Mid-Autumn Festival: 7 myths, superstitions and customs to know
Originally published September 13 2019 by Time Out Beijing
What you should know about 'Mooncake Day', from myths to superstitious customs
Considered as second next to Chinese New Year in terms of festivities, Mid-Autumn Festival is a celebration of togetherness and family unity, as well as praising the moon and coveting a good harvest.
Here are a few of our favourite Mid-Autumn traditions from way back when to now. Make sure you have your lanterns and mooncakes ready; this is a festival that encourages to slow down and appreciate the little things in life… or that big, round thing in the sky (the moon, obviously).
Chang'e, Hou Yi and the moon
While how Chang'e, the Chinese goddess of the moon came to be on the moon remains debated in various folktales, the two yarns that stick out the most are about Chang’e and her husband Hou Yi. Legend has it that famous archer Hou Yi was tasked with shooting down nine of the ten suns that rose in the sky. And the story quickly evolves into a Romeo and Juliet-esque tradegy, after Hou Yi successfully left one sun in the sky.
If you’re to believe the first tale, Hou Yi was rewarded with an elixir that would have made him immortal, however, he refused to take it because he didn’t want to leave his wife alone in the mortal world. His sneaky apprentice heard about the potion and tried to steal it from their home, but the heroic Chang’e stopped him from becoming immortal by drinking the elixir herself and then fleeing to the moon. A devastated Hou Yi started leaving out fruit and cake to honour his wife and their neighbours began participating out of sympathy.
The second tale however, is not a love story for the ages, as Hou Yi’s ego transformed him into a tyrannical king. To prolong his rule, he requested an immortality potion from Xiwangmu, but Chang’e took it herself to protect the people from her husband’s harsh rule. When Hou Yi found out that Chang’e has taken the potion he tried to shoot her out of the sky as she fled to the moon. Thankfully he missed and Chang’e was praised and revered by the people, while her husband died from anger.
The mooncake uprising and the Turpan businessman
Mooncakes, love them or hate them, they are a staple of the festival. Over the years these treats have become a spectacle in their own right, with the largest moon cake in the world being shared by some 100,000 people. Originally used to worship the moon god, they have a couple of great legends too.
While there is no historical evidence to suggest this story is true, it is rumoured that mooncakes played a vital part in overthrowing the Yuan dynasty (1,271-1,368AD). It is said that Ming sympathizer Liu Bowen hid paper inside mooncakes to arrange the exact time of the coup, leading the Mongols’s almost century long dynasty to fall on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Apparently Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was so impressed with the plan he passed out mooncakes to his people the following Mid-Autumn festival and they became a symbol of victory and success.
In similar folklores, a businessman from Turpan shared mooncakes with Tang emperor Taizong to celebrate his victory over the Xiongnu. Apparently the emperor was so pleased with this new treat he shared it with his ministers and the court, until eventually all his subjects were enjoying red bean paste.
The Jade Rabbit
The legend of the Jade Rabbit is one of the Mid-Autumn Festival’s better-known tales. Three immortals descended to earth in the guise of three old people. They begged for food from a monkey, a fox and a rabbit. The monkey and the fox gave the immortals food, but the rabbit didn’t have anything to give them. Instead the rabbit offered himself as food and jumped into the fire. They were so moved, they immortalised the rabbit and sent him to live in the Moon Palace where he accompanies Chang’e and makes medicine for heaven.
Wu Gang and the Osmanthus tree
The story of Wu Gang is a cautionary tale for those who give up easily. Though the story has several versions they all hold common threads and end the same way. Legend has it that Wu Gang wanted eternal life, so he was taught the skills of the immortals. However, through various missteps and laziness (depending on which version you believe), Wu was expelled from Heaven and sent to exile at the Moon Palace to chop down an Osmanthus tree in order to attain everlasting life.
After completing his task on the first day Wu was surprised to find that the tree had grown back, so he had to try again. Each day Wu cut down the tree and every day the tree grew back. Wu failed to become immortal, but his punishment continued. It is said you can see the shadow of the Osmanthus tree on the face of the moon.
Appreciating the Omanthus tree
Now you see how Osmanthus trees came to play in the Chinese holiday. During Mid-Autumn festival Osmanthus trees also are usually in full bloom. Family reunion dinners would often involve people coming together to admire the trees in the moonlight and indulge in a cup of Osmanthus wine. Eatings and offerings Food is as key to Chinese culture as the weather is to British culture. From greeting people with ‘Have you eaten?’ to eating noodles for longevity, it’s hard to escape the importance of food in the Middle Kingdom.
Making and hanging lanterns
Lanterns are integral to the Mid-Autumn festival with families across China indulging little ones in elaborate lantern making, including lamps shaped like animals, plants and flowers. As well as hanging lanterns, families will also make Kongming lanterns, writing wishes and messages of hope on the paper before releasing them into the sky.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, pagoda lamps were popular in Southern China. Children would collect rocks and tiles to pile up in the shape of a pagoda, then villagers would place lamps around the edges of each level before lighting them and admiring the fire.
Fire dragon dance
While the ritual is not so popular in modern China nowadays, several regions in Southern China still uphold the tradition. The fire dragon dance is usually held on the fourteenth day of the eighth lunar month and lasts around three days, as the performers dance down the streets and entertain crowds.