In a very distant past, much longer ago than anybody can possibly remember, ten suns lived in the sky. This meant it was always daylight, and the surface of the earth was scorching hot. It was truly a very uncomfortable place to live, and the people who lived here at that time must have been exceedingly miserable.
Some gods were quite happy to accept this situation, because their homes were high up in the sky, and the excessive heat down on the earth didn’t bother them too much. Some other gods however, saw all the problems these ten suns caused for the people down below and started feeling rather sorry for them. They put their old wise heads together and tried to think of a solution, but they discovered they were not very good at finding solutions, so in the end they decided to offer a reward to anybody who could solve the problem of the ten suns.
Down on earth, many wise men scratched their bald heads and searched their learned brains. None of them could work out how to get rid of the suns. Some great warriors tried to start a war against the suns, but those suns just kept on sailing merrily through the sky, stoically refusing to be engaged in battle. Hou Yi was a giant of a man, who was both a wise man and a warrior. He realised something very special, something quite extraordinary, would be required, to have any chance of removing the suns. He came up with the idea of using a giant bow and giant arrows to shoot the suns out of the sky.
He travelled all over China to select just the right type of bamboo and cane and set about constructing the largest bow and the largest and sharpest arrows anybody had ever seen. The bow was so large that it took two thousand ordinary men to lift it up and carry it to the top of the highest mountain. It took another two hundred men to carry up one of the arrows and put it in place on the bow. Fortunately Hou Yi was not just a giant of a man, he was also incredibly strong. A hundred men helped him pull the bow string tight, and taking careful aim, he shot an arrow at the nearest sun. He shot it down!
Everybody was so exhausted by the effort that they had to rest for a week before attempting the feat again. Again, two hundred men carried one of the arrows up the mountain, and a hundred men helped Hou Yi to pull the bow string tight, and taking careful aim, he shot the arrow at the nearest sun. He shot that one down as well! And after another week’s rest Hou Yi shot down the third sun, and then one was shot down every week, until they had shot down nine suns altogether, leaving just the one that is still there today.
As you can imagine, life on earth changed dramatically. Suddenly there was day and night, light and dark. Rivers that had dried up flowed from the mountain tops down to the sea. Crops grew all over the land, forests flourished. The gods were very pleased indeed, and as a reward for Hou Yi, they set about preparing a special magic potion for him. This was the potion of long life. When they presented it to him, the gods told Hou Yi to only drink one drop once a year, and that each drop would extend his life by ten years. They told him that he should only ever drink just this one drop once a year, as to take more would lead to something very, very bad indeed happening to him. They didn’t tell him what this something very, very bad might be, but they had sufficient trust in Hou Yi’s wisdom that he would obey them.
Hou Yi had a wife called Chang Er, and when her husband brought home the potion, she was mightily intrigued. Hou Yi explained the potion’s powers to her, and what the gods had told him. He forbade her ever to touch the flask. He promised that each year, he would give her one drop, at the same time as he took his, and this way they could look forward to a very long and happy life together. But Chang Er was a little greedy, and more than a little impatient. She could see no reason why she should not have more than one drop. Perhaps if she took one or two good mouthfuls, she might live forever. Perhaps even be young forever! Just imagine that! She determined that she would have just a few mouthfuls. But of course she couldn’t do anything while her husband was at home. So one day she told Hou Yi that she wanted to bake some very special cakes to offer to the gods and to celebrate their good fortune, and presented her husband with a list of exotic ingredients. Hou Yi mounted his horse and went off to collect the ingredients for his wife. As soon as she was alone, Chang Er went to the large chest where the potion was kept, and took out the flask.
She took a big gulp, the taste was quite pleasant, and it made her feel quite good. That’s not bad at all, she thought, and took another big gulp, which made her feel even better. “Pah!” she snorted, “What awful thing could possibly happen to me from taking such a pleasant drink. I’m sure the gods only told my husband that story because they don’t want us to live forever, like they do! They’d be jealous! Haha!” She took another gulp, and she thought she started feeling quite different from normal. Much lighter on her feet. Taking a few steps to the left, and a few to the right, felt like hardly any effort at all, and when she looked in the mirror she was sure she already looked about ten years younger! Fantastic, she thought, wait till my husband sees me like this! He’ll be so proud of me! She took another big gulp, and she felt so light that she thought the only thing that was keeping her feet on the ground was the weight of her dress. She loved feeling so light and young, and she took another gulp. When she jumped out of delight, she almost bumped her head on the ceiling, that’s how high she jumped! Effortlessly!
She spread her arms and did a few dance steps, and considered how graceful her movements were now that she was so light. She felt so light and delighted that she took several more gulps at once. Then she noticed that she was floating! She didn’t just feel weightless, she was lighter than the air. Ephemeral!
Ever so gracefully Chang Er floated out of the window, and up, above her house, and up, above the tallest trees, and up, above the tallest mountains, and up, into the clouds sailing gracefully through the sky. Up she floated, and the city beneath her got smaller and smaller, and she just kept rising and rising, up and up. If only Hou Yi could see her now! Chang Er tried to look down below her, and tried to change direction, flapped her arms and legs and tried to go down again. With a shock she realised that whatever she did, she could not go down. She just kept going higher up into the sky. Beyond the clouds and into that vast expanse of sky surrounding the earth. She shouted, she cried, she pleaded. She clenched her fists and swung her legs. She kicked at nothing with her feet and she kept on rising. Eventually she crashed into the moon, and that’s where she still is, to this very day. Every year the gods send her the ingredients to make some special cakes for them, which they call mooncakes!
Jin Lou told this story to Frans Timmermans