Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节)

Amongst all traditional Chinese festivals, Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) can be said to be the second most significant festival to the Chinese worldwide, after Chinese New Year (农历新年). This festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month annually in the Chinese Lunar calendar, which is usually within the months of August or September in the Gregorian Solar calendar that we usually use everyday. It coincides with the autumn equinox in the Gregorian Solar calendar. On this night, the moon is at its fullest, brightest and roundest. This festival is not only celebrated by the Chinese in China, Taiwan and throughout the global Chinese Diaspora, but it is also widely observed in Vietnam and Japan as well.

To the Chinese, this festival is known as Zhong Qiu Jie (中秋节), or literally, Mid-Autumn Festival. However, it is also known as Mooncake Festival or Lantern Festival to the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore. In Vietnam, it is known as Tet Trung Thu, while in Japan, it is known as Tsukimi Festival (月見), which literally means ‘moon-viewing.’ This festival is widely observed in Japan since the Nara (奈良) and Heian (平安) Periods (710 – 1185 A.D.).

Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong

The Mid-Autumn Festival is highly significant to the Chinese. This festival traditionally marks the end of the summer harvesting season and provides a means for family members, relatives and friends to gather together under the bright moonlight of the full moon. In modern times, its agricultural significance has, to a certain extent, faded but its familial and social significances still remain. For families and friends, this day is a day of reunion and gathering, whereby they enjoy each other’s company, share stories and experiences as well as have fun under the full moon. It is also perceived to be a romantic night by some, as couples enjoy each other’s company and love under the bright moonlight, viewing the beauty of the full moon together and perhaps even confessing feelings for one another amidst the romantic atmosphere of the night. It is frequently said by the Chinese that “when the moon is full, mankind is one.”

Scenery of the round, full moon

Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in many ways by the Chinese. Some of the customs of this festival include viewing the full moon together, eating mooncakes and pomeloes under the moonlight, gathering dandelions leaves and distributing them to others, as well as performing fire dragon dances. All these activities are done under the full moon of the night. On this night, children often carry bright lanterns and walk around with them under the moon, as it is believed that the brightly-lit lanterns are able to scare away demons and evil spirits.

Mooncake with bean paste, salted duck egg yolk and lotus seed

A notable thing in this festival is the presence of the special Chinese delicacy known as the mooncake (月饼). As the name suggests, it is round in shape so as to resemble the full moon. These mooncakes are made only during the month of this festival and cannot be seen in any other parts of the year. Some families buy ready-made mooncakes for the festival while others prefer to make these mooncakes themselves. Mooncakes are made mainly of bean paste, with melon seeds, lotus seeds, almonds or nuts embedded within the paste. Some mooncakes have extra flavourings added in the bean paste, which enhance their taste and sometimes even change their colours. A salted duck egg yolk is added in the centre of the mooncake, while flour is used to make the golden brown crust of the mooncake. The upper surface of the mooncake is frequently stamped with Chinese characters carrying good wishes and messages of prosperity, longevity and happiness. Indeed, without this delicious Chinese delicacy, the Mid-Autumn Festival is rendered incomplete and somewhat insignificant.

The popularity of eating mooncakes dates back to many centuries ago in Imperial China, throughout many dynasties. A popular folklore pertaining to mooncakes during this festive season involves the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty (元朝) (1271 – 1368 A.D.) and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (明朝) (1368 – 1644 A.D.). The period of the Yuan Dynasty saw the rule of China under the Mongols, which created great dissatisfaction amongst the Chinese people, having to live under the rule of a foreign power. During the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol rulers had banned all forms of public or group gatherings so as to prevent the Chinese people from grouping together to plan and stage a rebellion.

Emperor Hongwu (洪武帝) (Reigned 1368 - 1398 A.D.)

At that time, the Chinese rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty was led by Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), with his faithful and wise advisor Liu Bowen (刘伯温). According to the folklore, Liu Bowen thought of staging the rebellion during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Since the Mongols did not eat mooncakes, he decided to distribute mooncakes widely to the Chinese people. He obtained permission from the Mongol authorities to do so, on the grounds that he and the Chinese people wished to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor on the special day. Many Chinese people in the cities received the mooncakes, but each found a piece of paper hidden within each mooncake, written with a short message:

“Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th Moon.”

On the very night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, many Mongols were killed by the Chinese people, including many of the rulers. The entire Yuan government collapsed overnight, thus the Ming Dynasty was subsequently established, with Zhu Yuanzhang as its first Ming emperor, taking the name of Emperor Hongwu (洪武帝). Liu Bowen remained as Emperor Hongwu’s trusted advisor, owing to his great wisdom in planning strategies. Many in the imperial court were amazed at Liu Bowen’s great wisdom and capability in planning successful strategies, which greatly enhanced the Ming government and strengthened the Ming Dynasty. In fact, many Chinese serials today depict Liu Bowen and his great wisdom, calling him ‘The Amazing Strategist.’

Liu Bowen (刘伯温) featured in a Taiwanese Chinese serial entitled 'The Amazing Strategist - Liu Bowen'

The most widespread folktale pertaining to the Mid-Autumn Festival is the Chinese mythology of Chang Er (嫦娥). In this mythology, Chang Er is said to be a very beautiful lady living during the era of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) (1046 – 771 B.C.). She was said to have flown to the moon on the night of the 15th day of the 8th month when the moon was full and at its brightest. Hence, the Mid-Autumn Festival is said to have come about in commemoration of Chang Er flying to the moon and residing there ever since. There are various versions of this mythology, each of which varies from one another. However, if you would like to know the full version of the story, feel free to view the story that I have written, entitled Chang Er, Princess of the Moon. I have written this story based on one of the original versions of the Chinese mythology.

Chang Er (嫦娥), princess of the moon

The fame of Chang Er amongst the Chinese is indeed widespread. In fact, in 2007, when China launched its first lunar probe into outer space, the Chinese government decided to name the lunar probe ‘Chang’e 1’ (嫦娥一号) in honour of Chang Er. (Note that ‘Chang’e’ is an alternative spelling of ‘Chang Er’, whereby the former spelling is spelt according to the official Romanized Chinese spelling system (汉语拼音).)

The Chinese lunar probe, Chang'e 1 (嫦娥一号)

Spiritual wise, Chang Er is revered by Chinese Buddhists and Taoists as a moon goddess. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, many Chinese Buddhists and Taoists will burn incense and offer sacrifices and food to her, praying for happiness, longevity, prosperity and success in life. Indeed, viewing the full moon on the night of this festival brings a special meaning of worship and reverence for the moon goddess amongst Chinese Buddhists and Taoists. Mid-Autumn Festival is also celebrated by some Chinese Christian communities in China and worldwide, but it is observed in a slightly different manner. Most of the traditional customs of this festival remain amongst these Chinese Christian communities, but no worship or reverence is offered to the moon goddess. Instead, additional practices include singing of Christian hymns under the moonlight, as well as praise and worship services outdoors, appreciating the roundness of the full moon which reflects unity amongst family members, friends and within the church.

Brightly-lighted lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival

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