November 27, 2011

Guest Post: Moon Cakes and Myths from the Far East, By Teresa Robeson

A package of moon cakes arrived from my father the previous week. Moon cakes, if you’ve never heard of them, are the customary delicacy (and I use the term loosely because food with the density of lead shouldn’t be called a delicacy) for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

Opening the metal box and gazing upon the four hermetically sealed, and rather unappetizing looking, moon cakes flooded me with memories of my childhood in Hong Kong, and one of my first encounters with fairy tales.
I suppose all ancient cultures were built on the foundations of myth, although I only know about my own. I’m not referring to the creation myths, although those are fun enough. I’m talking about the myths that have pervaded the culture so thoroughly that any citizen plucked off the street would understand the allusion to them. 

A fairy tale that has become an integral part of a holiday is the story of Seung Ngo, the woman who flew to the moon – a tale that may predated Jules Verne by a couple of thousand years. Seung Ngo and all the names I mention here are Cantonese phonetic transcriptions since that is my native dialect.

Even if Seung Ngo’s story doesn’t spring to mind the rest of the year, we are reminded of it come Mid-Autumn Festival when gorging on moon cakes while staring appreciatively at the moon. This activity always elicited the question of “can you see Seung Ngo?” from the adults. And what little kid couldn’t see the lady in the moon?
Tangentially, I suspect that the Mid-Autumn Festival was sponsored by fire-fighters. How else can you explain giving kids as young as toddlers delicate balsa wood and tissue-paper lanterns lit by birthday candles from within? Can we say “fire hazards,” boys and girls?

If you don’t know the tale of Seung Ngo, allow me to share one of the most loved Chinese fairy-tales. Like all fairy tales, this story has variations. I’m going to re-tell the one from a childhood book of mine, slightly modified for flow.

It was said that one year during the reign of the Yieu Emperor, there suddenly appeared nine extra suns in the sky. 

Every day the ten suns arose at dawn and set at dusk, casting what seemed like a giant fire upon the earth. The ground became parched and scorched. The crops in the fields died off one after another.  Leaves shriveled up and dropped from the trees onto the lifeless, dusty ground.

“If the weather continues like this, we will all be burned to a crisp,” people complained. “Grandfather Sky has decided to punish us. There is nothing we can do.”

Emperor Yieu, observing the state of his kingdom, was naturally frantic. He prayed to the gods for an answer, but one never came.

One of his advisors consulted with the king. “I have heard there is a hero in the Eastern Region by the name of Hao Ngai who is an extraordinary archer. His arrows never missed their targets. Why don’t we tell him to shoot down the extra suns?”

The Emperor was highly suspicious of the claims of Hao Ngai’s abilities, but he was out of ideas, and so summoned the man.

When Hao Ngai appeared before the Emperor, Yieu was delighted to see that the man was tall and athletic - indeed heroic in stature.

“Sir,” said the Emperor. “There are ten suns in our sky, scorching everything in our country, killing our crops. I wish for you to use your great skill and shoot these suns down, giving relief to your fellow citizens.”

Hao Ngai agreed readily, as a loyal subject would. “I have never shot at the sun before, but I am willing to try.”

Taking leave of the Emperor, Hao Ngai scaled the tallest mountain where he, with confident poise and a steady hand, aimed an arrow at one of the suns. With a loud “FHOO,” the arrow pierced the air and flew straight through the sky.

One of the white-hot suns suddenly burst into a fiery crimson ball and slid down the sky, disappearing behind the mountain. 

Seeing the success of his first attempt, Hao Ngai rejoiced. Another arrow, then another, and another pierced sun after sun, until nine of them had fallen from the sky. As the suns descended, golden feathers danced through the air.  It was then that he noticed that on the surface of each of the suns was a bird of gold with three clawed feet. When his arrows impaled the suns, they slayed the golden birds as well.

With the nine suns gone, the temperature of the air dropped. Hao Ngai prepared to shoot an arrow at the last sun, but the Emperor stopped him.

