People all over the world observe a moon festival during the autumn, during which the fullest moon of the year appears and there is a major harvesting time for farmers. Ancient Chinese people worshipped the full moon as thanks for an abundant autumn harvest. Today, the holiday is still observed as a time to reunite with family and engage in exciting festivities like dragon dances, eat mooncake, and light lanterns. These activities are all tied together through their shared moon symbolism.
What is Mid-Autumn Festival?
Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important holidays in Hong Kong, along with Lunar New Year. With similarities to Thanksgiving celebration in western countries, it originated from ancient Chinese people praying to the moon for an abundant harvest and general blessings.
Called jong chau jit (中秋節) in Cantonese, it is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Importantly, this day coincides with the appearance of the largest full moon of the year. On the Gregorian calendar this year, Mid-Autumn Festival lands on the 21st of September.
What is the history behind the Mid-Autumn Festival?
The Mid-Autumn Festival has a history going back 3000 years. Moon worship is evident in historical records going back as far as the Zhou Dynasty (510–314 BC). During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), moon appreciation and jovial celebration was popularly adopted among the Chinese upper class, later spreading observance of the festival to the lower classes. During this time, it’s also believed the mooncake was invented. The festival became an official holiday in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD).
The legend of the moon goddess, Chang’e (嫦娥), is the most popular origin story associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival.
One version of the legend describes how Chang’e drank the eternal life-giving medicine and flew to the moon in the hopes of escaping her husband and corrupt ruler, Hou Yi (后羿).
In ancient Chinese times, people also believed this time of the year was linked with rebirth. Offerings would be made to the moon to bless women with a healthy pregnancy.
Other legends are bound to the festival:
- Tang Emperor Li Longji (李隆基) appreciated the moon so much that he flew to the moon to visit the moon palace. There, he was captivated by a song played by the fairies. When he returned to his palace, he wrote a song to commemorate it, the famous Tang song titled “Melody of White Feathers Garment”.
- The Baiyue (百越) ethnic peoples who lived in South China and Vietnam during the first centuries BC and AD, believed a dragon appeared during the eighth lunar month, bringing rain to help their crops grow and better their lives.
What are the rituals and activities during the Mid-Autumn Festival?
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, there are lots of traditions and rituals that have been passed down for generations.
The full moon is a symbol of wholeness, nostalgia, and the reunion of family. Many believe family members even far or close can share the same feeling by looking at the same moon. The roundness of the moon was an inspiration for mooncakes.
The Chinese lantern is believed to symbolize fertility and good fortune. During this time, it’s also a traditional social ritual that allows single women and men to meet up. Activities such as the dragon or lion dance are associated with Baiyue people’s belief of the rain-bringing dragon. Burning incense is a way of praying to the gods for blessing.
People also watch stage performances and visit Mid-Autumn Festival markets to play carnival games.
What to eat during the Mid-Autumn Festival?
Festival foods are a delightful way to enjoy the festival, and they have special meanings.
Mooncakes are baked cakes with sweet fillings and whole salty egg yolks, a treat that, among other stories, has been linked to the historical tale of Ming revolutionaries’ victory over their Mongol rulers.
Roasted duck is eaten to share the remembrance of the revolutionaries’ victory.
Pomelo fruit has a sweet message because it sounds similar to the word “wander” in Chinese (游子, pronounced yau ji) and is eaten to remember family members who are far away from home. Families also have lotus root to share their wishes for reunion of the entire family.
Osmanthus or cassia wine are drunk as a symbolic wish for living a full, long life.
Are there other moon festivals in Asia?
Other Asian cultures also observe moon-based holidays in the autumn.
Japan has a moon festival called Tsukimi, during which people create decorations with grass called susuki and eat dango (rice dumplings) to celebrate bountiful crops.
Koreans value the harvest moon festival called Chuseok, when people return to their hometown to provide offerings such as rice cake and wine on their ancestors’ graves. This ritual is called beolcho.
Vietnamese people observe Tết Trung Thu, again to show gratitude to the moon for a healthy harvest. Rituals include giving children a paper figure to wish them success in life and lighting lanterns, which are sometimes anime-themed.
Where to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2021?
- Victoria Park Carnival, Victoria Park, 1 Hing Fat St, Causeway Bay | 21 September 2021
- Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance, near Lily Street and Ormsby Street to Tung Lo Wan Road | 8:15pm daily, 20-22 September 2021. (Cancelled)
Header image credits: Billy Kwok via Unsplash