The Woodcutter on the Moon

While East Asian folklore has many lunar myths and folktales, one of the lesser known tales tells of a woodcutter who lived on the moon. In Chinese folklore, the man is known as Wu Gang and he spends his time endlessly cutting down a tree growing on the moon. It is said to be either a laurel, osmanthus or cassia tree with the magical ability to self-heal and re-grow, regardless of how much is chopped away. This constant pruning and re-growth is symbolic of the moons continuous cycle of waxing and waning.

'Cassia-Tree Moon, Wu Gang' - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1886.

There are several versions of the tale but a common theme seems to be Wu Gang’s banishment to the moon, and his subsequent task of continually chopping away at the tree only for it to re-grow. In one version of the tale, Wu Gang killed his wife’s lover and was banished to the moon as punishment. In another, he offended the Jade Emperor who also banished him to the moon and set him the impossible task of chopping down the tree in order to redeem himself. Of course, this was a task that could not be achieved.  These stories are also linked to ideas of immortality and the futility of seeking it. In China, this myth is associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, along with the myth of Chang’e and the tale of the Cow Herd and Weaver Girl. The story of Wu Gang is often compared to the Greek myth of Sisyphus and in China the idea of 'Wu Gang chopping the tree' is an idiom for endless toil.

In Japanese folklore, the man living on the moon is known as Katsura Otoko. Based on the myth of Wu Gang, Katsura Otoko also lives in a moon palace and spends his time pruning a katsura, or cassia, tree. He prunes it so much that there is barely any tree left, then it slowly grows back to its original size. It is also believed that he possesses such extraordinary beauty that if you stare at the moon on a clear night, you will find it impossible to pull your gaze away from his loveliness. He will then reach out his hand and beckon to you. With each shake of his hand, it is said that your lifespan will shrink a little. And if you stare at him too long it is possible you may even drop dead on the spot.

Ehon Hyaku Monogatari

In Japanese mythology, the moon is associated with the god Tsukuyomi who was banished there by the sun goddess Amaterasu after he killed the goddess of food. Katsura Otoko and Tsukuyomi are not related but it is interesting to note that the moon is associated with death in both stories. Unlike what we are used to in the west, in Japanese folklore the moon is considered masculine while the sun is considered feminine, and the lunar realm is associated with both death and banishment. Despite the somewhat terrifying tale of Katsura Otoko and his life-shortening powers, moon viewing has always been, and still is, a very popular pastime in both China and Japan, especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

'Watching the Moon' - Mizuno Toshikata, 1894.

'Gust of Wind' - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1889

'Moon at Isiyama' - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1889

'Tsukuyomi' - via Shinto Cocoro

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887

'Summer Moon at Miyajima' - Tsuchiya Koitsu, 1936

'Pine Tree and Full Moon' - Utagawa Hiroshige