Mid-Autumn Festival

According to my students, Mid-Autumn festival is the second most important holiday of the year, behind Spring Festival, and just ahead of Qing Ming. Yet, each year I am surprised by their total lack of ability to explain just what exactly this festival is.

If I were to simply repeat their answers all we would know is that Mid-Autumn Festival involves something called a mooncake, watching the moon (weather permitting), and seeing family. Even after 4 years of asking classes of students, this is pretty much all I’ve managed to nail down from conversations with my Chinese friends.

Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is near the autumnal equinox (an equinox is a solar event, not a lunar one, which is why they do not coincide exactly).

Going Home

The holiday only recently received “official” status; as of 2008 we now get a day off so that it can actually be celebrated with family, even though it has been celebrated for thousands of years. This day off is necessary for people to return to their hometowns to be with family, but for many who work outside of their home province, the trip is simply too far. About 2/3 of my students reported that they would not be going home this year.


Mooncakes are a “delicacy” that are essential for properly enjoying the holiday. They are a small dense pastry traditionally filled with a variety of things like red beans, nuts, egg yolk or meat floss, but there are several new flavors like strawberry, pineapple and even ice cream. I think these new flavors are necessary, because the traditional flavors are losing popularity. From informal surveys in my classes I would say that only 10% said they liked mooncake, 20% said they didn’t like it, and 70% said a small piece once a year was enough.

Many foreigners living here jokingly refer to it as “the fruitcake of China” since it is often re-gifted. I saw this first hand when a co-worker, upon receiving a box of six mooncakes, promptly gave her three office mates two each. I believe that the tradition of giving mooncakes remains partially as a way to extend China’s culture of gift giving. I often heard upon receiving a box, “This is a very expensive brand.” Some boxes cost well over $100.

Viewing the Moon

A story from the Han Dynasty gives some explanation of the origins of the holiday (there are many versions of this story).

During the reign of Emperor Yao (mythical time), there was a great archer named Houyi, and his wife Chang’e. At that time the Earth had ten suns, and the land was scorched. So the emperor asked Houyi to use his great skills to shoot down 9 of the suns so that the land could recover. After completing this task, he was given a pill said to grant eternal life, but before he could take it, he must fast for one year. So he hid the pill on a rafter in his home.

One day his wife saw a great light emanating from the rafters and discovered the pill, which she promptly swallowed. Chang’e than started to float toward the Moon, and Houyi tried to catch her, but he was blown off course and instead landed on the Sun. Once on the moon Chang’e met the jade rabbit who lives there, and she ordered him to try to recreate the pill so that she could be reunited with her love, but he has been unsuccessful so far.

Each year on Mid-Autumn Festival, the Sun and Moon appear to be closer together, and is the one day for Chang’e and Houyi to visit.

This story is one that most Chinese have heard before, and is important enough that China has named its lunar orbiter “Chang’e”.

21 responses to “Mid-Autumn Festival”

  1. I don’t find it so surprising that they can’t explain what the festival is about. I’d bet very few English or American kids could explain Halloween, for example. Even Easter has a lot of them struggling.

  2. anonymous says:

    It’s a bit different from the version I’ve heard, 后羿 did not come to the sun instead he waited on the land for his wife a long long time till the death took him away.

  3. FrankL says:

    Growing up Canadian born Chinese, my parents never explained any of this to me. Nice to be able to understand something about it. However, i wonder if my parents would also find it a difficult event to explain.

  4. I was told that guys are supposed to go out and get hammered.

  5. Yaxue C. says:

    I know I am getting off the topic but I just have to share this. Have some of you seen the pictures of that Haerbin drug company’s palacial office building? Here:

    I read just now that the website of that company was hacked and a letter was left there. I did a quick translation:

    “I am a kid from a poor family, cannot afford to see doctors nor to buy medicines, but I have taken down your website.

    “I have never hacked any sites of governments, businesses or schools, because there is no challenge to do so and I don’t live to hack. But this time I have made an exception.

    “Having grown up in the countryside, I have experienced a lot that others would not experience.

    “Our older generations, when they are sick, would rather toil in the field than see a doctor or buy medicines,

    “because it could take a few months of their hard work in the field in exchange for that.

    “All their life they worked with their face facing the soil and their back facing the sky, and it is possible that, before they die, they don’t even know how to get to a hospital.

    “These are the peasants who have provided for us and among them are my people whom I love the most.
    “I suggest the leaders of your company take a tour at some small-town hospitals and in the broad countryside,
    “I don’t know if you might feel something when you return to your palace,

    “A feeling called ‘sitting on a rug of needles.’

    “I have said enough and no more is needed,

    “Please forgive me for talking so much, if you will.

    “By ‘green flower in the military'”

  6. If we want to know the meaning behind Midautumn Festival, we need to ask a Hong Kong Chinese of 50 or older.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      thenakedlistener: Tell us please!

    • I’ll skip the ‘factual’ details because all of us can read it on Wikipedia and places like that.

      Midautumn (Mid-Autumn, Mooncake) Festival for a long time has been known simply as 八月十五 (which is another colloquial euphemism for “buttocks”). The whole message behind “the 15th of the eighth” boils down to three things: (a) the importance of regular family reunions, (b) that family reunion plays into imbibing and imbuing the younger generation with a sense of familial belonging, and (c) that it is the responsibility of the older generations to show to the young that continuity (for the family or anything else) is paramount.

