Chinese Legends: Yi Shoots Down the Suns and Chang’E Flies to the Moon

September 9, 2014 5:30 am Last Updated: September 11, 2014 10:58 pm

There are many tellings of the legend of Yi, archer hero of the Earth, and Chang’E, the Lady in the Moon. Here is but one of them from the time of the early Xia (2070–1600 B.C.).

A long, long time ago, people’s lives followed the schedule of the sun. They would get up and start working at sunrise and go to sleep and rest at sunset.

The sun brings light and warmth and people would plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, making a simple living through farming and hunting.

In this ancient time, there lived a man named Yi. Legend has it that when Yi was five, he went missing on a nearby mountain and did not return until he was 20. By then, he had grown into a strong and imposing man.

Of his disappearance, Yi said that he had met an unusual person on the mountain, who took him as a disciple and taught him martial arts, especially archery. He was trained to never miss a target.

In no time, Yi’s skill at archery became well known and people said that he was the greatest archer ever.

The Making of a Marksman

There is a popular story about Yi’s archery skill. Once while Yi was visiting with a friend, a goose happened to fly overhead. His friend looked up at the goose, pointed to it, and asked Yi, “Can you shoot it down?”

Yi looked at the goose and asked his friend, “Do you want it alive or dead?” His friend suggested, “Shoot its left eye.”

Yi did not reply but simply drew his bow and shot an arrow with a steady hand. The goose fell to the ground as soon as the arrow flew. His friend ran over to take a look and exclaimed, “Marksman, marksman!”

Yi asked, “Is it through the left eye?”

His friend shook his head and said, “Though it is the right eye and not the left, surely that was still very difficult!”

However, despite this praise, Yi felt ashamed and disturbed and could not forget his miss. He practiced archery even more diligently and perfected his skill more and more.

A Heavenly Meeting

Yi’s wife, Chang’E, was the most beautiful woman in the village and she was said to be virtuous and gentle. She took care of their home and cared deeply for her husband. The couple lived in harmony and happiness.

One day, Yi went out hunting as usual. He chased after a deer on a mountain. As it began to get dark, suddenly the deer disappeared and Yi found himself in front of a huge mansion.

Yi was puzzled to see such a dwelling in the remote mountains and it looked as if it was a palace.

While he stood in wonderment, the door opened and a child came out and said, “The Queen Mother of the West would like to invite General Yi in.”

Yi followed the child inside and saw an elegantly dressed, noble lady sitting in the middle of a hall lit by candlelight. He realized this must be the Queen Mother of the West and hurried to pay homage.

The Queen Mother greeted him with a smile, “I trust all has been well with you since we last saw each other, General?”

Yi did not understand what she meant but felt she looked familiar, so he could only nod in agreement.

“I invited you here today to tell you that you descended to Earth bearing the mission to save the world,” the Queen Mother said. “I will give you a hand today. Once the task is successfully completed, you will be able to return to Heaven and be reinstated as an immortal.”

Yi was bewildered and could do little else but nod again.

Divine Gifts for a Heavenly Mission

The Queen Mother asked the child to take out a bow and a set of arrows. They were obviously too peculiar to have been made by human hands; the bow was red and the arrows seemed to be made of jade.

Yi could not tell what they were made of, still, he accepted them with great respect.

The Queen Mother then said, “Now, general, with these, you can save the people from disaster.”

Yi still did not understand, but nodded and raised both his hands high to thank his divine patron.

The Queen Mother then asked the child to retrieve a white jade bottle. The bottle was exquisitely carved, truly lovely. The Queen Mother said, “General, you must remember, the liquid inside this bottle is the essence of all things in Heaven and on Earth— it is a magic potion for immortality. Guard it well, and once you succeed, you and Chang’E can drink this potion to achieve immortality and ascend back to Heaven.”

She then ordered the child to take the general back to his home as it was getting late.

Yi bowed to thank the Queen Mother for her gift, and as he lifted his head everything before him disappeared. As if in a trance, Yi suddenly found himself in front of his own home.

Only the jade bottle in his hand and the bow and arrows tucked at his waist reminded him that what he had experienced was indeed real and not a dream!

Yi entered his home and shouted to Chang’E, “Come here, and see. I met an immortal today!” Upon hearing him, Chang’E hurried over and asked, “What is it? Why have you returned so late today?”

Yi shared his adventure with his wife. Chang’E looked at the bow and held up the jade bottle, surprised and delighted. She could not help believing him and said, “It sounds like you truly were once from the Heavens. Otherwise, why would the Queen Mother of the West call you a general?”

The couple chatted and wondered what kind of disaster could possibly happen that Yi would need to save the people with a divine bow and arrows.

