The Man in the Moon: A Mid-Autumn Festival Legend
The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important Chinese holidays. It takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, when the moon is at its roundest and brightest. Families gather around, sharing a delicious dinner and enjoying the round moon in the night sky while sampling mooncakes and sipping fragrant tea.
Growing up in China as a child, we would hear the familiar legend of Chang’e and her Jade Rabbit, who live on the moon. On these brisk autumn evenings, I would gaze up curiously at the bright moon while stuffing myself silly with mooncakes. If I looked carefully enough, I could see the silhouette of the Moon Palace, where Chang’e resides with her rabbit.
However, did you know that Chang’e and the Jade Rabbit are not the only inhabitants of the moon?
Also on the moon grows an ancient osmanthus—an Asian evergreen with flat oval leaves and little flowers. This moon osmanthus glows golden yellow, and blooms with incomparable fragrance. Underneath that tree there is a woodcutter constantly swinging his axe, trying to chop it down. What is he doing on the moon?
The story originates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) and goes like this:
There once was a woodcutter named Wu Gang who wished to practice spiritual perfection and become an immortal. But when he finally had the opportunity to do so, he was lazy, never cultivated himself wholeheartedly, and made many mistakes. This angered the heavenly Jade Emperor, who then banished Wu Gang to the moon.
On the moon, Wu Gang found the magical osmanthus tree standing over 5,000 feet tall. The Jade Emperor told Wu Gang, “When you finish chopping down this tree, you will achieve immortality and become a deity.”
Wu Gang jumped at the opportunity of attaining immortality with just a little hard work. Getting straight to it, he swung his axe as hard as he could and made a large cut in the tree’s side. As soon as he was about to swing again, the tree magically healed itself, looking like nothing had ever happened.
Wu Gang chopped the tree again as hard as he could, and again as fast as he could. But no matter what he did, the tree always miraculously healed itself. Every. Single. Time.
And it so that Wu Gang had no choice but to remain forever in the courtyard of the Moon Palace, eternally chopping at the magical osmanthus tree.
It has been recorded that during the Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties, magical osmanthus seeds have fallen out of the sky like rain on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is said that these seeds came down from the moon as a result of Wu Gang’s vigorous chopping. Legend has it that once planted, these seeds would blossom into tall osmanthus trees in just ten days.
So, this Mid-Autumn Festival, get some mooncakes and enjoy the view of the moon. Perhaps, you’ll be able to see the giant magical osmanthus tree, and if you’re really lucky, you might even catch an osmanthus seed.