by: Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett
The Origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival
The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival or “Zhōng Qiū Jié” (中秋節) is one of China’s most important festivals, and a special time for family get-togethers. Let’s learn more about the Mid-Autumn Festival’s unique legends and traditions- and of course the tasty moon cakes!
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The Mid-Autumn occurs on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month each year (falling in September or October on our familiar solar calendar). It is a harvest festival, celebrated by people in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Because this holiday is based on the lunar calendar, where it falls on the solar calendar varies from year to year. Here are some upcoming dates:
- 2016: September 15
- 2017: October 4
- 2018: September 24
- 2019: September 13
- 2020: October 1
- 2021: September 21
As the festival is celebrated at the midpoint of the lunar month (also the middle of autumn), it is called the Mid-Autumn Festival. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the “Moon Festival” as it is observed during a bright, full moon.
The Story of the Mid-Autumn Festival
There are many folktales surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival. Here is a popular version among Chinese children:
A long time ago in China there were ten suns in the sky. Because of this it was very hot! The blazing suns dried up the rivers and there was a serious drought. People were running out of water to drink and the crops in the rice fields were withering. A famous archer, Hòu yì, was summoned to shoot down 9 of the suns in the sky. He did it successfully and was rewarded a “pill of the immortality.” Hòu yì went home and gave the precious pill to his wife, Cháng’é, for safekeeping. A visitor of the archer’s, however, heard about this pill and wanted to steal it from his wife. As the visitor was about to steal the pill from her Cháng é swallowed it. After she took the pill Cháng é felt lighter and lighter. Then she started to float. She flew all the way to the moon. When Cháng é got to the moon she coughed up the pill and the pill became a rabbit. The rabbit was the only companion Cháng é- the Moon Fairy- had on the moon and is named the “Jade Rabbit.”
When Chinese people talk about the “lady in the moon”, they are talking about Cháng é, the Moon Fairy.
Characters in the Story
The famous archer – Hòu yì – 后羿
The moon fairy – Cháng é – 嫦娥
The jade rabbit – Yù tù – 玉兔
Mooncakes are out in the market weeks before the Mid-Autumn Festival. They are a seasonal gift among friends, family and business partners. Mooncakes are available at bakeries and restaurants. When you see the mooncakes for sale it is a sign that the Mid-Autumn Festival is coming. There are various fillings in the mooncakes. The traditional ones have sweet fillings such as red bean paste, lotus seed paste, and Chinese date paste. You will also see the above flavors with one or two salty duck egg yolks inside. They are delicious but also high in calories. With the current awareness on healthy eating we now see smaller sized mooncakes and low calorie fillings of green tea, mochi, and even fruit.
Favorite Mooncake Fillings
Red bean paste – Hóng dòu 紅豆
Lotus seed paste – Lián zǐ 蓮(莲)子
Chinese date paste – Zǎo ní 棗(枣)泥
Egg yolk – Dàn huáng 蛋黃
Let’s take a look at this video, showing how mooncakes are made!
Did you know there is a legend about the Chinese using mooncakes to deliver secret messages? At one point the Chinese were ruled by the Mongolians and wanted to overthrow their foreign rulers. When the Mid-Autumn festival came they inserted secret plans inside their mooncakes. When these mooncakes were delivered and eaten all the members who received the messages fought against the Mongolians according to the secret plan. The Chinese successfully overthrew their Mongolian rulers and established the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD).
A long time ago in China, fall was the season for harvest and, following that, the time for people working out of town to return home to be with their families. This tradition of traveling home to visit family remains to this day. Because of this, the Mid-Autumn Festival is thought of as a time for family reunion. Family members who work in different cities or provinces go home and enjoy an abundant family dinner.
After the dinner families will have mooncakes and go outside to appreciate the moon in their yard or in the park. This is also the time for the children to look at the moon and see if they can see the shadow of the Moon Fairy or the Jade rabbit. With the landing of the astronauts on the moon we all know there is no moon fairy but the beautiful, enchanting story of the moon lady still has its charm in Chinese culture.
Do you know pomelos are the seasonal fruit for the Mid-Autumn Festival? Some Chinese children put the peel of this large fruit on their head like a hat for fun.
Can you find pomelos and mooncakes in an Asian market near you? Why not check out the big moon tonight and see if you can find any interesting shadows? Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!
Mid-Autumn Festival Learning Resources
Check out Grace Lin’s book “Thanking the Moon: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival,” whose pictures and story are simple and clear, explaining a family’s celebration of the festival.
Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival by Sanmu Tang gives the history of why this celebration started and how it is celebrated.
Mooncakes by Loretta Seto, which tells the legend of the Jade Rabbit, and shows how one family celebrates the holiday.
Thank you so much Miss Panda! 🙂
Amanda “Miss Panda” Hsiung-Blodgett is the creator of the “Let’s Learn Mandarin Chinese with Miss Panda!” audio albums for young children. She is raising her two children to be bilingual in Mandarin Chinese and English. Follow her bilingual adventure with her children at Facebook and MissPandaChinese.com where parents and teachers can find Mandarin Chinese learning resources.