Miscellany: Chinese Moon Goddess

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Smashing Pumpkins’ music video (photo on right) of “Tonight, Tonight” gives a nod to that early horror/ sci fi moving-picture innovator (photo on left).

The poet Zhang Er, one moonless night—while we were watching the 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune, directed by Georges Mélièstold me the story of Chang E—the Chinese demigoddess of the moon, the first feminist who walks out on her philandering husband, mainlines the elixir of immortality, and follows her heart by dancing to the moon. Soon we were collaborating on the text of a monodrama opera, Moon in the Mirror, giving voice to a modern-day moon lady (the performance was this September in NYC). The feminine moon is yin with her passive sinister shadow. She is associated with rabbits and fertility (the hare in the Chinese moon); the selfish disloyal moon (yes, Chang E) and the inspiring muse of a moon; the moon of longevity and eternal beauty. The symbols of the lunatic moon contradict, are ambiguous, much as are stereotypes of femininity—the mother and the whore. For Chang E, our Monist goddess, domesticity is not her lot.

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What’s especially notable about Chang E is how prevalent her archetype is today. The experimental filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who recently committed suicide, is a Chang E-type moon lady. Her movies are obsessed with the domestic rituals of women—isolated, earth-shackled moon women. The monotony and drudgery of a woman’s territory is Akerman’s filmic domain—dancing on the line between sanity and insanity. In the short film Saute ma ville  or Blow Up My Town (1968), a girl (played by Chantal Akerman), locks herself in her apartment and takes domesticity to the limit—cooks spaghetti, mops the floor, shines her shoes (and then her leg), each of these acts absurd, empty—she’s Cinderella in reverse.  And woven throughout her “womanly deeds” are threats of hysteria and violence—for instance, as she tapes the borders of her front door (is she going to gas herself?); as she jumps off a space-heater ledge and onto the apartment floor (will she jump from a window?), as she uses an uncooked spaghetti as a torch to light a paper, to pop a balloon; (will she fly out of her apartment and land on the moon?)

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Another Chang E-type is Misty Copeland—the first African American principle dancer for American Ballet Theatre. In the tradition of the Chinese moon demigoddess, she broke a slew of “rules” when following her destiny. Misty Copeland started ballet lessons at aged 13 (unlike most dancers who begin studying when around 7); she had a brief and profound struggle with homelessness as a child; and her body is considered “all wrong” in a profession of ethereal waifs, yet despite earthly challenges, she has danced to the moon (Chang E, too, is depicted as a dancer). Among Misty Copeland’s fairy-tale roles are the Fairy Autumn in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, Blossom in James Kudelka’s Cinderella, and Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty. And as a debut writer, she wrote her own fairy tale with the children’s picture book Firebird that was published last year.


This special moon-blog brought to you by Emerald Issue contributor Martine Bellen.