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09/07/2014 03:00 EDT

Mid-Autumn Festival Has Its Origin In A Heartbreaking Story (PHOTO)

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for Chinese people all over the world to come together, eat special cakes and gaze at the full moon.

Though a happy occasion, there's a heartbreaking story that explains how it came to be.

Chinese legend tells of the hero Houyi and his beautiful wife Chang'e.

An image showing Chang'e flying to the moon. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user shuishouyue.

As with many legends, there are differing and often contradictory accounts.

One tells that Chang'e was a heavenly girl who worked among fairies and immortals in the palace of the Jade Emperor. One day, she broke a special porcelain jar and was banished to live among humans on earth, with the promise that she could return if she performed valuable deeds there.

Joining a family of farmers, she met Houyi, a hunter and master archer, and eventually, they would marry.

But the world of mortals soon found itself in peril. The Jade Emperor had 10 mischievous sons who transformed themselves into 10 suns, scorching the earth and its people. Houyi took it upon himself to save them. Using incredible strength and superior marksmanship, he shot down nine of the suns and left one in the sky so that humans could draw upon its warmth and light.

It is here, again, that accounts diverge. One version has it that both Houyi and Chang'e were heavenly beings, and that a vengeful emperor condemned them to live on Earth as mortals thereafter. Houyi wished to avert death, so he acquired an elixir that would confer immortality. He was warned to drink only half the potion, and he reasoned that his wife could drink the rest.

In one account of the legend, a greedy friend of Houyi's named Peng Meng tried to obtain the formula for himself, but Chang'e wouldn't let him, and drank it all. Another states that Chang'e could not resist immortality, and so consumed it herself.

However you interpret the legend, it eventually transpired that Chang'e's body became light, and she flew out a window up to the moon, leaving her husband all alone on the Earth.

On a clear night, Houyi saw Chang'e in the moon, called out to her and even tried to shoot it down, but it was too late.

Now a lunar goddess, Chang'e was doomed to be apart from her husband forever. Houyi honoured his wife by arranging a table with incense, meats and fruits that she loved. The tradition of making sacrifices to the moon carried through the ages, from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045 to 770 B.C.) onward.

And so it is today, that Chinese all over the world meet outside, eat together and gaze at a plentiful moon, like the legendary and historical ancestors who came before.

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