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Mid-Autumn Festival Decorations in Beijing, China.

The Mid-Autumn Festival: A Holiday of Mooncakes, Lanterns, Moon Worship, and Timeless Legends

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The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated annually by Chinese and Vietnamese communities around the world. As the name of this festival suggests, the day of its celebration falls exactly in the middle of autumn, i.e. on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Some alternate names of the Mid-Autumn Festival include the Moon Festival, the Mooncake Festival, and the Lantern Festival (not to be confused with the Lantern Festival held on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar year.)

These alternate names are due to the fact that the moon, mooncakes, and lanterns are amongst the most iconic objects associated with this celebration. There are also a number of interesting stories associated with the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinatown, Singapore

Lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinatown, Singapore ( CC BY 2.5 ) Lanterns are one of the iconic symbols of the Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinese and Vietnamese communities around the world.

Moon Worship Through the Dynasties: The Origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival

It has been said that the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated today originated in the practice of moon sacrificial ceremonies. This practice is believed to have dated back to the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled China from 1046 to 256 BC. The reason behind these sacrificial ceremonies was so that the people could express their thanks the moon and to celebrate the harvest season.

The ancient Chinese desire to thank the moon stems from the fact that it was through observations of the moon’s movements that they were able to determine the changes in the seasons, and hence plan their agricultural routine accordingly. It should be mentioned that during the Zhou Dynasty, moon sacrificial ceremonies were more commonly practiced by the upper class on the day of the Autumn Equinox. Moreover, the festive mood that accompanies the festival today was not present during that time, as the event was a more solemn affair.

It was only later during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) that the practice of moon worship became conventional for the common man. In addition to the serious business of offering sacrifices to the moon, people also began to routinely gaze at the night sky to appreciate the moon. Thus, the date for this festival changed from the Autumn Equinox to the closest full moon to it, i.e. the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Furthermore, it has been recorded that it was during the Tang Dynasty that people began eating mooncakes.

Mooncakes with a traditional lotus-bean filling that are eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Mooncakes with a traditional lotus-bean filling that are eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. ( CC BY 2.0 ) People began eating mooncakes during the Tang Dynasty.

Nevertheless, it was during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) that the production of mooncakes became a fine art. Due to improvements in cooking techniques, delicate mooncakes were possible to produce. Additionally, it is said that the mooncakes had various designs depicting legends of the moon.

The Legend of Chang’e

One of the most well-known of these legends is that of Chang’e, of which there are several versions. According to one version, Chang’e was married to a man named Hou Yi, who became a hero when he shot down nine out of the ten suns with his arrows. One day, Hou Yi went to the Kunlun Mountain to visit a friend, when he came across a deity called the Queen Mother of the West. The deity gave Hou Yi an elixir of immortality. Hou Yi, however, was hesitant to leave his wife, and gave the elixir to Chang’e, and told her to put it away.

Whilst Chang’e was in the process of putting the elixir away, a courtier passed by, saw the elixir, and desired it for himself. When Hou Yi was out one day, the courtier went into Chang’e’s room demanding the elixir. Knowing that she was no match for this man, she ran away, put the elixir into her mouth, and swallowed it. Her body immediately became lighter, and she began to float off the ground. Instead of floating all the way to Heaven, Chang’e decided to land on the moon, the nearest celestial body to earth, as she was concerned for her husband. Thus, Chang’e became the Moon Goddess, and people began to worship her when they heard of this tragic tale.

Chang’e Flying to the Moon (1955) by Ren Shuai Ying.

Chang’e Flying to the Moon (1955) by Ren Shuai Ying. ( Public Domain ) Chang’e became known as the moon goddess when people took notice of her tragic story.

Another version of the myth suggests that Hou Yi became a tyrant after occupying the throne for some time. The king decided he wanted to live forever, so he acquired the elixir of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West. Chang’e, however, felt pity for the people, and did not wish to see a cruel king oppress them forever. Thus, she decided to steal the elixir from Hou Yi, drank it, and floated to the moon. Learning of Chang’e’s benevolent action, the people began to worship her.

hang’e Flies to the Moon as Hou Yi watches. (1922)

Chang’e Flies to the Moon as Hou Yi watches. (1922) ( Project Gutenberg ) One legend says that Chang’e drank the elixir to save the people from her cruel tyrant husband, Hou Yi.

Mooncakes and the Overthrow of a Dynasty

Another popular story associated with the moon (in the form of mooncakes) is that of the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. According to this tale, a rebel leader by the name of Liu Fu Tong came up with a way to raise a rebellion amongst the Han Chinese without the knowledge of the Mongol authorities. He did this by inserting pieces of paper into mooncakes. These pieces of paper contained a message urging the Han Chinese to rise in rebellion against their Mongol overlords on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. It is said that these secret messages in the mooncakes contributed to the downfall of the Yuan Dynasty in China.  

Modern mooncakes in the form of pigs.

Modern mooncakes in the form of pigs. ( CC BY SA 3.0 ) One story says that a rebel leader named Liu Fu Tong hid messages in mooncakes with the goal of overthrowing the Yuan Dynasty and was successful.

Lanterns as a Way to Increase the Festive Mood

The original purpose of the use of lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival is a little more difficult to determine. It is possible that lanterns were simply used for the purpose of increasing the festive mood of the celebration, and did not have mythological connections. Nevertheless, over time, lanterns have become an important feature of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and people today, especially children, enjoy playing with lanterns during this festival.  

Vietnamese Children celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival with a traditional lantern procession.

Vietnamese Children celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival with a traditional lantern procession. ( Public Domain ) Lanterns are thought to be used to increase the festive mood of the Mid-Autumn Festival and children especially enjoy them.

The Impacts of Commercialism and Globalization on the Mid-Autumn Festival

From its origins as a solemn sacrificial ceremony to the moon, the Mid-Autumn festival has evolved over the ages into a festive celebration. Today, this festival has undergone another transformation thanks to the effects of commercialism and globalization.

For instance, as an art-form, traditional lantern-making has declined over the last few decades, and the lanterns today, which are massed-produced, depict popular cartoon characters in order to appeal to children. Furthermore, mooncakes with new and ‘experimental’ fillings appear on the shelfs each year in an attempt to catch the attention of consumers who are ever-seeking the thrill of novelty. What is next for the Mid-Autumn Festival?

Shopping for Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns in Hong Kong, China.

Shopping for Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns in Hong Kong, China. ( CC BY SA 3.0 ) Traditional lantern-making has declined over the last few decades.

Featured image: Mid-Autumn Festival Decorations in Beijing, China. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

By: Ḏḥwty

References

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Yang Lemei, 2006. China's Mid-Autumn Day. Journal of Folklore Research, 43(3), pp. 263-270.

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