The Mid-Autumn Festival, the Spring Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Ching Ming Festival are the four major traditional festivals of China. At the Mid-Autumn Festival, we usually gather with friends and family to appreciate the moon, eat moon cakes, play lanterns, and watch Fire Dragon Dance. How much do you know about the origin, customs, and legends of this Festival? Let’s have a look together!
Origin and Spread of the Mid-Autumn Festival
There are various accounts on the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The Mid-Autumn Festival originated from the worship of the moon in ancient times, which has a long history. The term “mid-autumn” (中秋🔊) first appeared in Rites of Zhou, a written collection of rituals of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BCE). The festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar calendar, which is the middle month of the lunar Autumn, with a full moon at night, corresponding to mid-September to early October of the Gregorian calendar. In addition, among the four seasons of the year, each season consists of three parts, “Meng, Zhong and Ji”, so the second month of autumn is called “Zhong Qiu (Autumn)”. It is also known as “Reunion Festival”, and “August Festival” and etc.. As early as the Zhou Dynasty, there were activities of “Greeting the Coldness at the Mid-Autumn Eve” and “Worshiping the Moon at Autumn Equinox”.
On this day, the Chinese believe that it is the best time to appreciate the moon, when it is at its brightest and the fullest; when the temperature is cool and the sky is clear. Coinciding with harvest time, therefore, people held ceremonies and activities to celebrate harvest and extend gratitude to the mother Earth. Later, sacrifice to the moon was gradually replaced by the appreciation of the moon and the celebration is retained and endowed with new meanings. The celebration of Mid-Autumn became an official Festival during the early Tang dynasty (618–907 CE).
Like all culture and customs, the Mid-Autumn Festival has also been spread to neighboring countries such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia. Combining local cultures, distinctive food and unique customs were developed, making the Mid-Autumn Festival more cultural and more charming. In ancient times, Asia countries were mostly agricultural societies, and the Mid-Autumn Festival was the season after the summer harvest of rice, so it was used to celebrate the harvest and extend gratitude to the earth for nurturing. Despite their own styles, activities such as moon appreciation, ancestor worship and visiting relatives, harvest celebrations, and thanksgiving ceremonies are in common. The Mid-Autumn Festival can be regarded as the Thanksgiving Day of Asia.
The traditional Mid-Autumn Festival in Japan is called Tsukimi (moon-viewing day) (つきみ) in Japan, known as じゅうごや🔊 in Japanese. In the past, people paid tribute to the Nature god with rice dumplings, miscanthus, taro, edamame, and nectar to express their gratitude for the harvest. In South Korea, Chuseok (추석🔊 ) is one of the most important local traditional festivals and is celebrate until now. On this day, people would pay respects to their ancestors at their tombs with freshly harvested grains, visit relatives and exchange gifts of their hometowns. Hence, Chuseok is also called “Korean Thanksgiving Day” in English. Tết Trung Thu🔊 in Vietnam has evolved into a children-oriented festival.
Customs and Food Culture of the Mid-Autumn Festival
Moon Appreciation and Mooncakes
As mentioned above, “Worshiping the Moon at Autumn Equinox” was recorded in The Book of Rites, indicating that activities “Greeting the Coldness” and “Sacrifice to the Moon” would be held each night of the Mid-Autumn day. Later, the sacrifice to the moon was gradually replaced by the appreciation of the moon.
As for mooncakes 月餅🔊, it is said that eating moon cakes had become a custom as early as during the Tang Dynasty. According to legend, envoys led by Zhang Qian, under the reign of the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, introduced sesame and walnuts from the Western Regions. People made round cakes with fillings of walnut kernel, called “the hú (胡) cake”. According to Chinese folklore, on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and his wife Lady Yang was eating “hú cakes” while enjoying the moon, and Lady Yang, out of the intention to ingratiate herself with the emperor, called the cake as “mooncake”, which name had been spread throughout the country since then.
