What Is The Mid-Autumn Festival?

Chang e flying to the moon mid-autumn festival
©Wikimedia Commons

As lighting decorations and paper lanterns line the streets in Asia and around the world, it is hard not to notice that Mid-Autumn Festival (in traditional Chinese: 中秋節) is soon upon us.  Also known as Harvest Moon Festival or Lantern Festival, it is one of the four major festivals in the Chinese lunar calendar; the others being Chinese New Year, Dragonboat Festival, and Ching Ming Festival (Grave-sweeping day). 

It is the day when the moon is at its fullest and roundest and is considered to be the most beautiful by the Chinese. This is a time for families to come together.

What is the story behind it, and what are the traditions for a Chinese family?

The Legend of Chang’e

The fabled story of Chang’e, Moon Goddess of Immortality, lies at the heart of the Chinese reverence for the moon.  It was said a hero named Hou Yi, a legendary archer, protected his people one year by shooting down 9 of the 10 suns that rose together and devastated the farmers’ livelihoods. An immortal admired Yi and sent him an elixir of immortality, who then gave it to his wife, Chang’e.

Wicked Peng Meng, one of Yi’s apprentices, knew about the elixir. As Yi went hunting on 15th August of the lunar calendar, Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Refusing, she swallowed it instead and flew to the moon.  Yi learned what happened and, distraught, displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard. People soon learned about it and, feeling sympathetic, followed suit.

Tea time with mooncakes
Tea time with mooncakes | ©cc by 2.0 Laura D’Alessandro

Mooncakes

It is almost certain one of the food items that came out of this fable was the mooncake.  The Chinese love gifting these to their extended families, friends, and colleagues.  Traditionally, they are made with egg yolks and lotus seed paste and are very sweet and filling.  It makes for a great accompaniment for strong and earthy Chinese tea like Pu’ Erh or Iron Buddha.

Many variations now exist – nutty mooncakes, savoury mooncakes, matcha mooncakes…  Even chocolate mooncakes!

Hong Kong’s own Peninsula Hotel sells a very sought-after egg custard mooncake, and I can report from experience it is EXCELLENT.

Family Meal

This is a ubiquitous feature of the Chinese culture, of course.  It takes on special significance because of the legend where the lovers are separated and yearn to be back together.

In the olden days, the wife would return to her mother and dad before the Mid-Autumn and celebrate their family meal before returning to his husband.  Some still cling to this tradition, though most now celebrate within their nuclear family.

Lanterns

As a child, I had great memories of holding a lit up paper lantern and running around with the other children downstairs and generally causing mischief.  We lit up the darkness with our flimsy but fancy lanterns and gazed at the full moon.  Newer plastic lanterns with LED bulbs are now also increasingly popular.

©cc by 2.0 Gordon Tam
©cc by 2.0 Gordon Tam

Uh Oh – Don’t Do This!

There are some things people would have you believe are traditions in Mid-Autumn, but they are not.  Moreover, they can be extremely dangerous!  Beware and don’t do these:

  1. Certain groups of people, likely teens and young adults, love to melt wax from a candle (“boiling wax”, or 煲蠟 in Cantonese) and pour water onto it, causing a rapid explosion of hot water and steam. As you can imagine, this is how people get injured in mid-autumn.  And by the way, it’s illegal.
  2. Lighting and releasing sky lanterns was a popular celebration in the past, and they probably make for a breath-taking and romantic sight. However, these may float high enough to damage aircraft engines, causing a disaster.  A lantern that catches flames and falls onto flammable materials may also start a blaze.  Again, this is absolutely illegal.

There is perhaps nothing better than gazing at the soft, round moon and spending time with your family.  Even if you’re not from the Chinese culture and have no family here, consider spending time with your friends and loved-ones.  After all, who wouldn’t want to?

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