Forgetting: Chang’e Descends to Earth, or Chang’e Escapes to the Moon

Source Material


Her story is widely known. At first she stayed in heaven, then she followed a man down below, and that was her descent to earth. As the illustration shows, later on she returned once more to the heavens. To be precise, she flew to the moon.

As you will realise at once, this is Chang’e. She has many names: Chang’e, Heng’e, Changxi, Shangyi, Changyi, the Jade Rabbit, the Spirit of the Moon… beyond these, there are the unpleasant ones, such as the Toad, the Cleft-lip Rabbit, etc.[1] Now she has descended to the world again.


Many have written poems about her in each and every dynasty. Li Shangyin[2] wrote the finest:


A mica screen, deep shadows cast by the candles,

the long river[3] slowly falls, the dawn stars sink.

Chang’e regrets stealing the marvellous potion[4]

jade-green waters, blue-black sky — at night in her heart.


Statistical data indicates that the men who have written poems to her are too numerous to count. Yet none describes her appearance; not because she is embarassingly ugly, but because she is too lovely. From ancient times to the present day, among all lovely women, she is the only one to enjoy this honour: everyone knows she is very beautiful, without the poets needing to waste words or ink. Incidentally, while no one wrote down the details of her beauty before, to do so today would be impossible. The present is an ugly age, when the task of the poet is to write about ugliness. As to what comes after — oh, don’t bring that up. People everywhere know that the next age will be called the post-ugly era.




Essay on an Assigned Topic


I am writing this essay on a topic assigned by Hou Houyi [5]. Hou Houyi is an important historian, as well as my academic advisor. He instructed me to make a record of the descent of Chang’e to the world. He also said: Since the gathering of historical artifacts in the areas inhabited by ethnic minorities is called ‘fieldwork’, there will be no harm in calling the account of Chang’e’s descent to earth ‘factwork’, practical research in the sense of seeking actuality from facts. I have to listen to what Hou Houyi says because he is my adviser and holds my graduation in his hands. In the ordinary course of things, I should have received my Ph.D last year, but my dissertation, Chang’e Escapes to the Moon, has not gone to defence. Hou Houyi is the chair of the committee. The other committee members, as far as I know, are inclined to let me slip through the defense, except Hou Houyi will not agree. He says there should be high standards and strict requirements for his students and will only place the graduation cap on my head once I have revised the dissertation to his general satisfaction.


I gave Hou Houyi the preceding document to read, and he said: ‘What you’ve written is all cocked-up. You haven’t given the time, or the place, or explained the causes, and there are no annotations.’ In compliance with his instructions, I supplemented the record with the time and place: the date was 19 December 2000, by the lunar calendar the year gengchen, the seventeenth year of the sexegenary cycle, by solar terms the xinhai day as counted with the ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches. The site of her descent was the town of Hanzhou. As for the reason for her return, Hou Houyi has not told me yet. So I added one more sentence: No one knows what lofty errand compels her return. For annotation, I wrote: Of course I know how to write explanatory notes, after so many years of your instruction. To illustrate this, what I am writing right now is an annotation, although I do not intend to let him read it.




Critical Illness


In a sense, Chang’e’s descent to earth and her previous flight to the moon are the same, since both ought to be seen as events of tremendous import. I should thus record the causes of this event and its effects in a little more detail, to the extent that I can. At noon on 19 December 2000, I was revising my dissertation when Luo Mi called to say that Hou Houyi wanted to see me. I believed Hou Houyi must be at the moment of his departure and wanted to sign his name to my dissertation before he passed away, so I rushed to his house in a taxi.


