One of the most important traditional Chinese festivals, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, around the time of the autumn equinox (usually September 22). Many refer to it simply as the "Fifteenth of the Eighth Month." As the full bright moon on that night tends to inspire people's anticipation for a family reunion, it is also called "Festival of Reunion."
This day is also considered a harvest festival since farmers have just finished gathering their crops and bringing in fruits from the orchards. Overwhelmed with joy when they have a bumper harvest and quite relaxed after a year of hard work, they feel it is a time for relaxation and celebration.
Food offerings -- including moon cakes, apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, watermelons, oranges, and so on -- are placed on an altar set up in the courtyard. Of all these foods, moon cakes and watermelons (cut into the shape of a lotus) are indispensable for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Bathing in the silver moonlight, the families will sit together and take turns to worship the moon, chatting and sharing the moon offerings.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional festivity for both the Han and minority nationalities, with a history of more than 2,000 years. In feudal times, Chinese emperors prayed to Heaven for a prosperous year. They chose the morning of the 15th day of the second lunar month to worship the sun and the evening of the 15th day of the eighth lunar month to hold a ceremony in praise of the moon. In the western district of Beijing is Yuetan Park, which originally was the Moon Temple. Every year the emperor would go there to offer a sacrifice to the moon.
The custom of worshipping the moon (called xi yue in Chinese) can be traced back to as far as the ancient Xia and Shang Dynasties (21-11th century BC). In the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256BC), people held ceremonies to greet winter and worship the moon whenever the mid-Autumn set in. It became prevalent in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) for the people to enjoy and worship the full moon. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), however, people sent round cakes to their relatives as gifts to express their best wishes for a family reunion. When it became dark, they would look up at the full silver moon or go sightseeing by the lakeside to celebrate the festival.
By the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the Mid-Autumn Festival celebration had become unprecedented popular, with the appearance of some special customs in different parts of the country, such as playing under the moon, burning incense, planting Mid-Autumn trees, lighting lanterns on towers, or performing fire dragon dances. Nowadays, while many customs of playing under the moon are no longer observed, the custom of enjoying the bright silver moon and eating moon cakes remains an important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Whenever the festival comes, people tend to look up at the full silver moon and drink wine as a way to celebrate their happy life and to extend their best wishes to their relatives and friends far from home.
Legends of Mid-Autumn Festival
Legend (1): Chang E Ascending to the Moon
It is said that there were 10 suns in the sky during the ancient times, scorching the earth and its crops. To save the world from the misery, a skilled archer, Hou Yi, shot down nine of the suns.
Hou Yi's extraordinary deeds won the love and respect of many common people, some of whom came to him to seek instruction, including Peng Meng, an evil man.
Soon after, Hou Yi married Chang E, a beautiful and kindhearted woman. One day, Hou Yi encountered the Mother Goddess of Heaven, who gave him an elixir of immortality. Unwilling to leave his wife, Hou Yi handed the elixir to Chang E, who hid it in a locker of her dresser. Peng Meng saw the whole process.
Several days later, when Hou Yi went hunting with his apprentices, Peng Meng, pretending to be ill, stayed at home. Soon after they left, Peng, holding a sword in hand, broke into Chang E's room and tried to force her to give him the elixir. Knowing that she could not defeat him, Chang turned around, got the elixir and swallowed it. Right after she swallowed the elixir, Chang began floating upwards into the sky, and with her heart on her husband, she settled down on the moon, the nearest body from the earth.
When Hou Yi returned home in the evening and learned what had happened, he felt the whole world had collapsed. As he shouted Chang E's named into the sky, he found the moon that night was especially clear and bright with a swaying silhouette similar to that of his wife. He chased the moon crazily, but failed to catch up in the end, as the moon moved with him.
Missing his wife so much, Hou Yi had no other choice but to have his servants place Chang E's favorite fruits on a table in the garden where she frequently visited, to worship his beloved wife living on the moon. Informed of the news, other common people also did the same thing, praying to Chang E for good fortune and peace.
Since then, the custom of worshipping the moon on the mid-autumn day has been widespread.
