Mid-Autumn Festival: a Celebration of the Moon, Harvest, and Family

Posted by Edna Zhou & Siting Ke on September 03, 2014

Mid-Autumn Festival, a cultural holiday in China and many Asian countries, falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. In 2014, Mid-Autumn Festival is on September 8.

In Chinese Taoist tradition, each year has three important days: the 15th day of the first, seventh, and eighth lunar months. The first is related to the sky, known as the Lantern Festival. The second is related to land, called Dead Spirit Festival or Hungry Ghost Festival; the final, Mid-Autumn Festival, is about the people between the sky and the land.

The Moon

The Chinese believe the full moon is a symbol of peace, prosperity, and above all, family reunion. Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the Festival of Reunion. On that night, the moon is supposed to be extremely round, big and bright, which is why it is also known as the Moon Festival.

In ancient times, Chinese emperors held regular ceremonies in praise of the sun and the moon, praying for a prosperous year. They chose the night of the 15th day of the eighth lunar month to worship the moon. The emperor would offer a sacrifice at the Temple of Moon, in what is now Yuetan Park in the western district of Beijing.


Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival, celebrating the season when fruits, vegetables and grain are ripe and farmers have finished gathering their crops. Traditionally, people place food offerings on an altar set up in the courtyard; pomegranate, pomelo, taro and caltrop are popular. Pomegranates and pomelo for being large round fruits resembling the moon, taro because it is thought to be the first food discovered in moonlight, and caltrop as it is a water chestnut resembling a buffalo horn, with the buffalo being an important part of the harvest.

Mooncakes are also popular during this time, especially given as gifts. A round dessert about three inches in diameter, these pastries can be sweet or salty and made with a variety of fillings from seeds and nuts, to minced meat or fruit, to bean paste or salted egg yolk.

Traditionally, people pile thirteen moon cakes in a pyramid to represent the thirteen moons of a complete lunar year, including twelve moons and one intercalary moon.

According to legend, when China was ruled by Mongolians during the Yuan dynasty (A.D. 1280-1368), some leaders from the preceding dynasty plotted a rebellion. Knowing that Mid-Autumn Festival was coming, they ordered cakes, to which they attached messages outlining the upcoming attack. To this day, many mooncakes are still stamped with Chinese characters.


According to legend, a long time ago there was a famous archer named Hou Yi. One day, a beautiful woman named Chang'e came across Hou Yi; their encounter kindled a spark of love and they were quickly married. Soon after, Hou Yi was given an elixir made from the fruit of the eternity tree from the Western Queen Mother, due to previous good deeds he had performed for mankind. Hou Yi was told that if he and Chang’e shared the elixir, they would both enjoy eternal life; but if only one of them drank it, one would fly to the sky and become immortal, and the other would stay on earth. Hou Yi and Chang’e decided to take the elixir together on the 15th day of the eighth month.

However, another famous, evil shooter named Feng Meng learned about this elixir. One day while Hou Yi was out hunting, Feng Meng visited Chang’e at home. In order to prevent him from gaining the elixir, Chang’ e took it without hesitating, and she ascended to the moon.

When Hou Yi returned home and learned what happened, he looked up to the sky to call to his wife and found the moon especially clear and bright. Because he could not reach her, he set out for her, under the moonlight, incense and an offering of fruits that his wife had loved. When others learned of their story, they all prayed to Chang’e for peace, and from there the custom spread.

A different story says there is an Old Man on the moon, a divine matchmaker who prepares marriages.With red cords, he will tie together the feet of those who are destined to be a pair. So during the Mid-Autumn Festival, maidens pray to him, hoping to find their Mr. Right.


For thousands of years, the waxing and waning of the moon has been known to cause one to feel joy or sorrow, think of parting or reunion. This artistic concept has led to many masterpieces in literature and art.

The story of Chang’e fires the imagination of many people; her feature often appears on boxes of mooncakes and many other folk crafts. Her pets, two hares, are also important images. The myth of the “hare in the moon” is seen in China through paintings and embroideries, particularly during the Mid- Autumn Festival.


It is customary to enjoy the bright light from the full moon during this festival; after a family reunion dinner, many people like to go out to attend performances in public areas. Many people also celebrate by watching dragon dance performances, and lighting lanterns into the sky.

Different areas of China have their own ways of celebrating. In East Zhejiang province, watching the grand tide of the Qiantang River is a big attraction.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the sun, earth and moon are in line, sending out a strong gravitational pull on the tides. The entrance of the Qiantang River is shaped like a trumpet, so when large tides run to the narrow mouth, they form an impressive sight. It is a special event that draws many spectators to the Qiantang riverbank, to watch the roaring waves.

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