye on the front door of the clinic. “Once long ago, there were ten Suns in the sky. Or rather, there were ten Suns that would come out one at a time, one for each day. They were Sun-birds actually, and the children of Ti Dijun, the God of Eastern Heaven, and Xihe, the Goddess of the Sun. The Goddess Xihe was supposed to drive them out, one at a time—one for every day—on her chariot. Well, the Suns were like birds, they could fly, and also like children, not very mature. And they got to talking one day, ‘Why don’t we all come out at the same time?’

And so, there they were, the ten Sun-birds in the sky all at the once, and having a ball of it. And one Sun is hot enough in the summer, especially here in Taiwan, so can you imagine ten Suns in the sky all at once? So hot! A drought it caused.”

“So hot,” his young daughter by his hip repeated, putting her hand on her forehead like a southern bell fainting from the heat.

“Well, it was drought and scorched earth all across the land. Insufferable.”

“Insufferable,” his daughter repeated.

“Since the forests were all burned up, monsters had nowhere to live and roamed the land, eating people for food. This was all during the reign of Emperor Yao. He was one of the great legendary emperors. Well, all this was disaster, right? And so what’s an emperor to do? It’s his job to keep things in order. So, he prayed to Ti Dijun, the God of Eastern Heaven, and petitioned him to order his sons to follow their natural order. The Suns refused. And so an exasperated Ti Dijun went to the divine archer Houyi. Now, Houyi was such a skilled archer, that the sound of his bowstring was enough to make birds drop faint from the sky. So, Ti Dijun asked Houyi if he would try to frighten the Sun-birds. Houyi agreed, but when he traveled down to Earth, he was so appalled at the condition of things, that in anger, he began to shoot the Sun-birds down one at a time. ‘Twang, twang, twang,’ went his bow.”

“Twang, twang, twang,” his children repeated.

“Until all but one of the Sun-birds was left. The emperor Yao rushed to Houyi and begged him to spare the final Sun. Houyi cooled his anger and one Sun was spared to travel around the Earth as it does to this day. When Houyi returned to the Heaven of the Gods, he was confronted by an enraged Ti Dijun who accused him of murdering nine of his ten sons. ‘You and your wife Chang’e are condemned to live on Earth as mortals,’ Ti Dijun commanded. ‘I at least listen to you, that’s better than they ever did,’ Houyi said and left the Heavenly palaces to live with, Chang’e, his beautiful wife, on Earth. And now, for Chang’e, who was used to an eternity of the most divine and subtle amusements . . . everything changed.”

An old woman walked in the clinic’s door, so the doctor pointed us toward the barbeque grill, while he went back to the clinic. The circle of old men offered us some of their homemade sorghum wine. And, as the circle of ladies by the grill cautioned us that it was some insane concoction, I just had a taste. My friend and I had more meat, talked a bit with the ladies at the grill, and then the children came over to practice their English. I had almost forgotten the story when the doctor came back. “Ah, yes . . . everything had changed. It’s like a woman gets accustomed to fancy shoes and . . .”

“Don’t go there,” his wife said.

“So there they were, two Gods living as mortals, husband and wife. But Houyi is always Chang'eaway hunting, and I think my father said something about him having an affair with the Goddess of the Luohe River. So, these are not good times for Chang’e. And as Houyi seems to enjoy his little adventures, Chang’e convinces him to go to the Queen Mother of the West to retrieve the elixir of immortality so that they might regain their divine status again. And he does. However, before telling his wife about the accomplishment, he is called away by the Emperor Yao to fight some monsters. And so, Chang’e, left at home in her boredom, in a moment of forgetfulness finds herself in a dreamy reverie of the taste of things in Heaven. And seeing the bottles of elixir, they seemed to her, in that moment, to offer a fitting sensual fulfillment of this dreamy trance. And so . . .just as Houyi came bounding over the hills . . .

Chang’e drank the elixirs of immortality and ascended up into the sky . . . just slowly enough for Houyi to see the sharp clarity of her fine features and recognize—as we all do when a flower withers, when the seasons change, or we get a sad phone call about an elder relative—the full and precious uniqueness of what he had lost.”

“Very sweet,” his wife said.

