“Have I not told you to come back with the Elixir of Life? Where is it now? I clearly gave orders for you not to come back without it! If you don’t value your own heads, then so be it! Tomorrow at sunrise, your heads will be the first to come rolling over my feet at the Court of Punishment! Guards, take them away and toss them into the deepest dungeons!”
“Yes, Emperor Houyi,” replied the guards.
And so, the Emperor sat alone on his throne, mulling over what to do next in order to get hold of the precious Elixir of Life. Indeed, his search for the prized treasure had taken too long, and he was now getting older and older. He had to do something fast before time got the better of him, for the search might take several more years or even decades in order to yield the desired fruit. Just when he was about to get up, the imperial guards escorted another group of people into his presence.
“Your Majesty, long live the Emperor Houyi!” started the leader of the group. “We have got word about the whereabouts of the legendary Elixir of Life a few weeks ago and we embarked on the journey to obtain it thereafter. And, glad to say, we have the fruit of our efforts that Your Majesty desire.”
“So where is it?” barked the Emperor impatiently.
“It seems that a certain Queen Mother of the West (西王母) possesses the secret formula to the Elixir of Life. We then decided to pay her a brief visit in the distant land where she dwells in order to learn the secrets of the elixir. She then agreed to concoct a bottle of the elixir especially for Your Majesty as a sign of reverence and recognition for your sovereignty over this great and vast land. And here is the fruit of our labour before Your Majesty’s very own eyes!”
The Emperor stared for some time at the small bottle containing a luminous turquoise fluid within it. “Excellent! A job well done, my men! You have done me and the kingdom proud! I give you my word that all of you will surely be rewarded handsomely for your efforts!” said the Emperor with immense glee and satisfaction.
“Thank you very much, Your Majesty. Long live the Emperor!”
The Emperor then turned to his attendants, who were standing at the corner of the court, waiting for his subsequent orders. He addressed them, “Take this precious item and keep it in my room, for I have decided to take it at the first sign of sunlight tomorrow morning. Order the cooks to prepare a grand feast tonight in honour of these faithful and valiant men, and to commemorate this meaningful day!”
* * *
The news of the great discovery of the Elixir of Life spread like wildfire throughout the entire palace. In fact, by sunset, everyone, from the humblest cooks in the palace kitchen to the uppermost officials in the Emperor’s court, was talking excitedly about the Elixir of Life. Each one exchanged opinions as to what he or she would do if he or she had possession of the sacred treasure and consequently eternal life. Undoubtedly, immense excitement was stirred in every existing corner of the imperial palace, whereby the now renowned Elixir of Life took the centre stage in everyone’s conversation and mind.
Meanwhile, a young, beautiful lady was walking to and fro aimlessly in her room. The once gleeful and radiant countenance that she had now bore tremendous distress and misery. Clad in the finest-looking imperial garments that any lady in the entire Middle Kingdom could have, she paced up and down her room pointlessly, perplexity and anguish dominating her whole mind. She stared blankly at the little bottle on the window-side table filled with the turquoise fluid that gave off a mysterious luminescence under the moonlight shining amidst the autumn leaves outside the window. She then stooped down on the ground, sat on that spot alone, placed her smooth hands on her face and started weeping.
A picture of Chang Er on a Mid-Autumn Festival banner
“Why? Why? Why must this tragedy happen to me? Where have I gone wrong?” Chang Er muttered to herself amidst sobs.
“Where is my dearest Houyi whom I loved so much? Where are all the promises that he has made to me, to bring happiness in my heart for the rest of my life? Why is it that the hearts of men are so easily deceived by power and wealth? Why is it that my Houyi has fallen into such snares and gone off to find happiness from power and wealth? Why is it that power and wealth are able to give him the happiness, the very happiness that I intend to give him for the rest of my life? And now, he’s asking for eternal life, ignoring the likes of me. Now, my people are suffering terribly because of his greedy pursuit for wealth and eternal life. Oh, how I wish if the people had never made him the emperor. How I wish if we could just go back to our ordinary lives, living in that humble abode of ours, even if it means to live in poverty. Poverty doesn’t matter to me, I JUST WANT MY HOUYI BACK!!!” Her wails became louder and resonated throughout the whole palace.
Not long after, the door behind her slammed abruptly, followed by imperial guards rushing into the room. Chang Er was shocked and quickly turned behind to see what was all the ruckus about. Then, Emperor Houyi rushed into the room hastily, looking around anxiously to find out the source of the shrill wails that had bothered the whole imperial household. His eyes landed on the lady on the floor who was now stunned by the sudden and large company in the room. Under the moonlight shining through the window, he could see her tear-soaked face staring back in surprise at him. Houyi opened her arms and rushed towards her, wanting to embrace her and to tell her that everything was alright.
She, however, backed away as if she was confronting a tiger that was rushing towards her to tear her apart. At that moment, something flicked in her mind. If only she could do it, then all her miseries might be over. Maybe not all, she thought, but at least her people would not have to suffer the Emperor’s tyranny for eternity. She could at least save her people from the possibility of having to live and breathe under the Emperor’s ruthlessness forever.
Chang Er mustered all her courage and strength. She crawled swiftly towards the window-side table and lifted her hand to reach out for the bottle. She grasped the bottle in her palms tightly, opened the cap and gulped down all its contents without a second thought.
“NO! YOU FOOL! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” shouted Houyi at the top of his voice. “YOU…YOU…ARGH! GUARDS, SEIZE HER!”
His last words pierced her heart severely. She felt like wailing loudly again. She felt like crawling towards his feet to kneel down before him. She felt like begging him with all her might to make him realize the truth that was lingering in the realms of her heart. She tried to move towards him, but stopped suddenly.
She felt a sudden weird sensation at that moment, as if something strange was flowing through all the nerves and vessels in her body. It felt as if her entire body was gradually disintegrating and her body parts were breaking down one by one. Nevertheless, she could still see her own hands and feet perfectly intact beneath the moonlight. What was it that she was actually feeling?
Chang Er looked at her feet and was utterly shocked to see what had actually occurred.
In a moment of surprise at what had occurred in the room, all the guards stood still and stared in amazement at her. Even Houyi was lost in thought at that moment of astonishment. Then, gaining back his consciousness, he pointed hastily at the floating entity of Chang Er. “GUARDS? WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? SEIZE HER OR I’LL CUT OFF YOUR HEADS!”
Upon hearing those words, Chang Er moved her hands frantically to propel herself forwards toward the window. Just when she was about to fully escape through the window, a guard grabbed hold of her right foot and tried to drag her in, but she kicked the guard’s hand with all her might, forcing him to let go of her foot.
The palace became smaller and smaller before her eyes, as she was slowly floating towards the night skies illuminated by the bright moonlight and shining stars. She turned her head, and saw that she was actually floating toward the round full moon in the middle of the sky. She shifted her view back to the palace and saw Houyi at the window, waving his hands frantically and gesturing at her to come back immediately.
“CHANG ER, WHERE ARE YOU GOING? COME BACK! FORGIVE ME FOR MY INSOLENCE AND COME BACK THIS INSTANT!”
“I CAN’T, DARLING! I CAN’T CONTROL MYSELF! I’M FLOATING TO THE MOON!”
“Come back! Come back!” his voice now weakening in grief.
“I CAN’T! I’M FLOATING TOWARDS THE MOON! DARLING, I’LL ALWAYS WATCH OVER YOU FROM THE MOON, NO MATTER HOW CRUEL YOU HAVE BEEN! I LOVE YOU FOREVER!”
“Darling! Darling…Chang Er……”
* * *
*This story is adapted from a particular version of a Chinese mythology pertaining to the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival.