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The Quill

The Mid-Autumn Festival

Previously published Oct. 29, 2020

Every year on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar Calendar, as the moon reaches its fullest and brightest capacity with harvest just around the corner, the Chinese and Sinosphere celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. The moon being at its roundest and brightest calls for family and friend reunions and gatherings. Although traditions and stories surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival have shifted over time with economic, cultural, and technological changes, the central message of the festival stands: stay well together.

Shizhao, CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons 

I. How is the Mid-Autumn Festival Celebrated?

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated differently in China, in different regions of the Sinosphere, and in different countries to where Chinese people have immigrated. However, several traditions remain common with most regions, including but not limited to hanging lanterns, eating mooncakes, and drinking tea and cassia wine. Lanterns were not originally symbolic of this festival, but became more and more associated with moon worship over time. The round mooncakes symbolise family reunion, much like the round moon does, and the cakes are cut up into pieces to distribute to each family member.

II. Legends of the Mid-Autumn Festival

There are numerous legends and stories stemming from the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many of these have been passed down for centuries, such as the story of how Chang’e flew to the moon, and the legend of “On 8/15, Kill a Barbarian”, with their own variations.

The Legend of Chang’e

In the early days of Earth, there were ten suns present in the sky. Earth became perilously hot, with crops withering and water supply drying up, and inhabitants knew no night; only scorching days. One day, a skilled archer named Hou Yi had had enough with the ten suns, and shot down nine of them. The Xiwangmu, to reward Yi for his heroic efforts, presented him with an elixir of immortality – a small dose, enough for one person to gain immortality.

In one version of the story, Hou Yi was conflicted, knowing that his wife, Chang’e, would be alone in the mortal realm if he drank the elixir, so he hid it under his bed. However, Chang’e discovers this elixir, and drinks it. As she drifts towards the night sky, a furious Hou Yi attempts to shoot her down, but misses every shot. Years passed, and Hou Yi’s anger subsided, fading into longing and sympathy at how lonely Chang’e must be on the moon. In an attempt to console her, he began leaving her favourite desserts and fruits out at night under the moon until the day he died. This tradition has passed on to today.

Another version of the story states that Fengmeng, Hou Yi’s apprentice, breaks into Yi’s house and tries to force Chang’e to give him the elixir. Chang’e refuses, and drinks the elixir to prevent Fengmeng from obtaining it. She consequently flies towards the heavens, and settles on the moon in order to be close to her husband. Yi, after learning of Fengmeng’s actions, is despondent and leaves Chang’e’s favourite fruits and desserts out at night for her.

On 8/15, Kill a Barbarian

By LimSoo-jung – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

The Mongol Yuan rule was brutal, almost unbearable for the Chinese Han people. The Mongols were deemed barbarians. However, coordinating a rebellion or revolt was near impossible under the tight supervision of the Yuan army. With Mid-Autumn day just around the corner, the Han people decided to hide slips of paper reading “8/15, Kill a Barbarian” inside mooncakes gifted to friends and relatives in order to spread word of coordinated revolt. This ultimately proved successful, with the people rebelling together on 8/15, Mid-Autumn Day, to overthrow the Mongols.

The Mid-Autumn Festival has rich and diverse traditions around the world, but its goal to reunite family and friends under a full, glowing moon stands strong in all cultures and regions that celebrate this festival. Regardless of if you celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival or not, this year, and every year, remember to cherish your loved ones, to eat mooncake to your heart’s desire (we strongly recommend it!), and to always stay well together. Happy 中秋節!

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