“And so, tonight we celebrate this story by spending time outside with our family to appreciate the fullest moon of the year.” His son pulled at his trouser leg.  “Oh, and the rabbit,” the doctor said. “The rabbit lives on the moon with Chang’e and keeps her company. The rabbit is mixing the elixir of immortality. And there is a tree on the moon too. Some old fool named Wu Kang spends all his time trying to cut the tree down, but it never dies. It’s funny. I don’t know why he does that.”

A Neolithic Tree and a Taoist Elixir

mooncake mouldMoon Festival (or Mid-Autumn Festival) is, of course, one of the most important harvest festivals in China and most Chinese people are familiar with the myth of Houyi and Chang’e. The student of comparative mythology will recognize the familiar tree on the Moon as the Tree of Eternal Life—the second tree in the Garden of Eden—associated with lunar calendars and the Neolithic worldview. 14

This agricultural symbol, which represents eternity in the field of time, is global in its diffusion. And the quaint brief episode of the foolish Wu Kang is a humorous reminder about the folly of seeing death as real. Every time that someone we are attached to dies, we can imagine the foolish old Wu Kang taking another swipe at the tree that never dies. Just look at all the faces around you. The ancestral powers are here living though us all just as they were one thousand, two thousand, and seven thousand years ago. The family tree of plant life, animal life, proto-humanity, and humanity—this great family tree—is an implicit part of the nature of Reality. So, dry your tears. Something more vast and beautiful than we ever imagined is communicating to, and through us, whenever we see that ax swing. 

Also, there are Taoist alchemical inflections to this story in the theme of the elixir of immortality that the hare diligently mixes in his lunar abode. In exoteric Taoist thought, cultivation of Yin (lunar) energy is vital for good health, long life, and a richer experience of life beyond the social roles of the daylight world. And this is expressed in people following the Chinese lunar calendar and tradition-bound seasonal food, sleep, sexual, and festival cycles (the terrain of “common knowledge” in China.) And in esoteric Taoism, the moon is associated with the further cultivation of lunar (or Yin) energies in more involved dietary, movement, meditation, and ritual practices.

These Taoist inflections in the story come mostly from the Celestial Masters school of Taoism (Han Dynasty and later.) Similarly, the earliest written accounts of the pairing of Houyi and Chang’e in this mythic narrative first appear in the Han Dynasty (206 bce –220 ce), with their inclusion in the (mostly Taoist) Han philosophical classic, The Masters of Huainan (Huainanzi.) And thus this myth is generally regarded as a Han myth describing events in the reign of the legendary Emperor Yao of prehistoric times.  

However, as we shall see, the myth of Xihi giving birth to the ten Suns is from the far earlier Shang period (1600–1070 bce.)  And, using this as a starting point, we shall come to discover that the Houyi myth is actually a Zhou myth describing, in veiled language, the Zhou clan’s conquest of the Shang Kingdom.

Xihi and Her Children

So first, the Shang myth of Xihi and her children.2 The Zhou and Han text The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing) describes the myth of Xihi as presented above. It goes on to describe the loving maternal care Xihi takes in bathing the ten Suns, her children, in the waters of the Gan Gulf to revitalize their solar power. The Sun-birds (often depicted as three-legged crows) would rest on a mulberry tree, and one by one, Xihi would take each of her children on their parabolic journey across the sky.

Now, to understand the story it is helpful to know that the Shang people associated the Goddess Xihi with the Xihi kingdom in the southwest living near the Gan River and Gulf in present day Jiangxi (whose old name means, “the great land of Gan River and Po Lake”.)3 The Xihi people, isolated by a semicircle of mountain ranges and outside the cultural influence of the Shang, were not subjects of Shang authority. 

The meaning of the sun rising from the mulberry tree is likely from ancient psychopharmacology. The white sap from unripe mulberries is an intoxicating hallucinogen. And, the Shan Hai Jing tells us that the mythical three legged crows (the Sun-birds) that live in the mulberry tree enjoy eating two types of mythical grasses of immortality; “ground sun” (din) and “spring grow” (chunsheng.) Thus, the myth informs us, in its coded language, about the preparation of a ritual intoxicant. Further, Xihi blindfolds the three legged crows so they don’t become distracted or overwhelmed and devour too much of these potent grasses. And in this manner, she guides them in their spiritual flight.

