China’s lunar exploration program has once again caught the world’s attention when last week its Chang'e 4 mission made the first ever soft-landing on the dark side of the moon. The mission released a lunar rover called Yutu 2, or Jade Rabbit 2, to map the moon’s inner structures, as well as analyzing soil and rock samples.
For centuries, Chinese people have been making endless efforts to explore the secrets of the moon. Wan Hu, a legendary Chinese official living in the middle of the Ming Dynasty (16th century), was said to be the world’s first “astronaut”, allegedly being lifted into outer space on a rocket chair. Though there is no historical evidence to support this tale, a crater on the far side of the moon was named after Wan by NASA.
China's desire to explore the moon has also made this natural satellite of the earth an important element of the country’s folklore. Like an encyclopedia of moon-related tales, China’s lunar exploration program contains deep cultural connotations. Follow our lead and embark on our Chinese folklore journey to the moon!
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) is also known as the Chang’e Project. As China’s moon goddess, Chang’e possessed breathtaking beauty and immortal youth, but in exchange, she lost her beloved husband forever.
Living in a very distant past, Chang’e and her husband, a skilled archer named Yi, had a wonderful life together. However, one day, ten suns rose into the sky and scorched the earth, taking millions of lives. Yi shot down nine of them, leaving only one sun to serve the people, and thus he was rewarded by the gods with the elixir of immortality.
Reluctant to enjoy immortality without his wife, Yi decided to hide the elixir. However, one day, while Yi was out hunting, his apprentice broke into his house and forced Chang’e to give him the elixir. To prevent the thief from obtaining it, Chang’e drank the elixir instead, and flew up to the moon to begin her immortal life. Though devastated, Yi displayed fruits and cakes his wife had liked during the full moon, and that’s how China’s Moon Cake Festival came to be.
Though a sad story, Chang’e has inspired generations of Chinese scientists to explore the secrets of her moon palace. As of 2018, China is in the preliminary stages of research for a crewed lunar landing mission in 2030. Perhaps, in the foreseeable future, people will fly back to the moon and save the goddess from her eternal loneliness.
China’s lunar rover, the first to ever land on the far side of the moon, was named Yutu in August 2018, after the country launched a worldwide poll to find a suitable name. According to Xinhua, a total of 42,945 proposed names were submitted within a month, but Yutu was chosen due to its representation of kindness and purity, reflecting China’s peaceful use of space.
According to Chinese folklore, the jade rabbit used to live in a forest with other animals. One day, the Jade Emperor disguised himself as an old, starving man and begged the jade rabbit for food. Being weak and small, the jade rabbit couldn't help the old man, so instead jumped into the fire so that the old man could eat its flesh.
Moved by the generous gesture, the Jade Emperor (the first god in Chinese mythology) sent the rabbit to the moon, and there he became the immortal Jade Rabbit. The Jade Rabbit was given the job of making the elixir of immortality, and the story goes that the rabbit can still be seen creating the elixir with a pestle and mortar on the moon.
The relay satellite for the Chang’e 4 lunar probe is named “Queqiao” (magpie bridge), via which the images of the dark side of the moon are sent back to earth. The satellite is designed to allow radio communication between the far side of the moon and earth without any interference.
In Chinese folklore, Queqiao also serves as a bridge of communication, but for a separated couple, rather than for the earth and the moon.
In the story of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, one of China’s four Great Folktales, the love between the two characters was not allowed, as the weaver girl was a heavenly goddess, while the cowherd was a mere mortal. Though deeply in love, they were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River, or the Milky Way. Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies is said to form a bridge, over which the couple can be reunited for a single day.