Legend (2): Wu Gang Cutting the Cherry Bay
According to another legend about the Mid-autumn Festival, in front of the Guanghan Palace in the moon there is a cherry bay, which has grown exuberantly to a height of more than 500 zhang (about 1,650 meters). Under the tree, there is always a man trying to cut it down with an ax. However, every time he cuts it down, the tree will immediately spring back to its feet. Therefore, the tree has remained there in spite of the man's relentless efforts to bring it down for thousands of years.
The man was said to be Wu Gang, a native of Xihe County of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), who attained immortality and entered the Heaven through apprenticing under an immortal. One day, he made a mistake, and as a punishment, his master hence demoted him to the moon to do such strenuous but useless labor work.
Legend (3): Zhu Yuanzhang and Moon Cake Uprising
The custom of eating moon cakes on Mid-Autumn Festival is said to have begun in the end of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). At that time,the general populace, faced with the unbearably cruel governing, rose up against the Yuan Government in succession. Under such circumstances, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the later Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), set out to organize an uprising by uniting the various resisting forces. However, due to the oppressive presence the governmental officials (which included many searches of people and their property), it was extremely hard to deliver messages.
One day, Zhu's military counselor, Liu Bowen, came upon an idea, and ordered his subordinates to hide paper slips with "Uprising on August 15" on them in moon cakes. Then, the moon cakes were distributed among insurrectionary armies in different places, asking them to support the uprising on the night of August 15. When the day came, all insurrectionary armies converged to participate in the uprising. Soon, Dadu (Beijing), capital of the Yuan Dynasty, was captured.
When news came of the successful uprising, Zhu Yuanzhang was so delighted that he allowed his men to celebrate the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival with the common people and ordered the moon cakes used for hiding the paper slips to be distributed among the folks. Since then, the moon cakes have been made in a more and more exquisite way, with more varieties, and the custom of eating moon cakes continues to this day.
The main activities on the Mid-Autumn Festival are appreciating the full moon and eating moon cakes as mentioned in the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Since China is a big country with a large population, the festival tends to be celebrated in various ways, with each way having its own strong local flavor.
In Fucheng County of East China's Fujian Province, when the Mid-Autumn Festival began, the local women will cross the Nanpu Bridge in an attempt to seek longevity. In Jiannin County, lanterns are hung as a gesture to pray for pregnancy from the Moon. When people in Longyan County eat moon cakes, they often scratch a hole in the center of a moon cake for the elderly, signifying the withholding of secrets from the younger generations.
The custom of worshipping the moon on the Mid-Autumn day also prevails in the Chaozhou and Shantou regions of South China's Guangdong Province, mainly for women and children, as a proverb goes, "Men will not worship the full moon, nor will women worship the kitchen range." As night falls and the moon rises, the women will lay a table in the courtyard, with burning incenses and sacrifices, such as fruits and cakes, on it, to worship the moon in the sky. There is also the custom of eating taros on the festival, as August is the time for harvesting taros.
In the South of the Yangtze River, the Mid-Autumn customs also boast large varieties. Apart from moon cakes, a Guihua Duck, a famous local dish, will surely be served on the dining table that night. Besides, there are interesting names for different Mid-Autumn activities, such as: "Qing Tuan Yuan" (celebrating reunion), referring to families appreciating the full moon together; drinking together; "Yuan Yue" (worshipping the moon); and "Zou Yue" (walking the moon), which refers to going out together.
In Ji'an County of East China's Jiangxi Province, earthen jars will be burned with straw in every village in the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. When the jars get red hot, vinegar will be poured in, permeating the whole village in a delicate fragrance.
When the Mid-Autumn Festival sets in Ziyuan County of East China's Anhui Province, the local children will get together to build a hollow pagoda with bricks and tiles, decorated with veiling and steles, and so on. Then, a table is placed in front of the pagoda, with various sacrifices meant to worship the "god of pagoda." During the night, burning candles will be placed both inside and outside the pagoda.
People in Southwest China's Sichuan Province usually eat duck, sesame cakes, and honey cakes in addition to moon cakes. In some places, "orange lights" are hung on the doors for celebration.
In Xixiang County of North China's Shaanxi Province, men go boating or climbing while women arrange for the feast on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival and every one, poor or rich, has to eat watermelon. Besides, suona (a kind of Chinese wind instrument) or drum players will often perform door by door on that day, begging for money as a reward.