Astrology and Myth

There are many Chinese myths and legends that relate to the stars and planets. The following are popular versions of some of the most well known tales in Chinese folklore.

The Herd-Boy and the Weaver-Girl

This story, of which there are many versions, goes back to the sixth century BC and can be found in the first known book of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs (Shijing 诗经).

A very long time ago, when the King of the Sky created the heavens, he decorated it with stars and asked his beautiful daughter to help him by weaving the clouds and mists. It was a long task and when the king noticed his daughter looking tired and drawn, he ordered her to take a break and go out to play among the stars. The princess headed down towards the Milky Way to bathe, whereupon she came across a handsome herd-boy grazing his water buffalo by the banks of the stream. Distracted by the boy the princess lost track of time and returned home to her work long after the curfew her father had set. The King, upon discovering the reason for her late return was very angry and forbade her to visit the boy again. In case she disobeyed him, the King poured thousands more stars into the Milky Way until it was no longer a stream but a flowing river that the princess and the herd-boy could not cross. Without a bridge, the two were stranded on opposite sides of the Milky Way forever more. The Princess, who had fallen in love with the herd-boy, was distraught, and cried until her father relented. The King and his daughter reached an agreement that he would allow her to spend one day of each year with her herd-boy if she worked hard all year round. To this day, on the seventh day of the seventh month of every year the King sends a flock of magpies over the Milky Way to form a bridge. The weather must be clear on this evening or the lovers cannot cross the celestial river to meet each other. If it rains the pair must wait another year. On a clear night you can see their two bright stars together in the sky. If it rains it is said that the drops falling to earth are the tears of the Weaver-Girl Princess.

Chang E, or The Archer and the Moon Goddess

Once upon a time, there were ten suns that took turns to circle the earth each day of the lunar week (10 days in the Chinese lunar calendar) – the suns took the form of black crows which rose in a mulberry tree in the east and landed in a mulberry tree in the west, before travelling home each night through an underground valley. The suns were the children of the Jade Emperor but they were lonely in their work and one day, all ten of the suns came out together, scorching the earth and causing panic. The emperor of earth prayed to the Heavens for mercy and in anger, their father the Jade Emperor ordered them to behave. When they would not, he asked the great archer Lord Houyi 后羿 to reason with them and gave him leave to punish his sons. When Houyi saw the damage they had done he was very angry. He tried to reason with the children but when they would not listen to him, Houyi shot down nine of the ten sons in desperation, leaving one behind to serve alone as the sun. The Jade Emperor was very angry when he learned of the death of his sons. In a rage, he summoned Houyi and banished him and his wife Chang E to live on earth as ordinary mortals on earth.

Houyi was very much in love with his wife Chang E. Seeing that she was miserable as a mortal, Houyi set out to find a way back to the Heavens and to immortality. Travelling far to Kunlun Mountain, Houyi visited the Queen Mother of the West who gave him a vial of elixir to share with his wife. The vial contained enough elixir for both Houyi and his wife to become immortal but was the last of its kind, and the Queen warned Houyi that it must be shared between the archer and his wife as it was the last elixir for thousands of years. On his return home, Houyi was obliged to pay his respects to the emperor of earth, but first he went straight home to give the vial to his wife for safekeeping. Chang E had been so miserable after losing her immortality that she could not control her curiosity and opened the bottle. Raising it to her lips she considered what would happen if she took the elixir all for herself. Chang E decided to summon a fortune-teller. Reassured that she should take the elixir for herself, Houyi returned home to find his wife floating out the window and up into the sky. Seeing the empty vial, Houyi was angry and heartbroken at her betrayal and raising his bow to the sky aimed to shoot her down. But he could not bring himself to do so. Chang E floated all the way up to the moon where she settled to live. She missed her husband terribly although she had two companions on the moon. One was a jade rabbit that pounded a pestle and mortar day and night to find the elixir of everlasting life. The other was woodcutter Wu Gang吴刚 who had offended the gods and was banished to the moon. He was only allowed to leave if he managed to cut down a tree that grew on the moon. He spent his time doing this, but each time he cut the tree down, it would grow back again, therefore condemning him to live on the moon forever.

Left alone on earth Houyi was later honoured for his bravery and protection and welcomed back to the Heavens. Some versions of this tale say that Houyi built himself a palace on the sun as Yang (the male principle), while Chang E is Yin (the female principle). Once a year, on the 15th day of the full moon, Houyi is able to visit his wife and on this night the moon is especially full and beautiful.

Legend of the Twelve Zodiac Animals

Detail of almanac showing the zodiac animals Or.8210/P.6. © British Library.

Various tales have grown up surrounding the origin of the animal signs of the zodiac. According to one popular Chinese legend, the Jade Emperor decided to name the months of the calendar after twelve animals from his kingdom. This is the tale of how the animals were decided.

The animals of the forest were quarrelsome, and could not decide among themselves who would be included in the Emperor’s new calendar. The Emperor, who wanted to be fair, decided to hold a contest. Upon his mark, whichever twelve animals were first to race to the opposite bank of the river would win a place in the calendar. The winner would come first, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish.

All the twelve animals gathered at the riverbank and jumped in. The cat was afraid of water and hitched a ride on the Ox’s back. They was were joined by the rat who halfway across the river summoned all her strength and pushed the unsuspecting cat into the water. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat leapt over his shoulders to the floor and scurried the last few yards to win the race.

Following closely behind the Ox came the tiger, whose strength had helped her to battle the strong river currents that dragged at her fur. Fourth, came the rabbit, who washed to shore on a drifting log looking very surprised.

The Emperor was surprised to see the mighty dragon come in at fifth place. The dragon, whose great wings should have helped him to win the race with ease explained that he had been delayed by the rescue of a helpless, floundering rabbit clinging to a log and heading downstream. Stopping to blow the log to the shore with a mighty breath, he was beaten to the riverbank by four other animals, including the rabbit.

Behind the dragon came the horse who was a very good swimmer. However, just as the horse was about to cross the finish line, the snake slithered out of his mane and crossed in sixth place.

The sheep, monkey and rooster arrived at the riverbank together, having constructed a raft out of logs. They politely ushered each other up to the finish line to finish in eighth, ninth and tenth positions.

The dog, enjoying her swim so much and quite distracted by a floating log, had almost forgotten the reason she was in the water and only just made it to the bank in time to take eleventh place when she saw the pig swimming by.

Finally, claiming the twelfth place, came the pig, who had stopped to eat some acorns on the other bank and then been overtaken by the need for a nap.

The cat, who had eventually managed to save herself from drowning reached the finishing line too late to win any place in the calendar, and thereupon vowed to be the enemy of the rat forever after.

That is why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, the ox second, and the pig last.

Another legend holds that the animals of the forest were all summoned to the deathbed of the Buddha in order that he could bid them farewell. The first twelve to reach him were honoured with immortality by their places in the zodiac, but taking a nap, and too lazy to move the cat was late to arrive and therefore missed out on being included. Other versions state that the cat’s exclusion was in fact a punishment for killing the rat that Maya, the mother of Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) had sent as medicine for her son.