Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as Chinese Moon Festival, takes place at the 15th day of the eighth Chinese lunar month. The reason for celebrating the festival during that time is that it is the time when the moon is at its fullest and brightest.
2016 Mid-Autumn Festival will be on September 15.
The Mid-autumn festival is one of the two most important occasions in Chinese calendar (the other being the Spring Festival or the Chinese New Year) and it is an official holiday. It is a time for families to be together, so people far from home will gaze longingly at the moon and think about their families.
The traditional food for mid-autumn festival is the moon cake which is round and symbolizes reunion.
History and Origin of Mid-autumn Festival
The time-honored Mid-autumn festival boasts a history of thousands of years, which has gradually developed and formed. The ancient emperors used to worship and offer sacrifice to the moon in autumn. Afterwards, noblemen and scholars would admire and appreciate the bright the moon on Mid-autumn festival, expressing their thoughts and feelings.
Chinese Mid-autumn FestivaIn the Zhou Dynasty (1066 B.C.-221 B.C.), worshipping the moon on Mid-autumn festival was very popular. Below the moon, big incense burner tables were arranged, on which there were moon cakes, watermelons, apples, red dates, plums, grapes and many other sacrificial offerings. Moon cakes and watermelons were requisite. After the worship, the big round moon cake would be divided into several parts according to the number of family members.
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), appreciating the moon on Mid-autumn festival prevailed and people attached much importance to the worship of the moon. Mid-autumn festival began to become a permanent festival in the Tang Dynasty.
Mid-autumn Festival in Tang Dynasty
Mid-autumn festival became prosperous in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). In the northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.), on the night of the moon festival, all the people, both old and young, rich and poor, were all well dressed up and burnt incense, praying for the bless of the moon. In the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.), people gave each other moon cakes as gifts in the symbol of reunion.
In the Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911A.D.), the custom of Mid-autumn festival became even more prevailing, such as burning incense, releasing sky lanterns and watching fire dragon dance. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, Mid-autumn festival was as famous as the New Year’s Day and it was also one of the major festivals of China.
Legends of Mid-autumn Festival
Lady Chang’e and Hou Yi
Hou Yi Shooting 9 Suns
According to legend, in the distant past, there used to be 10 suns in the sky one year. The scorching heat dried up the lake and people were at death's door. Just at that time, a hero named Hou Yi heard about this predicament. With his extraordinary power, he then pulled his supernatural bow and shot 9 needless suns down on the peak of Mount Kunlun.
Hou Yi of course made distinguished contributions to people and was respected, loved and supported by them. A large number of persons of ideals and integrity flocked to Hou Yi to take him as their teacher and seek instructions out of admiration. Among those learners, there was no lack of the treacherous and cunning learner, such as a learner named Peng Meng.
Before long, Hou Yi got married to a beautiful and virtuous girl named Chang’e. They loved each other very much and got along very well. One day, Hou Yi went to Mount Kunlun to meet friends when he encountered the Queen of Heaven who gave him an elixir of life for rewarding his contribution to people. It was said that half of the elixir could make a person live forever and the whole elixir could make a person become an immortal instantly.
However, Hou Yi was unwilling to leave his wife, so he did not eat it. He gave the elixir of life to Chang’e for safekeeping. Chang’e put the elixir of life into a case of her dressing table, which was seen by Peng Meng who was very treacherous.
Three days later, when Hou Yi went out for hunting with his disciples, the disingenuous Peng Meng pretended to be ill, so he didn’t go with them. Shortly after their leave, Peng Meng broke into Hou Yi’s House with a double-edged sword in his hand. Peng Meng threatened Chang’e to hand over the elixir of life. Chang’e knew that she couldn’t manage to protect the elixir of life.
The Lady Chang'e Flying to the Moon
So, at a crisis, Chang’e fetched the elixir of life from the case and swallowed it promptly. Suddenly, Chang’e floated away from the ground, dashed out of the window and flew towards the sky. It was said that Chang’e became an immortal and stayed on the moon which was the nearest to the earth as she was anxious about his husband Hou Yi.
At nightfall, Hou Yi went back home and was told what happened during his absence from his maids. Hou Yi became extremely enraged and he immediately went to kill Peng Meng. However, Peng Meng had already escaped.
The heart-stricken Hou Yi shouted to the sky and shouted Chang’e, just at that time he surprisingly discovered the moon was extremely bright and clear that night and he caught sight of a swaying figure that was exactly like Chang’e.
Hou Yi hastily asked his maids to put an incense table in the back garden and put fresh fruits and moon cakes which were the favorite food of Chang’e on the table, holing a memorable ceremony for Chang’e who lived on the distant moon.
When the local people heard that Chang’e flew to the sky and became an immortal on the moon, they all arranged incense tables below the moon for the worship of the goodness Chang’e, praying for happiness and safeness. Since then, worshipping and appreciating the moon during Mid-autumn festival has become popular until now.
The Jade Hare Mashing Herbs
It was said that there used to be three immortals that were disguised as three poor old men. These poor old men begged for food towards a fox, a monkey and a hare. The fox and the monkey could offer something to eat to the old men, but the hare had nothing to give them. Instead, the hare asked the old men to eat its meat, and then the hare immediately plunged into the raging fire.
The three immortals were deeply moved by the hare and they decided to bring the hare to the palace of the moon. The hare which lived on the moon was the Jade Hare we commonly called. The Jade Hare kept goodness Chang’e company on the moon and it also mashed herbs and made elixirs of life there day after day.
Wu Gang Cutting Sweet Osmanthus Tree
When we look up at the bright moon, we can see a black shadow on the moon, which is the legendary Wu Gang who is trying to cut down the sweet osmanthus tree.
