Wu Gang (simplified Chinese: 吴刚; traditional Chinese: 吳剛; pinyin: Wú Gāng), formerly romanized as Wu Kang and also known as Wu Zhi in some sources, is a figure in traditional Chinese folklore and religion. He is known for endlessly cutting down a self-healing osmanthus tree on the Moon, a divine punishment which has led to his description as the Chinese Sisyphus. In modern Chinese, the chengyu "Wu Gang chopping the tree" (吳剛伐桂) is used to describe any endless toil. The specific reason for his situation has varied in the sources, but Wu Gang's story dates back to at least the Tang dynasty.
An etiological myth for the moon's phases was that a great forest or great tree grew there, swiftly growing and losing leaves and blossoms over the course of each month. After the expansion of the Chinese cultural area south of the Yangtze River during the Qin and Han dynasties, the lunar trees became associated with the fragrant and white-blossoming osmanthus. This tree flowers during the autumn and promoted the connection of the Chinese harvest celebration with the Moon, a connection still observed during the modern Mid-Autumn Festival. Confections and wine flavored with its blossoms are also still associated with the holiday.
The 9th-century Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang mentions a lunar tree over five hundred feet high and says that Wu Gang of Xihe stood under it. It relates that other immortals were sent there to chop the tree when they made a mistake.
Wu witnessed a liaison between his wife and Yandi's grandson, after the two had already carried on an affair so long it begat three sons. In a rage, Wu murdered his wife's lover but Yandi ordered Wu banished to the Moon, where he would cut down a tree. After each blow, the tree healed itself and Wu was therefore forced to cut at it forever.
Another version features a cherry bay.[dubious ] In this version, Wu Gang began the attempt to become a Taoist immortal but gave up lazily midway through the process. The Jade Emperor was furious and decided to punish him. The Emperor created a cherry bay on the Moon and Wu Gang was invited to chop it down in order to become an immortal. Wu Gang tried, but again the tree healed itself and the task was impossible. The shadows on the Moon are said to be created by the growing cherry bay.
In yet another version, Wu found a teacher in the mountains in his quest for immortality. When his teacher taught him to heal, he gave up after three days. When he was taught to play Chinese chess, he gave up after two days. When he was taught the method of eternal life, he gave up after a day. His teacher then sent him to the Moon to chop down the tree.
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- 吳剛砍玉桂樹 (in Chinese). Hong Kong Space Museum. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
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- The tree is given in the Chinese sources as a 桂, which originally referred to both the sweet osmanthus (now 桂花, "gui flower"), a species of olive, and the cassia (now 肉桂, "meat gui"),. Because of the latter's greater importance in modern international trade, it is often encountered in English translations although the sweet-smelling osmanthus is the one meant. See, for instance, Wolfram, who consistently translates 桂 as "cassia" while in fact describing and giving the scientific name for sweet osmanthus.
In Chinese, meanwhile, the chengyu "pluck osmanthus in the Toad Palace" (蟾宫折桂, Chángōng zhé guì) associating the lunar tree with passing the imperial examinations eventually led to the association of the tree with the true laurel, which bears similar associations in European cultures from its use in Greece and Rome. It is now known in Chinese as the 月桂 or "Moon gui" and connected with the earlier myths.
- Qiu Yaohong. Origins of Chinese Tea and Wine, p. 121. Asiapac Books (Singapore), 2004. Accessed 7 November 2013.
- Liu Junru. Chinese Food, p. 136. Cambridge Univ. Press (Cambridge), 2011. Accessed 7 November 2013.
- The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949–1976, Vol. II. January 1956 – December 1957, p. 540. M.E. Sharpe (London), 1992. Accessed 12 November 2013.
- 中秋傳說之——吳剛伐桂 (in Chinese). National Taipei University. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
- "Mid-Autumn Festival Story". Retrieved 2009-08-06.