Chinese Culture: The Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival, held on the 15th day in the eighth month in the lunar calendar, is a very important holiday in China. Also known as the Moon Festival, this special fiesta originally celebrated the end of fall reaping and gave farmers the opportunity to rest and give praise to the gods for an abundant harvest. Today, people enjoy eating mooncakes while participating in events such as dragon dancing.

Many folktales surround the origin of the Moon Festival. Though there are many variations of “The Moon Goddess,” one particular story became popular among the Chinese: There was once a time when ten suns took refuge in the sky. They caused all sorts of suffering and famine across the land. Villagers begged Hou-yi, a legendary archer, to help the dying people. Hou-yi obliged the people’s wishes, and shot all the suns down save one, whom he told to never misbehave as its brothers had done.

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The gods showed their appreciation in Hou-yi by presenting him an Elixir of Longevity, which could transform a human into an immortal god. Delighted to receive such a gift, Hou-yi hurried home to his wife, the beautiful and virtuous Chang-e. The couple decided it was best to save this potion until the right time came, and so they resumed their daily activities. Unfortunately, Feng-meng, an apprentice of Hou-yi, overheard this piece of news and became jealous of the couple’s good fortune. One night, when Hou-yi was out hunting, Feng-meng broke into his house and forced Chang-e to give him the Elixir.

Chang-e refused, and drank the Elixir herself before it was at the evil hands of Feng-meng. She became a goddess, and chose her residence in the moon so that she could watch over the villagers and her husband forevermore. When Hou-yi came back home from a night of hunting, he was devastated to learn about Feng-meng’s treacherous act and Chang-e’s sacrifice. Hou-yi set flowers and offerings out in the courtyard and reunited with Chang-e through his prayers. The villagers soon joined him and hoped Chang-e would watch over them as she did before. To this day, people still look up at the full moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival and pray that the Moon Goddess will protect their families.

During this festive time, those who celebrate the Moon Festival participate in fun activities. A popular event is lantern riddles. On any plaza during the holiday, one will see many colorful lighted lanterns with word puzzles on them. One will try to guess the answer to the question, and although there usually are not any prizes to receive, people always have fun with their families in answering the riddles. A special treat offered during the Mid-Autumn Festival is mooncakes.

Shaped like the moon itself, mooncakes symbolizes the unity of families. There are usually special markings on the outside of mooncakes. Some may depict Chang-e spending her time in the lonely Moon Palace, with only a jade hare for her sole companion. Other pictures may show the single cassia tree in the Moon Palace which, equivalent to the “man in the moon” belief in the United States, was thought to be the reason why there are shadows on the moon. Mooncake fillings also come in a variety of different flavors—–red dates, five kernels, lotus seeds, red beans, and sometimes even the yolks of duck eggs. In some families, it is a tradition to make mooncakes on the night of the Moon Festival.

The eldest member of the family, usually the grandfather, will cut mooncakes into small pieces and distribute them among the other family members, oldest to youngest. The Moon Festival is an important part of the Chinese culture. During the Festival, family members have the opportunity to reunite with one another, quite similar to Hou-yi and Chang-e in the beautiful folk tale. This traditional holiday reflects on the importance of family for the Chinese, both in the past and the years to come.