Although the legend explains the origins of its name, its popularity and ties to the Festival began during the Song dynasty (906–1279 CE). On the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Royal Family of the Northern Song Dynasty favored a cake called “Imperial Cake”, popularly known as “mini-cake”. As mentioned in a poem of Su Dongpo: “maltose and butter are mixed in mini cakes, which are eaten on the Mid-Autumn Festival”. Zhou Mi, a scholar in the Southern Song Dynasty, mentioned “Moon Cake” in Tales of the Old Capital for the first time. Since then, mooncakes have become the festive symbol and cultural icon of the Mid-Autumn Festival, just like Zongzi for the Dragon Boat Festival and dumplings (for Northern China) for the Spring Festival.
At my childhood, there was no such a thing of custard mooncake, and mooncakes were generally made of mixed nuts, jujube puree and lotus paste (yellow lotus paste or white lotus paste). The salted egg yolk in lotus paste is my favorite, as I would laugh with satisfaction with each bite, just like taking a bite of the moon. New fillings of mooncakes have flourished over time to various flavors, including edible bird’s nest, red bean & mung bean, chocolate, liquid custard, and etc.. Not only new fillings were developed, miniature mooncakes, just one-quarter of the size of a usual mooncakes, has also evolved due to concerns of health in the modern days. Yet, do you know that, traditionally, mooncakes are supposed to be cut and shared with family members? Mooncakes were to be cut into equal portions according to the number of family members, and one slide(portion) of it would be retained for the family member who is away from home. Since mooncakes symbolize reunion, every family member is indispensable as a part of reunion. Interesting right? Please remember, no matter how small and delicious the mooncakes are, always share them.
Other than Mooncakes
We, the Chinese, are obsessed with the auspiciousness “reunion” conveyed by the Mid-Autumn Festival. In addition to the Spring Festival, glutinous rice balls (Tang Yuan 湯圓🔊) are also eaten on the Mid-Autumn Festival for its implication of sweetness and reunion. Glutinous rice balls are quite similar to tsukimi dango (つきみだんご 月見糰子🔊) of Japanese, which are all white glutinous rice balls. As its name implies, “Tang” of Tang Yuan means soup, either brown sugar or ginger is used to cook sweet soup base, and the fillings are dominated by crushed peanuts, sesame paste and red bean paste. Without fillings, Japanese rice balls are coated with dressings such as bean powder, black sesame, white sugar or peanut flour after boiling. To me, tsukimi dango つきみだんご is more similar to Tang Bu Shuai (Glutinous Rice Balls with Peanuts & Sesame), a common snack in Hong Kong. On the other hand, Koreans don’t eat mooncakes. Instead, they have half-moon-shaped Songpeong (송편🔊), as they believe that half-moon means turning from crescent to full and full-moon means the abundance and fullness. So, they make it half-moon-shaped to signify progress, development to perfection. There are two types of Bánh Trung Thu🔊 (mooncakes) of Vietnamese, one is similar to baked Chinese mooncake, and the other is soft mooncake made of white glutinous rice. Its fillings and styles are rather diversified.
Pomelo 柚子🔊, a traditional fruit option for the Mid-Autumn Festival, is auspicious as it is the homonym of “Bless You 佑子🔊”! In the dialect of Nanchang, pomelo is similar to “Have a Baby 有子🔊” in pronunciation, symbolizing “May You have a baby soon”. In addition, pomelo is also the homonym of “Wanderer 遊子🔊”, as ancient wanderers would eat pomelo at the Mid-Autumn Festival to express their thoughts to their hometown and relatives.
Although the tradition of eating water chestnuts is not popular nowadays, for seniors, water chestnut signifies “soul to soul link” with the beloved and wisdom, so they would prepare water chestnuts for the children on the Mid-Autumn Festival.
In fact, there are too many delicacies to mention one by one, such as wine fermented with osmanthus flowers, tea, chestnut, pumpkin, taro, and carambola, and etc.. Each of them represents a culture full of historical accumulation. These delicacies with unique features are always in the mind of people, in spite of the vicissitudes of time.
