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Listen to me closely. I don’t plan on repeating myself because I don’t want you to think that I’m crazy. I’m not. I’m telling the truth, but what is truth anyways? Is it what we think is real, or what is actually real?
People these days believe in the latter; they put all their faith into a single, ultimate truth. It has made us rich, advanced, and powerful. However, belief comes with a price - because in the pursuit of truth, we lost something. It's the thing that’s missing when we say a pretty flower is a plant’s reproductive organ evolved to attract pollinators; it's the thing that’s missing when we say love is hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and oxytocin produced by the endocrine system.
Now I want to tell that there is no ultimate truth.
My name is Neil Armstrong. I'm the first human on the moon...or so I thought.
NASA and the Apollo missions began only partly due to the space race. During Kennedy’s presidency, the Pentagon detected abnormal signals coming from the moon. We suspected something extraordinary going on, and some even speculated the existence of extraterrestrial species. Since one side of the moon never face the earth due to planetary rotation, we could not use telescopes for observations. Thus, President Kennedy set a seemingly unreachable goal for the newborn, ambitious NASA - send a man on the moon and safely return him to Earth by the end of the decade.
As we all know, we reached this goal on July 16, 1969. That was perhaps the most incredible day of my life. The powerful engines of Saturn V let out a deafening blast to propel us toward space. At that moment, I felt the world drop rapidly below me, and I found myself hurtling into the unknown.
The accompanying emotions were indescribable euphoria and a twinge of fear. I saw that loud and clear in the eyes of my colleagues, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Then, as I looked out, I saw the atmosphere thinning. I saw the azure skies of our planet morph into the pitch darkness of the universe. I saw stars, bright dots barely distinguishable, mysterious orbs that we wanted to pluck from the skies when we were little children. I saw wonders that awed me beyond belief to make me feel like a child again.
And then I saw the Earth. It was an artist's palette. All the colors mingled together to form that dynamic, magnificent sphere dancing in the midst of the vast universe, so lively and full of spirit. Then there was the moon in the distance, pale, waxy, delicate, smooth - that half missing silver plate just hanging in space, like it would drop any moment and smash into a thousand pieces, seemingly instantly reachable yet an eternity away.
Believe me, at that moment, scientific jargon and mathematical equations used to represent these magnificent celestial bodies seemed woefully insufficient. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know the waves of awe crashing into you when you gape out of that tiny window with your naked eye into the universe. I’m telling you, there’s something present that’s beyond black dots on a monotone page. That something is pure wonder - pure wonder.
July 20, 1969. That fateful day to be remembered by all mankind. Age-old fantasies became the stunning reality, and I was the one who realized these fantastical imaginations - dreams older than civilization, curiosities that burned longer than fire. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. That day, humanity cheered as they landed (quite literally) yet another monumental feat that showcases its own greatness; humanity cheered for its intelligence, its mastery of the “ultimate truth”, a concept given a name that resonates from schools to corporations, from illiterates to elites all across the world.
But science never prepared me for what I saw on the moon.
Houston spoke to us in the morning that day, telling us to look out for characters in Chinese legends - a beautiful girl who lives on the moon, Chang’e, and her jade rabbit, Yutu. Michael promised with a hint of humor that we would look out for the “bunny girl.”
In fact, the idea of the “moon rabbit” is not only prevalent in Chinese folklore, but it is also present throughout Asian cultures, in Buddhist texts, and in Native American and Mesoamerican beliefs. The mention of the moon rabbit - a fragment of imagination that testifies the creativity of man - triggered a faint memory buried deep inside me, lingering remembrances of the past that have not dissipated, perhaps, because it has waited for this moment to emerge again.
I served in Korea as a pilot then. I was outside of base on a stormy day when I ran into that old man who claimed that he had devoted his life to the study of oriental culture. He had small eyes, a hooked nose, thin lips, and rich, silver beard that flowed under his chin. I didn’t believe a single word he said then, and I thought I forgot it a few days later. But “moon rabbit” seemed to clear a thick fog that surrounded my vague and distant memories. The words seemed to bring forth irrational, imaginative, and curious thoughts - I remembered what he said, every single word.
“My son, you have a unique destiny. You see that silver orb up in the sky, half covered by the dark, swirling clouds? One day, my son, you would pass through those clouds. You would cease to see the orb by raising your head to the heavens. You would find yourself lowering your eyes to observe the fine grains of its soil. When that day comes, I hope you would remember two Eastern legends.”
The mysterious man began his tale, his voice half drowned by the howling wind, the crackling lightning and the roaring thunder, yet the moon glowed even more brightly in the ominous night sky, painting the dark heavenly canvas a blur of silver.
A long time ago there was an archer called Houyi, renowned for his strength and his extraordinary mastery of the bow.
There were ten suns in the heavens, and they rotated rising and falling to bring light to Earth. However, one day, all ten decided to come out together, scorching the land, burning the crops, and threatening the miserable humanity with starvation and extinction. The desperate humans came to Houyi and pleaded for him to save the world, and thus the powerful archer took his bow outside, knocked an arrow, shot down a sun, knocked another arrow, shot down another sun, and continued this process until he shot down nine suns and only one remained in the sky. The last sun begged Houyi for mercy and promised never to misbehave again. Thus, Houyi was able to save humanity.
Houyi received the elixir of life as a reward, but he did not take it. Rather, he hid it in his home. A greedy apprentice, Feng Meng, broke into Houyi’s house as he was out hunting and threatened Houyi’s beautiful wife, Chang’e. Without a choice, Chang’e could only swallow the elixir of life herself, and thus she rose to the moon to stay for eternity.
