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The Tai Hang fire dragon dance is performed in Hong Kong during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Source: Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Explore the Legends and the Myths

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Nearly everyone has heard of the Chinese New Year festival, but there is another festival that is very important in China and East Asia. This is the Mid-Autumn Festival , which is an enormous party that has been celebrated for centuries and takes place today. This holiday has a fascinating history and is associated with many myths.

The festival “marks the end of the autumn harvest ” according to the Sunday Mail . At this time, people in China and over much of Asia celebrate a successful harvest. The Mid-Autumn Festival is sometimes referred to simply as the Moon Festival.

Traditionally, the festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month, based on the lunar calendar . For this year, the celebration begins today, 13 th September.

The Mooncakes of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The festival is celebrated typically by lighting lanterns, lion dances, and street parties. However, there are great variations in the way that the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated across Asia.

Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns in Chinatown, Singapore. (I64s / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns in Chinatown, Singapore. (I64s / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Mooncakes are commonly consumed at this time. They are pastries that are round like the moon and they are full of calories! These cakes are often topped with words expressing hopes for good fortune.

The moon is very important in the festival and in many parts of Asia people celebrate by admiring what is believed to be “the fullest moon of the year” according to CNN. The moon is of great symbolic importance.

According to the Sunday Mail the “circular shape of the moon symbolizes wholeness and unity” in Chinese culture . The celebrations are often a time when families are reunited and when people come together.

History of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival

The origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival are shrouded in mystery despite its great popularity. There is evidence that it was celebrated during China’s first historical dynasty the Shang (1600-1045 BC). It was popularized under the Zhou dynasty and it is mentioned in the “ Book of Rites , a Confucius classic on bureaucracy and rituals written more than 2400 years ago” reports CNN.

It is believed that during the Tang dynasty the festival was formalized by Emperor Xuanzong (685-782 AD), who celebrated the autumn harvest in his palace. Chinese cultural influence in Asia meant that many states, such as Japan and Vietnam adopted the autumn celebration.

The Moon Goddess - One of the Stories of the Mid-Autumn Festival

There are many stories and myths that are associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival. The most popular is the story of the Chinese Moon Goddess Chang'e and her husband Hou Yi, ECNS reports that according to ancient fables “ 10 suns shined simultaneously in the sky, creating scorching heat on Earth: plants were burnt, and humans faced death”.

Hou Yi was a great archer and shot down nine of the suns and thereby saved humanity. He was rewarded with the elixir of life by the gods.

Hou Yi did not immediately drink the potion because he did not want to become separated from his wife, but he kept the elixir. One day, someone tried to steal the potion, to stop this Chang'e drank it.

After she swallowed it she was transformed and floated away, eventually landing on the moon and unable to return to Earth and her beloved husband. Today, she is worshipped as the Goddess of the Moon, especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival in China.

Chang'e flying off to the moon after she drank the elixir, one of the legends associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain)

Chang'e flying off to the moon after she drank the elixir, one of the legends associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain )

Among the other legends associated with the autumn celebrations is that of the Jade Rabbit . He is constantly trying to create an elixir to allow the Moon Goddess to return to Earth.

In another story, Wu Gang, a woodsman, was punished by the God of Heaven. He had to cut down a laurel tree, but the tree miraculously regrew daily. Wu Gang was “trapped in the vicious circle of chopping a self-healing laurel tree day by day’” according to ECNS.

Wu Gang had to cut down a laurel tree but the tree miraculously regrew daily. (Catfisheye / Public Domain)

Wu Gang had to cut down a laurel tree but the tree miraculously regrew daily. (Catfisheye / Public Domain )

Traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The eating of mooncakes is associated with one of the most important rebellions in Chinese history . The Yuan dynasty (1368-1644), the descendants of Genghis Khan brutally suppressed the Chinese people . Zhu Yuanzhang was a rebel leader, but he was unable to organize a rebellion against the Yuan because of their repressive policies, so he hid messages calling for a rebellion in mooncakes during the autumn celebrations.

Mooncakes are part of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. (ProjectManhattan / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mooncakes are part of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. (ProjectManhattan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

This led to a mass uprising in China and the expulsion of the Yuan and the establishment of the Ming dynasty by Zhu Yuanzhang. The new emperor celebrated by giving his forces and the population mooncakes and this led to “the custom of consuming mooncakes to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival” reports ECNS.

Today the ancient festival is as popular as ever. It has largely retained its traditional customs and practices and its meaning. However, the festival has become somewhat more commercialized in recent years.

Top image: The Tai Hang fire dragon dance is performed in Hong Kong during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Source: Hong Kong Tourism Board .

By Ed Whelan

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