Falling on August 15 of the lunar calendar, Mid-Autumn Festival began in the early years of the Tang dynasty (618-907), but the word “mid-autumn” actually appeared in an ancient book over 3,000 years ago. Now, let’s travel through time and get to know the long history and folk legends about Mid-Autumn Festival.
The History Behind the 3000-Year-Old Festival
The time-honored mid-autumn festival boasts a history of three thousand years. It was first celebrated to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, originating from the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC) tradition of moon worship.
The mid-autumn festival is one of the three major annual festivals designated for the living – the others are Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival.
Zhou Dynasty (1066–221 BC): Ceremony to Greet Winter and to Sacrifice to the Moon Goddess
First Appearance: The word ‘mid-autumn’ first appeared in the famous ancient book Zhou Li (The Zhou Rituals, a book outlining the rituals of the Zhou Dynasty).
Upper-Class Ceremony: Ceremonies for sacrificing to the moon were more commonly attended by high officials and rich families, on the day of the Autumn Equinox.
Solemn affair: The mood of the festival at that time was not the same as today, as the event was then a much more solemn affair.
Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD): An Increasingly Prevalent Festival
Ceremony for Everyone: The practice of moon worship became conventional for ordinary people.
Moon Appreciation Began: As well as attending to the more serious business of offering sacrifices to the moon, people began to appreciate the moon, gazing routinely at the night sky.
Date Changed: The date for the festival changed from the Autumn Equinox to the day closest to the full moon, namely the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar.
Moon Cakes Began to Be Eaten: People began eating moon cakes. (Some historians believe this only started during the Yuan dynasty, 1271–1368 AD.)
Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD): An Established Festival
Fixed Date: The 15th day of the 8th lunar month was fixed as the "Mid-Autumn Festival" date.
Customs: Everyone dressed up and burnt incense, praying for the moon’s blessing.
Moon Cakes as Gifts: People exchanged gifts of moon cakes, symbolizing reunion.
Fine Art of Moon Cake Making: The production of moon cakes became a fine art, and delicate and exotic moon cakes began to be produced.
Ming (1368–1644 AD) and Qing (1644–1911 AD) Dynasties: One of the Main Festivals in China
New Customs: Releasing sky lanterns and watching fire-dragon dances.
Major Festival: Mid-Autumn Festival became nearly as famous as the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).
Three Stories About the Mid-Autumn Festival
Story 1: Love Story of Lady Chang’ e and Hou Yi – Tragic but Romantic
PartⅠ Hou Yi Shoots 9 Suns
In the distant past, there used to be 10 suns in the sky. Hou Yi -- an archer and a member of the Imperial Guard -- saved the earth from scorching when he drew his supernatural bow and shot down 9 unnecessary suns from the peak of Mount Kunlun.
As a reward, the Queen of Heaven presented Hou Yi with the elixir of life. It was said that even half of the elixir could make a person live forever.
However, Hou Yi was unwilling to leave his wife, Chang’e, so he did not take the elixir. Instead, he gave it to Chang’e for safekeeping. Chang’e put the elixir of life into a case in her dressing table, but she was observed by one of Hou Yi’s disciples, Peng Meng, who was very treacherous.
PartⅡ The Lady Chang'e Flies to the Moon
Lady Chang'e Flies to the Moon
One day when Hou Yi went out to hunt with his disciples, the disingenuous Peng Meng pretended to be ill, and didn’t go with them. Shortly after they left, Peng Meng broke into Hou Yi’s house and warned Chang’e that she had better hand over the elixir of life. Chang’e knew that she couldn’t manage to protect the elixir.
In the crisis, Chang’e fetched the elixir from the case and promptly swallowed it. Immediately she floated up into the sky. It was said that Chang’e became immortal and stayed on the moon nearest to the earth, as she was anxious about her husband Hou Yi.
At nightfall, Hou Yi went back home and was told by his maids what had happened during his absence. Hou Yi was furious and immediately went to kill Peng Meng. The heart-stricken Hou Yi shouted to the sky and surprisingly discovered the moon was extremely bright and clear that night. 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 to place fresh fruit and moon cakes – the favorite food of Chang’e – on the table, convening a memorable ceremony for Chang’e, who lived on the distant moon.
When local people heard the story of Chang’e, they arranged incense tables below the moon for worship of the goddess Chang’e, praying for happiness and safety. Worshipping and appreciating the moon during mid-autumn festival has been a popular activity ever since.
Story 2: The Jade Hare Mashing Herbs on the Moon
It’s said there used to be three immortals disguised as three poor old men. These poor old men begged for food from a fox, a monkey and a hare. The fox and the monkey offered something to eat, but the hare had nothing to give them. Instead, the hare invited the old men to eat its meat, and promptly plunged into the raging fire.
The three immortals were deeply moved by the hare and decided to bring it to the palace of the moon. The hare living on the moon is commonly known as the Jade Hare. It is good company for Chang’e, and it mashes herbs and makes elixirs of life there, day after day.
Story 3: An Immortality-Obsessed Man Cutting Down Trees on the Moon
Immortal Wu Cutting Down Trees
When you look up at the bright moon, you can see a black shadow, which is just the legendary Wu Gang, trying to cut down a sweet osmanthus tree.
Wu Gang was an ordinary woodcutter who was obsessed with becoming immortal. He went to mountains and invited an immortal to be his teacher, seeking instructions from him.
Wu Gang, however, was careless and impatient and couldn’t concentrate. The immortal became furious and made Wu Gang stay on the moon, informing him he could become immortal once he had cut down the moon’s sweet osmanthus tree.
Wu Gang tried his best to fell the tree with his axe. The tree, however, would always re-grow naturally into its former state. Day by day, Wu Gang cuts down the sweet osmanthus tree, but he can’t manage to fell it permanently, for it keeps re-growing.