Houyi, sad at the loss of his wife, would gaze at the moon and yearn for the woman he loved.
Chang’e, alone on the moon, had only the jade rabbit that pounds the elixir of life for her, called Yutu, as company.
Thus, the tradition of the Mid-Autumn Festival began, and families would unite under the full moon, enjoying cakes and company, wondering if Chang’e was really up in the heavens, up on the moon.
The old man continued on to tell a second story, a prose written by the famous Chinese poet Tao Yuanming.
There was once a fisherman who one day found himself lost. He stumbled into a beautiful peach tree forest. Astonished, he sought to locate where the woods ended, and continued to steer his boat along the stream. Finally, he arrived at the origin of the stream, where the peach tree forest also ended. Before him was a mountain, and a dimly lit tunnel.
The fisherman entered the tunnel and emerged on the other side in a beautiful village. The villagers, surprised at the arrival of this unexpected visitor, gathered to welcome him. Many offered invitations to their homes.
The villagers explained that due to warfare during the Qin Dynasty, their ancestors went into seclusion. They had no idea what had transpired; they did not even know about the Han Dynasty, much less its demise and the emergence of the Jin Dynasty.
The fisherman stayed in the village for a few days, and he was astonished by how happy the villagers were. He thought that this village resembled paradise, for it was free of the pain and suffering in the outside world.
When the fisherman prepared to leave, the villagers asked him not to inform anyone else about their existence. But the fisherman left marks in the forest to guide him back, and upon return, informed government officials about this mysterious village. However, despite the marks the fisherman made, no one was able to locate this village, and no one ever found it again.
Buzz and I landed in the Sea of Tranquility. I was a little disappointed - the surface of the moon was rough and ragged, nothing like the smooth, silver plate we see in the sky. As I descended from our rover Eagle, I knew I was about to make history. This instance was broadcasted around the world - I had to say something meaningful, something that could be branded to this moment like a catchphrase, or a slogan.
I lifted a foot up. I felt light; I felt free, as if I could suddenly grow wings and fly off into space. My step landed on the surface of the moon, making a fine print on the fine soil. It didn’t feel so special, but I realized that we were no longer on Earth - this was man’s first move in a whole new world.
“That’s one small step for man,” I declared. “One giant leap for mankind.”
Worldwide broadcasting abated; Radio signals were lost; Viewers were cut from billions to a dozen. The next part of our mission was top secret.
“Houston, interference is coming from the Northeast.”
“Ok Neil, mission is a go.”
And thus we set off. Yet as we leapt across the landscape of this ragged planet, there seemed to be a palpable, eerie sensation among us. A while later, I realized Buzz was nowhere to be seen, and connection with Houston was gone.
I was lost.
I noticed immediately that something was off. As I stared down at the moon below my feet, the old man’s words echoed in my mind. You would cease to see the orb by raising your head to the heavens. You would find yourself lowering your eyes to observe the fine grains of its soil. When that day comes, I hope you would remember two Chinese legends.
With a start, I realized that the surface was no longer irregular. It was smooth, slippery, and flat, as if the jagged rocks and the fine soil had been covered in a layer of ice.
Two Chinese legends...Chang’e...Yutu… I jerked my head up and saw a palace made of jade rise up from the ground, beside it was a rabbit with fur white as snow, pounding a pot with a stick violently, and a beautiful girl with an air of melancholy.
The girl walked - no - glided toward me, bringing a gust of wind that breathed faintly in my face, and I tasted the pleasant aroma of blossoming flowers.
“Welcome.” Her melodious voice sounded like it was part of a distant dream.
“Because people envisioned me here; people envisioned a girl who rose to the heavens and dwelled on the moon; people envisioned a story to explain an astronomical phenomenal they could not explain, a story that withstood the testing of time. And when a story is shared by enough people, it becomes the truth. I came to be in people’s minds, Neil; I came to be in your mind.”
“Are you saying that I’m hallucinating?”
“Only if you don’t believe in what you see.”
“I don’t -”
“Belief makes it the truth. Human imagination is powerful, Neil. Humanity forged its society upon the foundation of beliefs and thoughts. And it is also those fantastical visions that has brought you here.”
“But it was physics, math, computers…”
Chang’e laughed, a laugh like tired ocean waves, a laugh like the quivering note from an old violin. “Or was it motivation from an age-old curiosity, older than civilization, burning longer than fire? Was it not motivation from imaginations you have when you gazed at that delicate, silver plate?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you so many times, Neil. But I should bid farewell. People back in Houston and Buzz are getting very anxious, and I don’t want them assume that you are dead.”
Chang’e began to fade into the darkness of the universe.
“Wait! This all exists? You, the rabbit, the palace on the moon? Science has got it wrong?”
Chang’e offered one last, sympathetic smile. “Why not? But why should science be wrong because I exist?”
And then she disappeared, and the soothing fragrance she brought along dissipated into the vacuum of space, leaving only the sound of Houston’s distressed call ringing in my ear.
NASA’s subsequent missions to the moon never found Chang’e again, and the interference signals were lost. I was the fisherman, and the beautiful realm where Chang’e dwelt was the village. The wonders I encountered on the moon, like the happiness in the village, formed a stark contrast with the mechanical modern world.
I thought about Chang’e when I got home, and I realized that there are two sides to this world. One is wonder, imagination, and creativity - we tell stories, we gaze at the stars and try to pluck them from the sky, we draw and write. The other is science - we discover electricity, invent computers, and launch rockets.
The two sides are compatible; they coexist. But today we need the first of these sides more than ever because it’s fading from us, like Chang’e on the moon, or like the paradise village.
And there’s only one way to embrace it again.