Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival History and Traditions

History of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The exact origins of this holiday are not sure. In ancient times, it was common to worship to moon. During the Zhou Dynasty the term “Mid-Autumn” first appeared. It was then that the practice of worshiping the moon took place on the15th day of 8th month of the lunar calendar. Later, in the Tang dynasty (618-907) this habit became more widespread and during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), eating moon cakes became a tradition.

There are many legends and myths that surround the celebration. Some of these began as stories that were told on the night of the festival when people got together. The most famous of these legends is the story of Hou Yi, Chang’e, and Feng Meng.

Hou Yi was married to Chang’e. He was a brave warrior. At that time there were ten suns. It became so hot that everything on earth was being burnt. Hou Yi courageously fought with the suns. He pierced nine of these suns with his arrows, leaving only one remaining. This battle gave Hou Yi universal recognition. The queen of heaven gave him a vial containing the fountain of youth. If he drank it he could live forever. He didn’t want to separate from his beautiful wife, so entrusted the vial to her. One of Hou Yi’s pupils greedily tried to force Chang’e to give him the vial so he could obtain immortality. In a desperate bid to keep him from obtaining it she quickly drank it herself. This caused her to float higher and higher until she arrived on the moon, where she is still mourning the separation from Hou Yi. Each year the Moon Festival commemorates this event.

Modern Day Traditions

Mid Autumn Festival takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month by the lunar calendar. This year (2012), it is September 30th. Having lived in China for ten years and asking many Chinese what this festival is all about, it can be summed up in two words- PARTY TIME!  While many modern day Chinese are not familiar with the original reason for the festival, they do still enjoy it as a holiday where they can get together with friends and family. In recent years, the government has adopted a new policy and started giving time off for the holiday. For workers and students, this makes it more exciting since they can look forward to time off work.

Like in most countries, festivals in China often center on food. Families go all out to make a feast worthy to remember. Each family has their own favorite dishes that they like to make. In the days leading up to the festival, local markets are swamped with shoppers stocking up on ingredients, causing some vendors to raise prices in an attempt to cash in.

The one thing everyone knows about this event is that people give one another Moon Cakes. These are little individually wrapped cakes, which are quite attractive. They may be filled with peaches, ground nuts, other fruits, or egg yolks to look like the moon. The stores are absolutely full of these pastries and they are very expensive. A set of four moon cakes typically costs $20-$100. These moon cakes are each about the size of a cupcake, but far denser!

 We asked a young friend of ours why they were so expensive and she said, “Because they know everyone has to have them.” If you visit someone on or around Mid-Autumn Festival, it is basic etiquette that you should take them a set of Moon Cakes. Moon cakes are like American fruitcakes in that no one likes them. Person after person says, “They are too sweet.” Nevertheless, you give moon cakes to friends, family, co-workers, employers, everyone. Some of them are packaged very elaborately in tins and put into fancy bags. Sometimes they are stuck in baskets of fruit, nuts, and candies, which sell for $50 or so dollars each. Each year there are also a variety of trendy moon cakes, which buck traditional styles and make a splash. Some of these include excellent ice cream “moon cakes.”

There is a theory that only several boxes of moon cakes actually exist. These get passed from person to person to person as gifts! While a slight exaggeration, it is common to save a set of moon cakes you have received and then pass it on as a gift to someone else.

Other than sharing moon cakes and eating meals with family, there is a general air of celebration. Decorations, especially red lanterns are put up all over the city. Autumn colored two tiered flower arrangements are outside many businesses. There are musical concerts.

On the night of the lunar festival, the streets are crowded with merrymakers. These walk around and purchase little knick-knacks for the kids to play with. Children carry paper lanterns. In some parts of the city, where it is allowed, special “flying lanterns” are released. These were designed by a famous scholar/philosopher/politician/inventor Zhu Ge Liang (also called Kong Ming) and are named “Kong Ming” after him. They are built something like mini hot air balloons. A candle is lit inside to provide the heat, which propels the lantern and then they are launched into the moonlit sky. Each year we can see scores of them lighting up the night sky and reflecting off of the river next to our apartment. The sound of children laughing and running adds to the excitement. Groups of people sit together outside hoping to get a glimpse of the autumn moon.

Next time you are in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival, make a wish and try to catch sight of the full moon. Chinese don’t actually do this, but maybe you will get lucky!