Hou Houyi’s illness had reached a terminal point some time before. He had prostate cancer, an illness which had already kept him in bed for many days. Normally I made two visits to see him at home every day, once in the morning and once in the evening. I went in the morning with the idea of seeing whether he had died during the night; in the evening, to know whether he had lived through another day. On 19 December a miracle occurred. I found him, to my surprise, sitting at the dining table and chomping away at a bowl of dumplings that he held in both hands. Another bowl, which he indicated had been set aside for me, sat on the table. The celebration of winter solstice had passed. Who was still eating dumplings? He wanted me to eat them, though, so I had to try. The filling of the dumplings was sour. He asked me if they tasted good. Luo Mi said, without waiting for me to answer: Piss good. Two more days and we can feed them to the dogs. Luo Mi was Hou Houyi’s wife. She turned on me next and asked: What do you think? She clearly wanted to cause trouble. I bit into another dumpling, making it look as though I found it hard to swallow. This action was open to two sharply conflicting interpretations: to Hou Houyi, it suggested that I was full, but the dumplings were so tasty I still wanted to eat one more; it also showed Lou Mi that the spoiled food was nauseating. She dumped out her own bowl and stomped out of the room. This was when Hou Houyi told me Chang’e had descended to earth again that very day. He went on to say that a woman’s nose is keener than a dog’s. The nose he referred to belonged to Luo Mi. He said that she had known as soon as Chang’e arrived. The news made her furious. Then he instructed me to make a record of the event, because it was historic. My adviser added: Throw away your dissertation and concentrate on writing this text. The document will be a kind of dissertation, too. After you finish it, I will place the graduation cap on your head.


I asked him: How do you know Chang’e has descended to the world? He said that he knew, of course, because he was the reincarnation of her husband Yiyi. He told me he had already met Chang’e face to face. Chang’e had given him some of the potion of immortality, but, since she could not confirm that he was Yiyi reincarnate, she only let him sip a tiny bit of the medicine, enough to sustain his life temporarily. He then sought me out to write about the descent of Chang’e, treating this text as my dissertation, in order to prove that he was the reincarnation of Yiyi — this was how he would receive from Chang’e the potion of immortality.




My Queries and Hou’s Explanations


I should mention that I had doubts: (1) Why didn’t he write the record himself, since he was not, for the moment, dying? (2) As the reincarnation of Yiyi, couldn’t he explain things to Chang’e personally? There was no need for me to belabour the point, especially as he was himself a historian.


Hou Houyi explained that these issues had occurred to him, too, but he preferred that I be the author of this document. To become immortal through a piece of writing is the dream of each and every historian. No one attaches more importance to posthumous reputation than historians, their passion in this regard being even greater than that of politicians. My doubts were increased rather than weakened by what he said. He must have been on something to give away such a good opportunity. I believed that there must be a more profound reason. He could see what I was thinking and said: True, I know you don’t want to believe I am sincere, but you need to realise that as the reincarnation of Yiyi I am already a historical figure. I don’t have to depend on a piece of writing to win earthly fame. He finished: If your essay convinces Chang’e that I am the reincarnation of Yiyi, I will fly with her to her heavenly abode. What use will fame in this world be to me once I am there?




The Dog’s Story


During our conversation in the middle of the day on 19 December, Hou Houyi and Luo Mi both mentioned dogs. After Luo Mi stormed out, Hou Houyi said: Luo Mi speaks more and more to the point. She said the dumplings could be fed to the dogs after being left out two more days, implying that the dumplings will taste even better then. She was referring to a specific dog, not to ordinary dogs. I asked him to which she referred. He said, You’ve studied history all these years for nothing. Give it some thought. Leaving Hou Houyi’s home, I pondered his question. There happened to be several people walking their dogs on the campus green. One woman walked with a dog for several steps, then picked it up, hugged it, and kissed it. There was a pile of dog shit by the railing of the iron fence that circled the edge of the grass. I gazed at the spongy droppings and thought for a while, until suddenly my mind was opened, and I understood Hou Houyi was reminding me of a basic fact, that within history there had been one significant incidence of mating between humans and dogs, and this historical event concerned Chang’e. That is to say, when Hou Houyi mentioned dogs, he was still talking about the story of Chang’e.


The dog clever enough to mate with a woman was called Pan Hu. There is a book titled History of the Later Han Dynasty [6], written by a certain Fan Ye, who, like Hou Houyi, was a great historian, one who held the post of general of the left guard and oversaw the imperial troops; he took part in confidential affairs and was an influential official of the imperial court. In his history Fan Ye verifies that the ruler Di Jun, suffering from the incursions of a foreign army, made numerous expeditions but could not subdue the enemy or defeat it in battle. He issued a decree saying that whoever could bring him the head of the leader of the hostile army would become the emperor’s son-in-law. The document was stamped in bright red ink with his imperial jade seal.


Di Jun had a dog named Pan Hu, a randy and irascible creature, who went deep into the enemy camp and returned holding the precious head in his mouth, then demanded to be made the emperor’s son-in-law. Pan Hu and Di Jun had a dialogue regarding this marriage.


