Manuscript vs Myth: Daughter of the Moon Goddess
Published in 2022, Sue Lynn Tan’s ‘Daughter of the Moon Goddess’ is set in a fantasy land inspired by classical Chinese mythology. Filled with romance, danger, and magic, the novel tells the story of Xingyin, daughter of the moon goddess, Chang’e, and her mortal husband, Hou Yi.
Hou Yi and Chang’e are two famous tragic lovers of Chinese myth. Their story is said to be the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, which is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.
Hou Yi was a famous archer, the most skilled in the world, good enough to even gain the favour of the gods – something that would be both his blessing and his downfall.
The world once had ten suns – the children of the Emperor Di Jun and his wife Xihe. Taking the form of three-legged crows, the suns spent most of their time resting in a mulberry tree. Each day one of the suns would travel through the sky. One day, all ten of the suns decided to appear in the sky together, flying too close to the earth and scorching it. The heat was so great that it seemed all of humanity would be wiped out. Hou Yi was called upon to save the day, and he put his incredible archery skills to good use – shooting down all the of the suns but one.
As with many myths and legends, there are several variations of the tale, but all involve an elixir of immortality. In one version, Hou Yi and his bride, Chang’e are both mortal and in honour of his accomplishments, Hou Yi is gifted an elixir that will make him immortal. In another version they are immortals who were banished for killing nine of Emperor Di Jun’s sons. Upset to have condemned Chang’e to mortality, Hou Yi goes in search of help. He finds the Queen Mother of the West and she bequeaths upon him an elixir of immortality – just enough for both him and Chang’e. Unfortunately, it was not to be – Chang’e took the elixir herself. She immediately became immortal and floated up to the moon, where she remained, forever separated from Hou Yi.
There are many different explanations as to why Chang’e would take the elixir alone. In some, she is being selfish, wanting to preserve her looks and youth forever. In others, she takes the elixir by mistake, or because Hou Yi has been gone from their home for so long that she believes he has left her. One of the most popular explanations is that Hou Yi give Chang’e the elixir for safe keeping. One day one of Hou Yi’s students – a greedy man – sees Chang’e hide the elixir. He breaks into the house while Hou Yi is away and attempts to force Chang’e to give him the elixir. Wanting to keep it from him but knowing that she does not have to strength to do so, Chang’e drinks the elixir herself and condemns herself to an immortal life away from Hou Yi.
“Daughter of the Sun Goddess” suggests another reason that Chang’e might take the elixir. In the novel she is with child, and after a difficult pregnancy is warned that the lives of both herself and her child are at risk. With Hou Yi away, Chang’e drinks the elixir to save her child. When the Celestial Emperor learns that it is Chang’e and not Hou Yi who has drunk the potion he is enraged. In punishment for her theft, Chang’e is imprisoned on the moon and given responsibility over ensuring that it rises each night as it should. For fear that her daughter would be punished also, Chang’e never reveals the reason for her theft and keeps her daughter’s existence secret – hiding her on the moon.
While Chang’e’s plan initially works, as Xingyin grows she begins to discover her own magical powers. Believing that Chang’e is attempting to escape, the Celestial Emperor sends his soldiers to investigate. Xingyin is forced to flee or risk discovery. She finds herself in the Celestial Kingdom, home of the immortals, ruled over by the very emperor who ordered her mother’s imprisonment.
As the years pass, Xingyin keeps her identity secret, learning more about her growing powers and discovering her own prodigious talent for archery – inherited from her father. As Xingyin finds herself torn between her feelings for the enigmatic warrior, Wenzhi, and her dear friend, Liwei – the emperor’s own son – the secrets of Xingyin’s past threaten to be unravelled. Through it all, Xingyin never forgets about her mother, and is determined to one day save her. Her path to winning her mother’s freedom leads her somewhere she could have ever imagined… to the Four Dragons.
Like Xingyin’s mother, the Four Dragons are important figures from Chinese legend. In the novel (as in the myth) the dragons sought to help humanity who were suffering under indifferent gods. They brought rain to a drought-stricken land, and were punished for it.
Once, long before China had any rivers, there was only the Eastern Sea. In this sea lived four dragons, the Long Dragon, the Black Dragon, the Pearl Dragon, and the Yellow Dragon. One day, as the four dragons were flying over the land, they noticed humans praying. Flying closer they realised that the humans were praying for rain, their fields barren and their children starving. Taking pity, the dragons decided to intervene on the humans’ behalf. They flew up to the palace of the Jade Emperor and asked him to bring rain. The emperor agreed.
The next time the dragons flew over the mainland they expected to see the land flourishing, only to realise that the drought had gotten worse. The emperor had forgotten his promise. Wishing they could help, the dragons come up with a plan. They return to their home in the Eastern Sea, taking huge mouthfuls of water into their mouths they fly into the sky and sprayed the water into the sky where it formed clouds and fell as rain. The humans were saved.
The emperor, however, was not happy with what the dragons had done. He was furious that they had brought rain without his permission and was determined to punish them for this transgression. He had the four dragons bound and imprisoned beneath four mountains, where they would remain forever. Though they were imprisoned, the four dragons never regretted their actions and, still wanting to help the humans, they transformed themselves into four rivers so that the humans would never suffer under such a sever drought again. The Black Dragon became the Heilongjian (or Amur) river, the Pearl Dragon became the Zhujiang river, the Yellow dragon became the Huanghe river and the Long Dragon became the Changjiang (or Yangtze) river.
In ‘Daughter of the Sun Goddess’ the dragon’s fate was the same, banished and imprisoned forever, but it could have been far worse. The emperor wished for the dragons’ servitude, not their banishment. Xingyin’s road to earn the emperor’s favour led her to the secrets of the dragons and, as Xingyin seeks their aid, it seems that freeing the dragons may very well mean freedom for her mother…
With strong worldbuilding, gripping characters and at least one shocking twist, ‘Daughter of the Moon Goddess’ is a page-turner from start to finish. So, whether you are a fan of Chinese mythology, or just looking for your next fantasy adventure, it is definitely the one to pick up.