It is well known that ancient shamans, of the Paleolithic and on through the Neolithic, associated themselves with birds in rituals of “spiritual flight.” These rituals were not casual “self-exploration” but purposeful rituals strategically guided by knowledgeable elders to open the mind to the direct experience of an open Psyche framed within the cosmological vision of the local community. And this is why Psyche and Cosmos are identical in animistic and polytheistic communities, right? We can assume that the Neolithic settlements of the Xihi clan had a cosmological worldview that was culturally transmitted through the ritualized use of hallucinogenic trance. Further, we may assume that, the Shang Kingdom had some interaction with the Xihi clan, and that some developments from their cultural interaction (especially the sharing of ritual practices) informed the Shang cosmology. Both communities would owe much to a shared cultural substratum of Neolithic Yellow River Valley life ways.

And so, the earlier shamanic vision of cosmology is impacted by the later Bronze Age cosmology of Shang city civilization. The shaman’s trance flight up and down the sacred pole or tree of her or his divinized Body/Psyche/Cosmos is extended. And so the mythical shamanic bird leaves the tree on its new adventure. For the Shang people had a solar calendar (imported from the West), which was unique in Ancient China. And this new cosmological vision of the solar year informs the Shang myth of the ten suns—the Sun-bird children of the shamanic Goddess Xihi.

The Shang civilization based their calendar on the sexagesimal numerical system. The sexagesimal numeral system is a numerical system based on the number sixty.4 It was used in addition to a decimal numerical system, as a method for measuring both time and space. We still recognize this ancient system in clock towers and compasses. Six times sixty is three hundred and sixty. The Shang calendar year was a three hundred and sixty day solar calendar, consisting of thirty-six ten-day weeks, with the addition of a five-day sequence for festivals.5 So, with the solar calendar, a new cosmology opens up that conceives of time on vastly larger scales than the lunar calendar. Revolutionary for Ancient China, time begins to be conceived of in terms of hundreds and even thousands of years.

The cosmological uniqueness of the Shang solar calendar necessitates an important position for the Sun in Shang myths. And it should not surprise us if we see it associated with transitional elements as we do in the tale of Xihi and her children.

jadeThe decimal and sexagesimal number systems combined in a symbolic system of ten Heavenly stems with twelve Earthly branches. Again we have the Neolithic tree as the unifying image of Shang cosmology. It is also worth noting that the image is of Heaven and Earth combined, a primary symbol for all of Chinese civilization, whether in Shang congs (jade ritual objects) or the phrase Tianxia (“all under Heaven”), which is still alive in nationalistic rhetoric.

The ten Suns and stems were also associated with ten distinct ancestral relationships relating to weekly cycles of devotional practices. The Shang ancestors, divine mediators between the Shang clan and Heaven (Tian), were the primary focus of Shang ritual sacrifices. Therefore, the ten Suns were the primary symbol of Shang culture and ritual life.

And as we shall see, these Sun-birds will be shot from the sky by the mythic archer Houyi, in historic time, when the Shang and Zhou clans meet on the battlefield at Muye.

The Investiture of the Gods

The historical shift in power in the Yellow River Valley that occurred around 1070 bce is one of the great events of Chinese myth and legend.6 It is recounted in the great 16th century Ming Dynasty novel The Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen Bang).7 

One fateful day, King Zhou, last of the Shang kings, made a lewd comment toward the statue of Nuwa at the Goddess’s high alter and proceeded to vandalize her temple with pornographic scribbling. The Goddess was affronted, and as a curse to hasten the kingdom’s downfall, sent the incomparably beautiful Daji to be the concubine of King Zhou. Now Daji, a vixen spirit in disguise, had many curious preoccupations, one of the strangest being that, when her delicate hands got cold, she liked to warm them in the chest cavities of newly slain babies. This is a very strange idea for a muff. And, the Shang king happily indulged her morbid extravagances. However, just as people all across the world in 2011 talked about the odd and fancy hats at the royal wedding of Prince William, so too, outside the Shang capital, into the countryside, and around the land, word got out about the latest fashion craze in the Shang royal palace. And this sense for fashion, the Zhou people decided, would not do.

