Cultural devolution

Sheila Melvin reviews The Moon Opera by Bi Feiyu, translated by Howard Goldblatt, in The National:

ScreenHunter_03 Feb. 20 10.52 As the spacecraft Apollo 11 hurtled toward the moon in July 1969, ground control made an unusual request to the three veteran astronauts aboard. It is recorded on the NASA transcript: “Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill for immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is only standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not recorded.”

Lunar Module Pilot: “OK, we’ll keep a close eye for the bunny girl.”

Not long after this exchange the lunar module landed on the Sea of Tranquillity, Neil Armstrong uttered “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, and the jocular request was forgotten – except in the Chinese-speaking world, where Chang’e (as her name is now generally spelt) has been venerated and adored for millennia, especially by women.

While teaching English in Taiwan in the early 1990s, I was stunned when a passing reference to Armstrong’s moonwalk unleashed a deluge of scorn from a large class of telecommunications bureaucrats. Neil Armstrong was no hero, and he ought never dare show his face in Taiwan, my students – nearly all women – told me emphatically. When I asked why, the class responded in near unison: He didn’t find Chang’e!

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