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The Origin of Mid-Autumn Festival

by Michael Teh

Do you know the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival and story behind why we eat mooncakes during the festival? Well, the Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival or Mid-Autumn Day, is the second most important festival in the Chinese culture. The festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when the moon is believed to be the fullest and roundest. In celebration of this festival, family would come together for a reunion dinner and to appreciate the moon while eating mooncakes of various flavours. At the same time, it is a festival where farmers celebrate their harvests. And with more than 3,000 years of history, there are several takes on the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Read more to find out about its origin.

“Nowadays, people mainly celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival as a time for family reunions. I too, would like to take this opportunity to pray to the Full Moon of Mid-Autumn for the wellbeing, success, peace and harmony of all people and family members in the world.”

Do you know the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival and story behind why we eat mooncakes during the festival? Well, the Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival or Mid-Autumn Day, is the second most important festival in the Chinese culture.

The festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when the moon is believed to be the fullest and roundest. In celebration of this festival, family would come together for a reunion dinner and to appreciate the moon while eating mooncakes of various flavours.

At the same time, it is a festival where farmers celebrate their harvests. And with more than 3,000 years of history, there are several takes on the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The most popular one would be the story of Hou Yi and Chang E, of which also has various versions to its story.

That said, the Moon Festival legend is about Hou Yi and Chang E where once upon a time, there were ten suns in the sky, scorching the crops and people to death. And because of such, the Emperor of Heaven commanded Hou Yi to shoot down nine of the suns. In his success, the weather recovered, and all lives were saved and for Hou Yi’s reward, he was given the elixir of immortality. While on the Earth, he met Chang E and they fell in love and were later married.

Hou Yi wanted to spend eternity with Chang E, so he went to visit the Western Queen Mother for the elixir of life. For the good deeds that he had performed for the Earth, the Western Queen Mother agreed to give him the elixir which is enough for two people. Upon reaching home, both of them decided to drink the elixir together on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when the moon was bright and round. However, a wicked man named Feng Meng overheard them and wanted the elixir for himself.

On the 15th day, before Hou Yi returned home from his hunting trip, Feng Meng had forced Chang E to give him the elixir. Knowing that she won’t be able to defeat Feng Meng, she had no choice but to drink all of the elixir herself. And when Hou Yi returned home, he found that Chang E has been brought up to Heaven.

However, Chang E had decided to live on the Moon because it is closer to the Earth, hence Hou Yi would always look up to the moon and put the food that Chang E used to love in the garden as a sacrifice. Thus, this is how the Chinese started to admire the moon on this day. Meanwhile, Chang E and Hou Yi then became the representatives of the yin and yang respectively (the moon and the sun).

Story of Mooncakes

Mooncakes are eaten during the Moon Festival, and without it, the festival will be incomplete. The mooncake is a round pastry that contains various ingredients in a thin crust. Most of the flavours are sweet with lotus seed paste or sweet bean paste as the filling and a salted egg yolk in the centre.

And according to a Chinese legend, the mooncake helped to start a revolution. It happened during the Yuan dynasty (AD1280 – 1368) founded by the Mongolians from the north. It is to be believed that a Han Chinese rebel leader, Liu Bo Wen, planned to arouse the Han Chinese to rise up against the ruling Mongolians and end the Yuan dynasty.

He gained permission to give gifts to his friends in different bases where the gifts were round mooncakes. Liu instructed his subordinates to hide pieces of paper in the cakes with the date of the Han Chinese rebellion (the 15th night of the 8th lunar month). Hence, Liu got word to his people who found the message when they cut open the mooncakes. They then set out together and overthrew the Mongolians, ending the Yuan dynasty.

All in all, the Ancient Chinese emperors worshiped the moon in autumn to thank it for the harvest. Ordinary people took the Mid-Autumn Festival to be a celebration of their hard work and harvests. Nowadays, people mainly celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival as a time for family reunions. I too, would like to take this opportunity to pray to the Full Moon of Mid-Autumn for the wellbeing, success, peace and harmony of all people and family members in the world.

Credit: China Culture Tour

Michael Teh, 21st September 2021.