And as the Zhou people allied themselves for war against the most powerful kingdom of pre-imperial China, Jiang Ziya, the greatest military strategist of the age feigned madness, escaped from the Shang court, and disguised himself as a fisherman in the Zhou countryside. Now, the Shang court was known for the time-honored custom of making all its decisions, military and otherwise, by consulting their ancestral spirits through elaborate divination rituals. As the rituals became more intricate, the Zhou people were called upon to assist in ritual preparation. And eventually, in secret, some Zhou princes took it upon themselves to do some of their own divination. “Should we overthrow the Shang?” Duke Wen of Zhou asked. And a response came back from the voices of the honored dead, who in the vastness of the primordial void are so close to the Gods, “Hunting by the Wei River you will meet an astonishing sage, under whose guidance you will secure a great catch, indeed the very aim of your hunter’s heart.”
Thus Duke Wen met with the strategist Jiang Ziya who guided his son, Duke Wu, toward victory in the eventual overthrow of the decadent Shang government. The celestial powers then bestowed their divine authority upon the Zhou clan during this momentous shift in political power. This is an absolutely essential element in this story and, in fact, gives the title to this epic novel. Again, this is accomplished through the aid of Jiang Ziya, who intercedes with Yuanshi Tianzun, the divine master of Kunlun Mountain, in order to obtain divine authority for the clan in the form of the sacred Fengshen Bang. By conferring divine Shang wallstatus on Zhou ancestors, the Zhou people were thus aligned with the willful order of the deified powers that lie dormant and threatening beneath the all too vulnerable diaphragm of human awareness.

And so, in this late Ming Dynasty epic of the Zhou clan and their allies overthrowing the Shang Kingdom, the absolutely pivotal and most essential element in the narrative is the Zhou clan’s acquisition of divine authority for ruling.

Evidence from archeology and early Chinese historical writings suggest that, indeed, the great polemical problem of the Zhou (1070–256 bce) was contriving a celestial justification for their rule. And so, as we read in the Classic of History (Shujing) composed during the time of the late Zhou kingdom, Duke Wu of the Zhou marched his army to the west side of the Wei River on the eve of the great Battle of Muye. And this crucial battle would, in short time, bring to a close the five hundred year old kingdom of the Shang.

The Mandate From Heaven

The most popular myths of the Roman Republic are noteworthy as carefully crafted political narratives. They are not really “myths” proper, if we understand myths as spontaneous eruptions from cultural or visionary imagination. Rather, “myths” here are polemical tools to bolster state confidence. Politically, the Romans needed to walk a fine line in contriving their propagandistic myths. The Roman Republic stood as a defiant and vigorously militant counter player to Macedonian Greece, yet they desired to incorporate the ubiquitous force of Greek mythic narratives that permeated the cultural milieu of the Mediterranean world. And so, the result was their identification with Aeneas, a hero from Troy, the kingdom in Asia Minor whose army opposed the Greeks in the Homeric epics. The Aeneid of Virgil relates the tale with ample foreshadowing of the glories of the Roman Republic.

Similarly, the early Zhou rulers were in a difficult political situation in confronting the Shang Kingdom. Cultural myth and cosmology in and around the Shang Kingdom associated divine authority with the Shang monarch who claimed descent from the high god Di, or Heaven. So, to challenge Shang authority is to challenge the rise and fall of the Sun and clockwork movement of the stars across the sky. It is to challenge the very notion of order in the Universe and the cosmology of city-civilization itself.

So how did the Zhou strategists approach this problem? The same way they approached all difficulties, by consulting oracles. Like the Shang, the Zhou consulted oracles as their chief means of decision-making. And so they performed rituals of scapulamancy and other means to glean insight into the vast darkness of this problem. And then their astronomers made an astonishing discovery! A date and time for the battle was chosen and the fate of the Shang kingdom was sealed.

And so at noon, June 20, 1070 bce, Duke Wu of the Zhou stood before his and allied armies assembled at the riverbank, a determined wall of men against the great Shang Kingdom—heretofore supported and endorsed, or so it seemed, by the Divine Powers underlying the Cosmos. And lo . . . what is this in the sky?