“Great hero, please put your bow away. If there wasn’t one sun left in the sky, the world would be plunged into darkness. We must leave this sun where it is.” And so it was that we have the one sun in the sky to this day.
Because he helped saved the world, Hao Ngai, who used to be amiable marksman, became an arrogant bully who demanded others bow down to him and worship him.

He also gave much thought to his mortality and how he wouldn’t live forever. “I’m the greatest hero in this land. It is unfortunate that one day I will die because I am human. I want to find a magical potion that will keep me youthful.”

He confided his desire to his beautiful wife Seung Ngo who was not only fair of face, but of character as well - a gentle and loving woman. She listened to her husband and then tried to persuade him otherwise.

“A person is not meant to live forever in this world. If you have led a good life, been kind to others, then even when you die, you will live on forever,” she said.

But Hao Ngai scoffed at the wise words of his wife, to her great sadness.

Not long after, he came home one day to tell Seung Ngo that he discovered that the goddess of the West Kingdom possessed what he had been looking for. “The magic potion that will give me immortality! I must depart at once to obtain this potion from her.”

It was a long, difficult journey but he found the mountain on which the goddess resided. Hao Ngai told her about his heroic deed of saving the world. When he was done, the goddess nodded gravely and handed him two packets of magic potion.

“Take these packets, and store them in a safe place. When the time comes that you are ready, then you should swallow one,” she said.

When he returned home with the potions, Hao Ngai gave the packets to his wife for safe-keeping. Seung Ngo decided that she would keep them hidden and when he had become his kind, humble self again, she would let him take the potions.

Unfortunately, Hao Ngai became more vile than ever.  Seung Ngo knew, with a broken heart, that she could not ever let him have the potions.

“How can I allow him to be immortal so that he could inflict his venom on others for eternity?” she thought.

When Hao Ngai left the house for a few days on a fox hunt, Seung Ngo swallowed both the potions.

No sooner had she swallowed them when she felt light and airy, her body swaying with the breeze. As she took a step forward, her feet lifted from the ground, and she began to float. Soaring higher and higher, leaving her home far behind, Seung Ngo didn’t stop until she landed in the palace on the moon where she has lived ever since.
The tale doesn’t end there, although the last part isn’t as well-known.  Despite the Moon Palace being a beautiful place, Seung Ngo missed her husband. She begged the Moon Rabbits to help her concoct another magical potion that she could give Hao Ngai when he once again became the gentle person he used to be. This is why, in addition to being asked if they see Seung Ngo, children are sometimes asked if they also see the Moon Rabbits.
In the fairy tale of my youth, there is no man in the moon - only a lonely lady, two hard-working rabbits...and lots of moon cakes.


Alina Klein said...

Lovely! Though I hope the rabbits can speak to that lonely moon wife. I will be adding moon cakes to my list of "must try" less-than-delicate delicacies!

Teresa Robeson said...

Thank you! I'm delighted and honored to be invited to give a guest blog post. :)

Amanda C. Davis said...

Wow, I really love that fairy tale. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! I love the idea of rabbits on the moon. After reading this I looked up moon rabbits and found this:
I also love the idea of a lonely lady on the moon. The moon truly seems feminine to me, and the sun masculine. Perhaps most of all because the moon is coy, hiding her face from time to time, and shines with a softer glow.

Thanks for this lovely story!

tjpaj219 said...

I thought the tale of the Moon Cakes was a classic example of a respectable protagonist being corrupted by his own hubris. I enjoyed that this story was straightforward and easy to follow, without having any hidden or dual meanings or leaving anything to guesswork. I found it interesting that the wife of the hero took such an active role in trying to better her husband’s arrogance. Usually, the women in fairy tales are quiet and obedient when it comes to their husbands. I thought it was inspiring and sent a good message that even if something is hard to do, such as turning your back on your husband, it is still important to stay true to your beliefs for the good of society. Although the wife has a change of heart after taking the potions, I still believe the message stands strong. I think this message is especially relevant today, that you should be willing to do something good for your country, or your home, such as destroying 9 extra suns, without expecting people to bow down before you, so to speak.