Mid-Autumn Folktale: Moon, Rabbit, and Fox
The Mid-autumn festival in China venerates 嫦娥 (Cháng’é), the moon goddess. Like the rituals in last week’s post, the folktales about her reflect the season’s liminality and uncertainties, as she moves from mortality to immortality, from living on earth to living on the moon. The standard version of her story concerns a rebellious student trying to steal his master’s elixir of immortality, and Cháng’é preventing him by drinking it herself. This variant, however, from the Oroqen people in northern China, offers a darker, more fluid and troubling tale. This is a liminal, uncanny narrative, perhaps reflecting the symbolism of traditional shamanic belief, full of shapeshifting, trickery, murder, and foxes…
Chang E married a mountain king and, after a year, she gave birth to a son. A fox goblin living on South Mountain was jealous of the king’s happiness and hated Chang E’s beauty. When Chang E went to visit her parents the fox goblin transformed herself into a beauty resembling Chang E, went to the palace, and told the king that she had returned. The king was skeptical that she was the real Chang E, but the goblin explained she had taken an elixir while at her parents’ home and had then been transformed into a woman of unsurpassable beauty. The king was thus convinced.
A few days later the real Chang E returned. Before she stepped over the threshold the goblin said, “An evil spirit is entering. Don’t be deceived.” The king then angrily shouted, “Shameless ghost! How dare you enter my palace! Off with you!” Chang E walked out without argument. Longing for her son to give her comfort, she turned to him, but he repeated, “Ghost! Go away!” which was another stab in her heart. Suddenly she pulled out a dagger, slashed her neck, and fell, her body drenched in blood. Her spirit became a beautiful goddess and flew up into the moon.
After hounding Chang E to death the fox goblin was still not content, for she was bent on usurping the throne for her lover—a wolf goblin. Chang E’s son divined her designs and thereafter treated her coldly, but dared not inform his father. Chang E’s son was a skilled hunter and known for his intelligence, which convinced the fox goblin that he posed some danger. She suggested to the king, “Our son is possessed by ghosts. We should kill and eat him.” The king was undecided, for he loved his son, but he also feared the goblin’s sharp tongue. In the end he yielded to the goblin’s persuasions.
The next night, the fox goblin murdered him, minced his flesh, and stuffed dumplings with it. Though on the fire a long time, the dumplings refused to boil. The goblin angrily scooped some from the pot, determined to eat them with or without boiling. The king however, refused to eat any though the goblin ate many. Finally unable to resist the vixen’s coquettish smiles, he reluctantly swallowed one, which just happened to contain a part of the young man’s heart. Immediately the king vomited what he had eaten, and then the piece of heart became a small white rabbit and hopped out of the palace. The goblin quickly reverted to her true form and chased after the rabbit. Chang E saw this and shouted to the rabbit, “My dear son come quickly!” The white rabbit leapt up to his mother, who took him in her arms and flew back to the moon.
The fox goblin dared not return to the king’s palace because she had betrayed herself and therefore, fled to South Mountain. “Why didn’t I realize that woman was a fierce fox?” regretted the king and he ordered his archers to chase the fox goblin, who was soon killed. The king gazed at the moon every night and murmured, “I was wrong. Dear wife and son, my heart is broken. Please come back and live with me!” But despite his heartfelt pleas, Chang E and her son never returned.
Told by Tie Pingjia. Translation by Tang Yanping.
From: Kevin Stuart and Li Xuewei, editors. Tales from China’s Forest Hunters: Oroqen Folktales. Sino-Platonic Papers 61 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1994), p. 6. http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp061_oroqen_folktales.pdf. Available under a Creative Commons license.