The pale orb of the moon (the cosmological symbol of Neolithic farmers) moves across the face of the sun (the cosmological symbol of Shang city civilization) and plunges the day into night. The moon eclipses the sun—devours it! Heaven has spoken!

Shang bronze wine vesselAnd at this decisive moment, Duke Wu tells a story, “Heaven and Earth are the parents of all creatures. And of all creatures, surely humankind is the most noble. The king is honored as the parent of humankind. But, the Shang king, abandoned to drunkenness and lust, inflicts every calamity upon his people. He has butchered pregnant women and defiled temples. The iniquity of Shang has reached its zenith and Heaven itself commands its downfall. Once long ago . . . the great kingdom of the Xia ruled over the land. And they ruled with the Mandate of Heaven—the Divine authority of the governing principal of the Cosmos. And their rule was proper and just for a time. However, the rulers became decadent and negligent to the people and the land. And so Heaven withdrew its Mandate. And divested the Mandate upon the Shang, who with the will of Heaven, justly overthrew the Xia, and ruled the people for more than five hundred years. However now, the degenerate wickedness of the Shang overshadows the bitter cruelty of the Xia, and just as before . . . the present rulers have lost the Mandate from Heaven, and so it moves from the Shang clan to the Zhou clan. 15

And we must obey the natural order of Heaven. My dreams coincide with my divinations; the auspicious omen is double. My attack on Shang must succeed!8
And with these words the Mandate from Heaven enters Chinese history as a system of Divine justification for governance. And it will become the supporting and encompassing cosmological framework giving meaning to all Dynastic Chinese government until 1911 (or as some would argue, until the present moment.)

Houyi Shoots the Suns

Houyi Shoots The SunsMost scholars have interpreted the myth of Houyi shooting the suns as an etiological myth giving an explanation for why there is only one Sun in the sky. But are we not beyond such rubbish? I find the scholarly “fantasy” of myths as pre-scientific explanations for phenomena to be a violent insult to the vigorous minds of our collective ancestors and the vast ring of shared human culture. Generally speaking, I feel we have easy arguments against etiological meanings for myths, except as poetical and knowingly fantastical veiling stories. In other words, the etiological component of myths is typically window dressing for a deeper understanding of the mirroring qualities of Psyche and cosmology. This mirroring tendency in the polyvalent and mythopoetic Psyche defines the worldview of the world’s animistic and polytheistic traditions. At least, up to the point where their cultures are still intact. This is often not the case with cultures that have been overrun and psychologically emasculated by another culture. Cargo cults, messianic Native American traditions, and monotheistic fundamentalist groups, for example, generally describe shattered worldviews. With disassociated schizophrenic tension, they force a materialistic worldview onto clearly more poetic descriptions of Psyche and Cosmos. By contrast, intact animistic and polytheistic cultures have worldviews that encompass tension in a unified and coherent Psyche and Cosmos.9

And so, I hope that the following evidence shall be the final piece to the puzzle in describing a deeper meaning to this myth and bring this meandering picaresque essay into a coherent whole.

The myth of Houyi (or Yi or Yiyi) takes place during the time of the mythical emperor Yao, the fourth of the five emperors.10 Yao is one of the early idealized monarch figures that would be the model for the Chinese monarch ever since.

Nevertheless, the myth of Houyi shooting the ten Suns is (among other things) a veiled allegory for the collapse of the Shang dynasty, here symbolized by the Shang cosmology of ten Suns. The ten Suns (i.e., Shang government) became unbearable and order needed to be brought back to the land. According to the historical text, The Chronicle of Zuo (Zuo Zhuan, compiled during the late Zhou Period), the Shang army left their capital vulnerable while they went out to attack the Dongyi people. Now, in most versions of the myth of Houyi, the Dongyi (“Eastern Barbarians”) are associated with, and said to be founded by, Houyi the archer himself.11 And here, the etymology of the hero’s name becomes very important. Yi actually means “barbarian.” And Houyi means Hua, Huaxia, or Xia barbarians. And, Huaxia is a term used collectively for the people of Zhou!12