Lanterns and Lantern Riddles
In ancient times, lanterns were mainly used for illuminating and were regarded as a symbol of happiness and reunion. Lantern 燈籠🔊 culture emerged in the Western Han Dynasty of China, carrying the lantern around became a custom of the Mid-Autumn Festival only since the reign of Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. A folk ballad reveals its purposes in festivals: “Playing with lanterns on the fifteenth day of the first month of lunar year, hanging red lanterns on the Dragon Boat Festival in May, launching sky lanterns at breezeless day in June, enjoying lotus lanterns on July fifteenth, rabbit lanterns on August fifteenth and Kongming Lantern on September Ninth.”
Lanterns have evolved into a great variety and superb craftsmanship attributing to efforts of lanterns artists over years. Playing with lanterns was the reason I like Mid-Autumn Festival in childhood. All kinds of cute lanterns were hung high in shops’ entrances two weeks before the Mid-Autumn Festival: including the organ-shaped lantern, which is the most typical one, and they came in different models such as goldfish, carp, white rabbit, butterfly, star fruit and even tank for kids. Every year, I looked forward to having different lanterns, but my mom always bought small carp lanterns for me. At the third consecutive year, I finally expressed my disappointment to her, which is quite funny in retrospect. Lanterns were the only thing to play with “fire” that time, as there was a candle in the center. Kids would cry bitterly if the lantern caught on fire accidentally or due to strong wind.
There is a folk legend that children were not allowed to carry lanterns of the last year, so they would “hold a lighted lantern” and crash with another to burn which signifies “keep doom away and welcome good luck”. Of course, it is merely a legend or, may be, a comforting explanation. In modern society, most of the Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns on the market are lit with small bulbs, and a scant few still use candles. Moreover, the design no longer limited to traditional Chinese elements, as novel and creative such as Japanese cartoon characters, Superman and Spiderman are added. Sentimentally speaking, I feel that tradition is abandoned by bulb lanterns, maybe the candle is the remaining link between modern people and the ancients?
Lantern Riddles 打燈謎🔊, a unique form of ethnic-style entertainment, were developed from riddles. In the past, people wrote riddles on papers and pasted them onto colorful lanterns and other people tried to guess the answers, this custom started from the Southern Song Dynasty.
In addition to the various folk customs mentioned above, people in different regions also celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival according to local traditions and social customs with distinctive characteristics. For example, enjoying the sight of osmanthus and tide watching on the Mid-Autumn Festival popular in the South, clay rabbit for the Mid-Autumn Festival popular among senior Beijingers, as well as “High-hanging Lanterns on the Mid-Autumn Festival” of Guangzhou, “tower-burning” in Anhui and fire dragon dance in Hong Kong, and etc.. Some ethnic minorities also perform moon dances and moon worship. These activities have greatly enriched the traditional festival culture.
Legends of the Mid-Autumn Festival
In addition to the above mentioned contents about the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as festival foods and customs, legends about the Mid-Autumn Festival are even more brilliant. There are diverse myths about the moon in ancient times, including “the toad in the moon”, “the story of Jade Rabbit, an animal that lived on the moon and accompanied Chang E”, “Wu Gang chops down the cassia tree” and “Chang E flying to the moon”. The ancients described a bizarre and motley world of the moon by virtue of their extraordinary imagination. I won’t reiterate the legends which are available on the Internet. The story of “Chang E flying to the moon” is as follows.
Chang’E Flying to The Moon
The story about Chang E, known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality, is indispensable for introducing the Mid-Autumn Festival. “Chang E flying to the moon” is familiar for both Chinese and foreigners who have lived in China for a long time. One version of the story is described briefly here. Hou Yi, the king of You Qiong (a tribe of Xia Dynasty), was brave and excellent at archery, but he was violent by nature and indifferent to the suffering of people, who had no means to live. In pursuit of immortality, he sought for elixir at the Kunlun Mountain, which was known by Chang’e. In order to prevent people from being ruled by Hou Yi brutally, Chang E stole the elixir and flew to the moon, but was punished and turned into an ugly toad to grind the elixir in the Moon Palace.