      That’s the surface story. On a deeper level (?), the symbolisms of Midautumn Festival boil down to these things:

      (1) Sheung Ngo (嫦娥 or Chang’e in Pinyin), being long but erroneously credited as the the goddess of the Moon, is not a deity but just a chick who happens to live on the Moon, meaning that it isn’t necessary to continue with our holy cows because valuable things aren’t necessarily or inherently sacred;

      (2) the mooncake originally was a disguise for plans of military attack and manoeuvre – being the symbol for having a plan or agenda for the foreseeable future but not necessarily need to carry it out: kind of like having a plan in stock if and when circumstances call for its implementation – sorry, I can’t explain this other than by the German “Auftragstaktik” (mission-type tactics) as opposed to “Normaltaktik” or “Befehlstaktik” (control-and-command tactics);

      (3) the mooncake is also a symbol for the need to be inconspicuous or innocuous in overthrowing or outdoing or outrunning something – the modern translation I personally favour from grandpa was this (his words to the effect): “If you need to get your game up, you need to do it quietly, nicely, agreeably, in an all-round package, not half-baked or half-hearted but solid action;

      (4) the lotus seed paste inside mooncakes – the thick rind of the lotus (great difficulties or hardship all around) is one helluva job to remove but it surrounds two dozen seeds (small but precious successes/treasures) – so the ultimate primary message is: “You yourself is the thin red line between success and failure” (in a manner of speaking; the paste itself is not red) and the secondary message is: “Sweating through the aggro is not your objective, but getting through to what you want is”; and

      (5) perhaps a bit of a modern take on from my folks, 八月十五 (“buttocks,” remember?) could be taken as “You can sit on your butt all night, admiring the buttocks of the moon, then ending up missing the whole next day because you overslept because you were wasting time admiring something you cannot reach.”

      So there, my friends, what I have learnt in my younger, callous days.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks for these additions. I often wonder with differences in ability to explain holidays like these how much these traditional holidays seem irrelevant in modern China (as you said Hong Kongers over 50).

      • Honestly speaking from what I’d seen, I reckon the meaning and nuances of Midautumn Festival (and other festivals) became practically meaningless for most mainlanders (as well as Hongkongers) by around the time when China started opening up in the 1980s. The sad truth in my mind’s eye is that the government (Beijing as well as Hong Kong) made it impossible (for whatever reason) for those meanings to carry on by way of schooling and education. Which is why you couldn’t get much of an answer from your students (or me from most under-30s in Hong Kong).

      • Yaxue C. says:

        I have no idea, not an iota of idea, that there once was so much in the symbolism of the Midautumn Festival. I heard of the story of Chang’e and Houyi, but have never cared enough to even register much. On a homely level, however, I have always thought (I can’t quite retrieve where and how this idea came to me) the Midautumn Festival is really a festival for harvest and that, apart from mooncakes, fruits, especially grapes, are also part of the holiday’s defining foods. It makes perfect sense to me: China is an agrarian society, this time of the year is the time of harvest, isn’t this, shouldn’t this be, the festival for families gathering together, enjoying the fruit of their labor in the cool air of the early fall, while looking up at the full moon out on the veranda? Seeing this way, the Chang’e-Houyi story seems almost more like a product of nightly storytelling than the origin of the holiday. This, of course, is the musing of someone who knows nothing more than mooncake and grapes about the Fifteenth of 八月十五 and hate mooncake for as long as I can remember.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        thenakedlistener: Love it! I’ve always wondered about the Moon Festival. Here in rural North Scotland, I always love the big moon at this time of the year (no light pollution from city lights). You have given the best explanation I have read about this Chinese festival. Wish I could have met your Grandpa.

  7. kingtubby1 says:

    Respectfully, forget the mythology and use them as a recyclable construction material. And yes, I had none too bright students attempt to explain their significance. Forget significance, the proof is in the taste of the pudding, and the latter says it all.
    Future topic suggestions. The efficacy of black chicken soup after pregnancy, why msg is good for you, how to establish true horizonal when you buy an apartment, etc.

  8. Baobo says:

    Surely it’s based on the fact that surviving a season without starving to death is a relatively new thing. Years ago it was something to celebrate.

  9. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout UsAbout TomAbout Yaxue CaoComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China中文 ← Mid-Autumn Festival […]

  10. […] THIS POST is inspired by a post about the Midautumn Festival on Seeing Red in China. […]

  11. Friends, I invite you to read my own blogpost about the Midautumn Festival:

  12. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps repetitively:Mooncakes recall circulation of those cakes celebrting the full moon for clandestinwe messages of patriots planning to

    overthrow an alien dynarty. The Mongol Yuan if I recllect properly


    • Yes, Robert, mooncakes originally started as containers for secret mobilisation orders – ostensibly. I say ostensibly mainly because, if we think about this, something like mass producing mooncakes to hide mobilisation orders probably would have a higher chance of being sussed out, considering the military and intelligence-gathering prowesses of the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries. Possibly much more in keeping with reality is that mooncakes were libationary objects of ancient harvest festivals, which the Midautumn Festival was originally.

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