This suggests that the Zhou clan identified with Houyi as a culture hero, an archer who brought order to a land ravaged by the overweening power of the ten Suns (i.e., the Shang.) Houyi conquering the Suns is a veiled allegory for the Zhou conquering the Shang. The Dongyi clan was a crucial ally with the Zhou. Their objective was to draw out the main force of the Shang army and thus leave the capital vulnerable to the Zhou and their other allies. And, we must remember that Houyi is married to Chang’e who is associated with the Moon. So, the cosmological significance, again, is that a people with a lunar calendar conquered a people with a solar calendar. And calendar, of course, means cosmology. So, this is a cultural transformation of ultimate concern for the Zhou because, as stated earlier, among animistic and polytheistic people Cosmos is Psyche. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the first written descriptions of the mid-Autumn Moon Festival are in the late Zhou Confucian classic The Rites of Zhou (Zhouli.)13 The Moon Festival associates Zhou identity with the lunar cosmology and its victory over the solar cosmology of the Shang. And this shift of political authority aligns the Zhou with the Mandate of Heaven. Therefore, both Chinese Moon Festival and the Houyi and Chang’e myth celebrate a historical continuity that goes back to the decisive Battle of Muye in which the Zhou conquered the Shang. 

And with this, I believe, our picaresque essay has come full circle. In this essay, I hope to dissuade mythologists and folklorists from the culturally provincial practice of applying literal etiological meanings for myths upon cultures whose cosmology requires more mythopoetic sophistication. When studying the myths of another society we are guests in the house of another. And that “house” is a cosmology appropriate to the culture’s style and stage. Having used these guiding principles as an approach to our conduct within the myths of Houyi, Chang’e, and Xihi and her children, I believe we come away with some new discoveries in the field, namely: 1.) an understanding of the symbols of the Xihi myth from the perspectives of psychopharmacology and Shang cosmology; 2.) a recognition of the cosmological significance of solar and lunar symbolism (especially as it relates to the eclipse) at the time of the Zhou revolution; 3.) an understanding of the correspondence between the ten Shang Suns with the Houyi myth; and 4.) a linking of the ethnic groups of the Zhou revolution to the Houyi myth.

And if I may be so bold, perhaps there is something even revolutionary here.
The late Zhou poet Qu Yuan wrote in his ancient masterpiece, Questions to Heaven (Tianwen): “Why did Yi shoot down the Suns? Why did the crows shed their feathers?” I feel that Qu Yuan’s work is not cynically questioning the myths, as some scholars have suggested, but rather that his carefully crafted questions imply the meaning to the myths as a response. His lines function something like a mnemonic device for a storyteller. They invoke the story from within us and ask that our interior Cosmos—our Psyche—be capable of meeting it, the myth, on its own terms and with deep respect for those people who first pointed up at the moon and said, “There she is. Chang’e. She is a beautiful woman.”

Completed December 10th, 2011, the night of the lunar eclipse.


1 Yang, Lihui and Deming An. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2005. Pg. 32. This is a great book with a genuinely Chinese approach to Chinese mythology.

2 This is, of course, reconstructed from later texts. It is cosmological, geographic, and archeological data that suggest the myth as partly Shang. Also, Chinese scholar Chen Lianshan in Chinese Myths & Legends traces the myth to the Yin and Shang nationalities by following the mytheme of Di Jun or Jundi, Xihi’s shared husband (pg. 20.) In Handbook of Chinese Mythology, Lihui Yang and Deming An trace Di Jun myths found in the Shan Hai Jing as being of Yin origin, pointing out their age by noting the collapse of the Yin clan (pg. 97.)

3 The old name is Gompotaiti.

4 The sexagesimal number system has its origins in Ancient Sumer around the third millennium bce. Through cultural diffusion, it spread with the solar calendar, cosmology, and technologies of the hieratic city-state.

5 Smith, Adam. “The Chinese Sexagenary Cycle and the Ritual Foundations of the Calendar.” Research on this SmithAdam_2010_sexagenary.pdf . Pg. 21–2. This essay is astounding in its details about how the Shang calendar functioned.

6 The traditional date for this event is usually 1046 bce. However, I am using the date S. J. Marshall gives in his landmark book The Mandate of Heaven: Hidden History In The Book of Changes, where he coordinates the event with a solar eclipse.

7 The book is enormous and enormously complex. For the sake of brevity (and continuity with names of characters from history), I take some liberties in my retelling.