Personally, I like the romantic version of the story. In remote antiquity, there were ten suns rising in the sky, which scorched all crops and drove people into dire poverty. A hero named Hou Yi who was an excellent archer, he went to the top of the Kunlun Mountain and drew his extraordinary bow and shot down nine superfluous suns, saving the world from suffering. For this reason, he was respected and well loved by the people. Empress Wangmu presented to him a parcel of elixir, by taking which, it was said, one would become an immortal celestial being.
Lots of people came to him to learn archery arts from him. A cunning person named Peng Meng with evil intentions was admitted as his disciples. Hou Yi had a beautiful and kindhearted wife named Chang E, and they loved each other deeply. Hou Yi, however, didn’t want to be separated from Chang E, he gave the elixir to Chang E for keepsake..
Chang E hid the elixir in a treasure box but unfortunately, it was seen by Peng Meng. One day when Hou Yi led his disciples out hunting, Peng Meng, with sword in hand, rushed into the inner chamber and forced Chang E to hand over the elixir. Chang E knows she was unable to defeat Peng Meng, so she made a prompt decision at that critical moment and swallowed the elixir. Immediately, she floated off ground, dashed out of the window and flew towards heaven. Reluctant to part with Hou Yi, she landed on the moon, which is the closest planet to earth, and lived in the Moon Palace as an immortal.
When Hou Yi returned home and learnt what had happened. Overwhelmed with anger, he wanted to kill Peng Meng, but the latter escaped long before. Filled with grief, Hou Yi looked up to the night sky and called out the name of his beloved wife. Later, as instructed by an immortal, when the moon was round and bright on Fifteen of August of Lunar Calendar, he would have an incense table arranged at the back garden, use flour rolling into moon-shape cake, and put on Chang E’s favorite fruits. Chang E really returned and reunited with him. From then on, the custom of worshiping the moon on the Mid-Autumn Festival became widespread and the flour ball evolved into a great variety of mooncakes later.
Have you heard of other versions about “Chang E flying to the moon”? Actually, it doesn’t matter which version, as it is merely a myth and is not regarded as the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Just like “Chang E flying to the moon”, most myths provides explanations to the origin of some customs.
In Vietnam, the Chinese version of “Chang E flying to the moon” is turned into the legend of Cuội, whose wife accidentally urinated on a sacred banyan tree acquired by Cuội from the immortal. The tree began to float towards the moon, and Cuội, trying to pull it back down to earth, floated to the moon with it, leaving him stranded there.
Culture of Poems about the Mid-Autumn Festival
Finally, I would like to talk about the culture of poems about the Mid-Autumn Festival. Throughout the ages, countless literati and poets have created numerous famous works on the Mid-Autumn Festival, making the festival aesthetic and romantic. The harvest moon is exceptionally bright! “People today cannot see the ancient moon, but the present moon once shone on the ancient people” of Li Bai, “The bright moon shines over the sea, from far away we share this moment together” of Zhang Jiuling, and “Tonight, people are enjoying the bright moon in the sky, but I don’t know the endless thought for the autumn fell in whose home” of Wang Jian of the Tang Dynasty, as well as “Now that the spring breezes have reverdured the south bank, when will the bright moon see me on my homebound way?” of Wang Anshi of the Song Dynasty have been read through all ages. How many ancient poems about the moon do you know? For learning more, please feel free to contact Immerse Languages for Ms. Sun, who is a teacher with abundant knowledge in the Four Books and Five Classics and verses, ditties, odes and songs of China.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important traditional festival in China and it has profound cultural connotations. In my childhood, I enjoyed the Festival by eating a few mooncakes and playing lanterns. As I’ve grown up, I am busy working and celebrating festivals blindly without considering any of the cultural aspects. This year, I’m looking forward to a fulfilling and meaningful Mid-Autumn Festival by exploring the traditions and appreciating the precious cultural heritage left by the ancestors over thousands of years.
*Recording of Chinese characters are in Cantonese
(The original article is written in Chinese, please visit HERE to read the original article.)