According to legends, Wu Gang was an ordinary woodcutter who was obsessed with becoming an immortal. He went to mountains and asked an immortal as his teacher and sought instructions from him.
However, Wu Gang was very shiftless and impatient and couldn’t concentrate his attention. The immortal was enraged and made him stay on the moon. The immortal let Wu Gang to cut down the sweet osmanthus tree on the moon and informed him that he could become an immortal once he cut down the tree.
Wu Gang tried his best to cut the tree with his axe; however, the tree would regrow naturally as what it was like. Thus, Wu Gang kept cutting the sweet osmanthus tree day after day, but couldn’t manage to cut it down because of its regrowth.
Zhu Yuanzhang Rebelling with the Help of Moon Cakes
Eating moon cakes during Mid-autumn festival can date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) when the common people couldn’t bear the brutal reign of the ruling class and they began to resist and rebel. A leader named Zhu Yuanzhang decided to gather all the resistance forces and prepared to rebel together.
However, the rebelling information was very difficult to deliver to every one. Just at that time, Zhu Yuanzhang’s military counselor named Liu Bowen had an idea that he ordered the subordinates to put a slip of paper with the words of rebelling on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month on it in each moon cake and then try to send these moon cakes to insurrectionary armies.
Thus, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (mid-autumn day), all the insurrectionary army men rebelled together and they made great success. In celebration of the great success, people ate moon cakes on the Mid-autumn day.
Customs of Mid-autumn Festival
Gazing at the Moon
Chinese Moon cakeGazing at the Moon is an ancient tradition from the Zhou Dynasty (around 500 BC) when people held ceremonies to welcome the full moon, with huge outdoor feasts of moon cakes, watermelons, apricots, apples, grapes and other fresh fruits. The popularity of this ancient tradition began to grow during the Tang and Song Dynasties when people of high rank held banquets in their big courtyards.
They drank fine wine, watched the moon and listened to music. Common people who could not afforded as big parties as the rich would lay some food such as moon cakes and fruits on a table in the courtyard and pray to the moon for a good harvest.
This underwent a great rise during the Song Dynasty, and historical documents tells about mid-autumn night in the capital, where people would stream to the night markets and together with their families admire the beauty of the full moon. There are also many classic songs and well-known verses about this tradition.
Eating Moon Cake
When watching the full moon, eating moon cakes is significant part in mid-autumn festival throughout China. Full moon in China is a symbol of family unity.
At the very beginning, the moon cakes were served as a sacrifice to the Moon. The words moon cake first appeared in the Southern Song Dynasty, even though, at that time, the moon cakes were not round.
Nowadays, moon cakes are given as presents to loved ones and it represent people’s wishes to be together during the mid-autumn festival. Apart from these two traditional customs, different regions have their own celebrations. Full moon in China is a symbol of family unity.
In Fujian Province
In Pu City, females must cross the Nanpu Bridge to pray for a long life. In Jianning, people light lanterns to pray to the moon for their babies. In Shanghang county, children have to get down on their knees when they worship the moon. In Long Yan, while eating moon cakes, parents will dig a small hole in the center of the cakes, which means that some secrets should be kept from children.
In Guangdong Province
In Chaoshan, women and children will worship the Moon. When the night comes, they will burn joss sticks in front of a table of fresh fruits as a sacrifice. At that night they will also eat taros. There are two reasons why people there eat this vegetable. One is that August is the best time to eat ripe taros, and the other comes from a story.
In 1279 the Mongols defeated the Southern Song Dynasty and formed the Yuan Dynasty, and they carried out their cruel domination over the Han Chinese. At that time, a well-known general called Ma Fa held out in Chaozhou to fight with Mongols. When he failed, most citizens were killed. Because the Chinese word for taros and Mongols were similar, from then on people eat taros to prove that they will always remember the pain. To eat the taro means to eat the heads of the Mongols.
In the south of Yangtze River valley
In Nanjing people will not just eat moon cakes, they will also eat another famous dish called Guihua Dark. This dish could only be cooked during the Mid-Autumn Day, because it is cooked with osmanthus flowers, which blossoms in August.
In Wuxi of Jiangsu province, people like to burn joss sticks to celebrate this special festival. The burned joss sticks are wrapped in tulle with beautiful paintings of Moon Palace or Chang'e.
In Ji'an County of Jiangxi province, peasants burn pottery jars with straws and vinegar so that the smell of the vinegar can spread all over the villages. In Xincheng County, people celebrate this festival by lighting oil lamps from the 11th day of the 8th lunar month to the 17th day.
In Sichuan province
People will prepare a lot of food like moon cakes, ducks, glutinous rice cakes, and rice dumplings. In some places, people light orange lamps, or ask children run in the streets with pomeloes decorated with burning incense in their hands. In Jiading, they worship the God of the Land and play some local dramas to celebrate this special day.
In the North
People of Qingyun County in Shangdong province worship the God of Land as well as their ancestors on that day. In Lu’an of Shanxi province, parents will invite their son-in-laws to have dinner with them. In Xixiang county of Shanxi province, men usually go boating or climb mountains together, while women will stay at home and prepare for the dinner. In Luochuan County, parents send gifts to their children's teachers to show their gratitude.
Though different places have different customs to celebrate this special day, people all have common wishes of reunion, happiness, safety, health and harvest.
Chinese Ancient Poems and Mid-Autumn Festival
At the very beginning, the Mid-Autumn Festival was not so popular. It was the ancient Chinese poets who made the Festival popularity. They wrote many poems which are related to the moon and the festival, and when reading these poems people became more and more interested in it. Missing Home in the Silent Night by Li Bai is one of the most famous ancient poems related to the moon and the Mid-Autumn Festival.