The Mid-Autumn Festival is arguably one of the two most important festivals in China. The other, Chinese New Year, is widely recognised and acknowledged globally, with people around the world flocking to their city’s Chinatown to watch brightly coloured dragons dance down the streets to the sound of crashing cymbals. In contrast, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a more sedate celebration, primarily observed in mainland China and Vietnam, and little is known about this romantic festival further afield.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the night of the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese Han calendar, within 15 days of the autumnal equinox. This year the festival falls on Sunday 27th September. Because of its association with the moon – the festival is said to be held on the night of the brightest and fullest moon – the Mid-Autumn Festival is sometimes referred to the Moon Festival or Harvest Moon Festival, and its history dates back to the traditions of moon worship in the ancient Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC).
The modern Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations are centred on family and reunion, with many gathering outdoors to eat mooncakes and look up at the moon. Historically, however, the festival was a time to enjoy and give thanks for the harvest, and Morris Berkowitz, who spent a long time studying the Hakka people, conceives that the original Mid-Autumn celebration began with worshipping the Mountain Gods after the harvest was completed.
As with many of the celebratory Chinese festivals, there are ancient folklores surrounding the festivities. The story of Chang’e and Hou Yi is the most widely accepted tale about the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and it is this story that is the most often told, although the version differs slightly from location to location.
Chang’e and Hou Yi
A long time ago there were 10 scorching suns in the sky that burnt all the plants on Earth and killed lots of people.
The protagonist of the legend, a young man called Hou Yi, used his bow and arrow to shoot down nine of the 10 suns, thus saving everyone and everything. Upon hearing of Hou Yi’s tremendous and brave story, the queen of heaven, Wagmu, gave Hou Yi a bottle of elixir that could make him become an immortal.
However, this bottle of elixir would only work for one person. Although Hou Yi did want to become a god, he decided he’d rather stay with his beautiful wife Chang’e, such was his love for her. Instead of taking the potion, he went home and presented it to Chang’e, asking her to keep it for him.
Hou Yi had gained notoriety after shooting down the nine suns. More and more people wanted him to be their master, and he readily accepted most of them as his students.
Unfortunately, not every student of Hou Yi had good morals. Feng Meng, one such student, had noticed Hou Yi giving the elixir to Hou Yi and wanted to get his hands on it for himself, so one day when Hou Yi was out hunting Feng Meng pretended to be ill to stay at home. He crept over to Hou Yi’s house and demanded Chang’e hand the elixir over. Knowing that she could not defeat Feng Meng with strength alone, Chang’e drank the elixir herself. The moment she drank it, she flew out of the window and up into the sky towards the moon.
On realising his wife’s fate, Hou Yi was so grieved that he shouted Chang’e’s name to the sky, and was amazed to see her looking back at him from the moon. After hearing that Chang’e had become a goddess, people offered sacrifices and prayed to her for good luck and peace.