Would barbarians invade again? They pondered to no avail.

Yi Shoots Down the Suns

Many uneventful days passed. However, since the Queen Mother had said it would be so, they remained vigilant.

Then one day, 10 suns rose in the sky!

Suddenly, the whole world was on fire. Trees and grass were scorched, and the earth was parched as lakes, rivers, and oceans boiled away.

Hundreds of thousands of people had no place to hide to escape the heat of 10 suns and they died. Only a few thousands that were able to find shelter in deep caves survived.

They only dared to come out after sunset to search for food. However, the plants and animals, fish and birds, nothing was spared by the scorching suns.

Odd beasts and poisonous insects took the opportunity to feed on mankind and humankind was facing extinction.

People cried out for help; they knelt down and begged the immortals in the Heavens to save them. The entire Earth emitted a sorrowful wail.

What had happened? Well, the Heavenly Emperor had 10 sons, all of whom were suns. They lived in a sacred mulberry tree on the shore of the East Sea. They were supposed to be on duty in the sky in turns, one for each day of a cycle of 10 days.

One day, they were bored with being alone in the sky each day, so they decided to rise together. This proved disastrous for the human world.

Yi and Chang’E then realized that their mission— what the Queen Mother of the West had foreseen— was to save the world from the misguided sons.

They were saddened by the people’s suffering, so they took the divine bow and arrows and set off toward the highest and nearest mountain.

To their surprise, the bow and arrows generated a large halo that surrounded them and protected them from the 10 scorching suns.

After climbing 99 lofty mountains, crossing 99 turbulent rivers, and going through 99 craggy valleys, Yi and Chang’E arrived at the shore of the East Sea and climbed to the summit of a towering mountain there.

At the foot of the mountain, there was a vast sea above which the 10 suns shone relentlessly. Chang’E told Yi: “Let’s reason with them. If they can correct their mistakes, and be on duty in turns like before, let’s not kill them.”

Yi nodded, and shouted to the sky: “All but one of you must go back. You are endangering humans!”

The suns looked down at him but ignored his request. Yi got very angry. He mustered all his strength and raised the divine bow to shoot. Chang’E helped by handing the arrows to him one by one. The arrows flew through the air making a thunderous sound that shook everything.

With the first shot, a sun fell out of the sky; the second shot brought down two suns, and the third arrow took out four at once!

The fourth and fifth arrows flew like bright comets across the sky and lit up the whole world. They each knocked down one sun.

Five divine arrows killed nine suns and the heat immediately abated. Only one sun was left shining in the sky.

Yi watches helplessly as his newly immortal wife, Chang’E, flies off to the moon. Screenshot/Project Gutenberg eText 15250Public Domain,- Werner, E.T.C. (1922).

Yi watches helplessly as his newly immortal wife, Chang’E, flies off to the moon. (Screenshot/Project Gutenberg eText 15250Public Domain,- Werner, E.T.C. (1922))

Chang’E Flies to the Moon

When Yi was about to shoot down the last sun, Chang’E stopped him, saying that the world could not be without a sun for even a day, that everything living needed the sun to grow. She asked him to spare the last sun for the benefit of the people.

In no time, the Earth cooled down. Water miraculously reappeared in tens of thousands of rivers, oceans again had waves that crashed upon the shores. Grass and trees turned green again.

People stepped out from the underground caves and cheered Yi, expressing their gratitude to him. They praised Yi, loudly calling out his name. Their deafening shouts shook the ground and reached the Heavens.

Yi was very pleased with himself as he returned home with Chang’E to drink the precious potion given him by the Queen Mother. He was still thinking about the scene of tens of thousands of people in jubilation and praising him.

Chang’E took the bottle out and drank half of it while Yi strutted around with his hands behind his back. When she handed the bottle to Yi, he was so excited that he turned too suddenly and knocked the bottle over. The bottle broke into pieces, and the liquid spilled out and seeped into the ground.

They both stood in shock, staring at each other, and Yi didn’t know what to say. Then Chang’E felt her body becoming lighter and lighter. As she was about to fly up off the ground, she quickly grabbed the rabbit that she liked most and cradled it in her arms.

Yi tried to grab his wife but did not succeed. He could only watch, stunned, as Chang’E flew higher and further away. Chang’E, with the rabbit in her arms, flew to the moon.

Thus ends the tale of Yi shooting down the suns and Chang’E flying to the moon.

Elders say that at night when the sky is clear, if you look at the moon carefully, you can see the shadows of a house. That is the Moon Palace where Chang’E now lives.

People can also see a little bunny pounding herbs under a tree. It is said that the herbs are prepared for Yi by Chang’E, with the hope that he can eat them, come to Heaven, and reunite with her.