8 The speech of Duke Wu is recorded in the Classic of History (Shujing.) I am here paraphrasing from the translation of James Legge, as reprinted by Hong Kong University Press, 1960, vol. III), beginning on page 281. I have left the final italicized line intact. In The Mandate of Heaven S. J. Marshall has followed the research from the new field of Archaeoastronomy, the study of how early peoples interpreted their observations about the sky. However, my interpretation varies from Marshall’s. Interestingly, he even relates the eclipse back to the myth of Houyi and the ten suns, writing that the myth describes Houyi shooting the black birds of the eclipse and thus freeing the suns. And, thus he argues that this is an auspicious omen. However, if I understand his argument correctly, I believe that he misses that the eclipse symbolized the shift from the solar cosmology to the lunar cosmology. Marshall bases much of his argument on his study of the Zhou Yi (I Ching) hexagrams thirty-six and fifty-five. These hexagrams, read as historical documents, further support my argument: Hexagram thirty-six, Ming Yi (“Sun” Yi), pairs the image of the Sun with the archer Yi. It has been interpreted as brightness obscured or hidden, i.e., an eclipse. Hexagram fifty-five is named after the city from which the Zhou attack on the Shang advanced. It indicates positive oracular results suggesting a Zhou victory would follow a “noonday Yi sacrifice” (i.e., eclipse.) As I am in China without full access to Marshall’s work I hope that I am not misrepresenting his landmark book.

9 This is, after all, why Depth Psychology finds them useful.

10 There are different variations as to the position, placement, and reign of the three sovereigns and five emperors in the various ancient texts. Also, a number of scholars have argued about whether the mythic archers Yi and Houyi are the same or different and which one came first. (Lihui. Pg. 232.) I hope this essay provides a historically grounded answer. 

11The Dongyi is an early Chinese name for the Neolithic cultures of the Yellow River Valley. The ancient Korean kingdom of the Gojoseon was also referred to as the Dongyi. The Dongyi that allied with the Zhou certainly developed from the Neolithic cultures of the Yellow River Valley. As foundational dates for the Gojoseon culture are unclear, the question as to whether the Yellow River Valley cultures have a direct cultural continuity with the Korean Gojoseon kingdom is enticing but uncertain.

12 It is worth mentioning, however, that in time the Huaxia people would become the Han. And Chinese cultural identity is predominantly Han. The Han ethnic group makes up ninety two percent of Mainland China’s population and is the largest ethnic group in the world.

13 Its original title is the Offices of Zhou (Zhouguan.) Also, a very sweet oral tradition (in which Chang’e symbolizes the virtue of marital chastity) links the Houyi myth directly with the Moon Festival. Yi sacrifices cake offerings to his wife after she has gone to the moon after drinking the elixir of immortality in order to prevent another man to have it. Yang. Pg. 233. Under the surface, however, is the patriarchal suggestion that a virtuous woman would commit suicide rather than allow another man to deflower her.

14In the center Chang’e is inside her palace; on the left is Jade Rabbit mixing the elixir of immortality; while on the right is the tree that Wu Kang tries to cut down.
This mythological scene is encircled by (perhaps) lotus flowers and leaves (which are not unseasonable for Autumn.) Thr outermost circle suggests the soft halo of the lunar light.

15 The "beast mask" image on the Shang ritual vessel is called the Taotie. It is an expression of primordial appetite, particularly the appetites of the Shang ancestors that must be appeased through ritual means. This image is explored through a cross cultural approach in a presentation I gave at Henan Polytechnic University. it is avaialble online at

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Dave Alber
Author Bio
Dave Alber
is the author of a novel about personal and cultural mythology, Alien Sex in Silicon Valley; the nine-CD audio program The Rhythm of Health™; and two retellings of folklore, Aesop’s Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare and The Story of the Chinese Farmer. His forthcoming book is about mythology and cultural preservation, The Heart of Myth: Wisdom Stories From Endangered People (Brighter Books, 2012.) He is presently teaching at a university in China’s historic Yellow River Valley, researching Chinese myths, and exploring opportunities to educate people about China’s intangible cultural heritage. Visit more of his work online at  

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mythopoetics mythopoesis
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