Di Jun:           Pan Hu, oh, Pan Hu, if you want to take a wife, why not marry a bitch? But you insist on being our son-in-law. Is the point of your dog’s life to make things difficult for me?


Pan Hu:          I sure am a dog. So what? Even dogs have the seven emotions and six desires.[7]


Besides, you made a declaration, which became an official edict. Can you turn your face away and deny what you owe? Your daughter is promised to me.


Di Jun:           It’s the second month now, and you are too eager. After two months pass, you will realise that a female dog would be a better match for you.


Pan Hu:          After two months, there will still be eight more.[8]


Di Jun:           You leave me with nothing to say! Have you heard anything I told you? If I give my daughter to you, how will I explain to history your litter of mongrels? My wife Chang’e was right when she said if you were any kind of man we would have you as a son-in-law. The problem is that you’re not a man.


Pan Hu:          Mighty ruler, why didn’t you say that before? I can change into a man easily. Bring a chest and let me get inside. On seven-seven, forty-nine days later[9], I assure you I will be transformed into a handsome young man.


The outcome of the affair was as follows: having defeated Di Jun in verbal battle, Pan Hu climbed into the chest. On the forty-eighth day Di Jun’s daughter could wait no longer. She wanted to see what her future husband looked like. The others tried to restrain her, but once the young mistress lost her temper they could not hold her back. She lifted the lid of the chest and saw Pan Hu’s body transformed into a man’s, except that his dog’s head was not finished and still covered in fur. The fur would never shed, now that the princess had revealed the mystery of the heavens. Still, no matter what anyone said, in the end Pan Hu looked a proper man, so Di Jun gave the princess to him in marriage. They produced numerous children in short order, and when these children grew up they paired with each other and had even more children.





[1] Heng’e: an early name of the moon goddess, later changed to Chang’e to avoid the taboo on the name of a deceased emperor, in this case Liu Heng, Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty. Changxi: a wife of the deity Di Jun and mother of the twelve moons. Chang’e and Changxi, both closely associated with the moon, are sometimes interchanged. Shangyi is another name for Chang’e; Changyi another name for Changxi. The rabbit and the toad are also mythical moon-dwellers; in some accounts the toad is Chang’e metamorphosed; in others, the rabbit or toad appears with a mortar preparing a potion that grants Chang’e immortality. All notes are the translator’s.


[2] Li Shangyin: Tang dynasty poet, 813–858.


[3] long river: the Milky Way.


[4] According to legend, Chang’e stole a drug that granted immortality from her husband, the legendary archer Yi (also called Yiyi or Houyi / Lord Yi), and fled to the moon.


[5] Hou Houyi: a pun on the name, Houyi, of the husband of Chang’e, with the surname Hou (a homonym for post-) suggesting descent from the archer Houyi or Yiyi.


[6] History of the Later Han Dynasty: a work of almost seven-hundred-thousand characters covering the years 25–220 that came to be the predominant history of this period. It was still unfinished when Fan Ye (398–445) was executed for treason. The account here departs in many respects from the tale of Pan Hu found therein, as with the substitution of one legendary emperor, Di Ku, with another, Di Jun, husband of Changxi (here, Chang’e).


[7] seven emotions and six desires: there are multiple enumerations, but in broad terms the emotions are joy, anger, sadness, horror, love, hate, and lust; the desires being those engendered by the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind.


[8] By inclusive reckoning, the term of human pregnancy is counted as ten months in Chinese culture. Pan Hu could also refer to the timeframe of a year.


[9] The day seven-seven or ‘double-seven’ marks the last of the memorial services held at seven-day intervals to mourn the deceased.




This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.


Novelist and short story writer was born 1966 in Henan Province. Despite his modest claim to be a 'not very prolific' author, he has published five story collections, two novels and approximately fifty novellas and short stories — most of them within the last decade. His work appears regularly in Zuojia, Shouhuo, Huacheng, Shucheng, Dajia, Renmin Wenxue, Shanhua, Shidai Wenxue and a variety of other mainland literary journals.    

Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is pursuing a Ph.D in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Her translations from Chinese include short stories by Jiang Yun, Lu Min, and Jia Pingwa. Her first book-length translation, Can Xue's The Last Lover (Yale University Press) was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the National Translation Award and won the Best Translated Book Award 2015.



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