full moon on mid-autumn festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival and Its Cultural Significance in China

Autumn, as we know, brings a change in season, marking the transition from summer to winter. The temperatures are slightly cooler, days gradually get shorter, the air gets drier and the leaves change colours before eventually falling off the trees. These changes overall, bring a change in mood and lifestyle as we start preparing for the cold winter.

Autumn is also known as a season of harvest that provides us with an array of colourful seasonal fruits and vegetables. This is why many cultures around the world observe many festivities, where people show gratitude for the things that keep them happy, healthy and alive. There are different types of harvest festivals, thanksgiving festivals and other occasions that allow the opportunity to reunite with loved ones.

Today, we’ll be looking at the Mid-Autumn Festival. This is a popular autumn festival, which is celebrated in China, other East Asian countries and some Southeast Asian countries. We’ll find out why it is celebrated, how people first began celebrating the festival, how it is celebrated and what it means to the people celebrating it.

What is the Mid-Autumn Festival?

display of lanterns. The highlight is the lantern of a dragon
Image Credit: Lajaja Kids

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional Chinese festival that is celebrated in China, its surrounding countries and in parts of Southeast Asia. It is also celebrated in places where there is a significant number of people of Chinese heritage.

It is a festival where people worship the moon, give their thanks to the divinity, celebrate a bountiful harvest and reunite with family.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival or the Mooncake festival, is the second-largest holiday in China after the Chinese Lunar New Year. It is celebrated every year on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This year, it fell on the 21st of September, which was just yesterday.

Origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The origins of the Mid-Autumn festival date back to over 3000 years, but how or when exactly the festival began isn’t clear.

The origins of celebrating the autumn harvest go back to the Shang dynasty (circa 1766 B.C. – 1046 B.C.), which was the earliest Chinese ruling dynasty to have been historically recorded.

Whereas the practice of worshipping the moon at this time of the year goes back to the time of the Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046 BC – 221 B.C.).  Zhou rulers would worship the sun during the March equinox and the moon during the September equinox. They would worship and present offerings to the moon to celebrate the autumn harvest.  They would also worship for a bountiful harvest in the upcoming year and perform a ceremony to welcome winter. At first, it was only practised by royals, but over time, it spread to the common population.

The earliest piece of written evidence of a Mid-Autumn festival, however, comes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 A.D.). The term Mid-Autumn first seems to have been found in the ‘Book of Rites’ from this period. It described the harvest of crops in the Mid-Autumn, which was then used to prepare porridge in celebration of the harvest. At the time, the word ‘mid-autumn’ wasn’t used to refer to the festival, it was simply used as an indicator of the month and season.

Mid-Autumn Festival During the Tang Dynasty

A piece of information that is certain, is that the mid-autumn festival became extremely popular and it was even considered an official holiday in all territories during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.)

During this period, the worshipping of the moon became common practice. People back then would focus on admiring the moon on the day of the festival. It was even tradition to gaze at the moon in the night sky and write beautiful poems about it. Many of the customs practised today were developed during the Tang dynasty.

This is also when popular legends surrounding the day started forming. Legends about love, art, sacrifice, determination, etc. These stories added further value and meaning to the festival.

Song Dynasty

Up until now, there was no fixed date for celebrating this festival. They would simply celebrate during the autumn equinox when the moon shone the brightest and clearest. But, during the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), a fixed date was set for the grand festival. The 15th day of the 8th month was chosen as the date of the festival. As the Chinese Lunar calendar is based on the movements of the moon, this date will always ensure the brightest full moon of the year in the sky.

During this time, the festival was also officially named the Mid-Autumn Festival. The reason for calling it mid-autumn was first the fact that it was used in previous records to indicate a celebration during that time.  And the second reason was that the 7th, 8th and 9th months in the Chinese Lunar calendar are considered autumn months. Meaning, the date that was chosen for the festival falls right in the middle of the autumn months.

The Ming and Qing Dynasties to Present Day

With time, the festival and its festivities just became more and more extravagant. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1912), the festival became one of the most important celebrations of the year. In the Ming dynasty, people started a new tradition where newly married daughters would go back to their parent’s house to celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival. This is when the festival started being associated with family reunions.

By the time of the Qing dynasty, the festival had become as important as the Chinese New Year.

a painting from the qing dynasty
The Qianlong Emperor Admiring The Moon. A painting from the Qing Dynasty. Image Credit: CSS Today

Fast forward to 2008, the festival was finally declared a public holiday. To the present day, it continues to retain its importance, making it a joyous and auspicious time of the year.

The Legend of Chang’e

As we discussed earlier, the exact origins of the festivals are unknown. However, many legends attempt to explain its origins. The most popular one is the story of Chang’e and Hou Yi. There are many adaptations to this tale, but the following version is the most popular:

At one point in time, there were ten suns in the sky. Their heat would destroy crops and dry up the water sources. This brought drought to Earth and death to its people. They were overall miserable and helpless.

Seeing this misery, the Emperor of Heaven asked the brave and heroic archer Hou Yi to shoot down the sun. He succeeded in his mission, shooting down nine out of the ten suns. Water bodies didn’t dry out, crops survived and the weather was once again normal. Earth and its people were saved.

As a reward for his heroic deeds, the Empress of Heaven, Wangmu, presented him with the elixir of immortality, which, when consumed, would transform a person into a celestial being and they would ascend to heaven.

Though pleased, he didn’t like the idea of leaving his wife, Chang’e. He wanted to be with her forever, so, he took the elixir back home and presented it to her. They decided they’d share the elixir on the 15th day of the 8th month, an auspicious day when the moon was full and at its brightest and, ascend to heaven together. Till then, he left the elixir with Chang’e for safekeeping.

Unbeknownst to them, Peng Meng, an apprentice of Hou Yi, overheard their plan and decided to take the elixir for himself.

On the day…

chang'e the moon goddess floating to the moon
Chang’e ascending to heaven saving herself and the elixir from Peng Meng. Image Credit: Easy Tour China

On the 15th day, while Hou Yi had gone hunting, Peng Meng forced himself into their backyard, with a sword in his hand, and ordered Chang’e to hand over the elixir. Knowing she could not defeat the wicked Peng Meng, she drank the entire elixir, so he couldn’t get a hold of it. Instantly, she started floating, making her way to heaven, and eventually becoming the Moon Goddess. She chose to stay on the moon, as it was closest to Earth, thus, closest to her husband.

When Hou Yi returned, the maids told him what had happened and he was devastated. Looking up to the sky, he saw the moon shine brightly and noticed a shadow, one that resembled Chang’e. He chased after it but no matter how hard he tried, he could never reach it.

In her honour, Hou Yi then arranged a memorial ceremony in the garden. In her memory, he lit incense sticks and placed fruits and sweets that Chang’e liked the most.

Soon, people heard this story and also started offering incense sticks, fruits and sweetmeats to the moon. They offered Chang’e their prayers and wished for prosperity and peace. This practice has since been followed by more and more people.

How is the Mid-Autumn Festival Celebrated?

In ancient times, other than worshipping the moon, they’d also gaze at the moon and write poems about it. They would also gift their friends and relatives fresh fruits. And lastly, they’d also watch the tides as they’d rise on the day of the full moon. Many of these customs developed during the Tang dynasty and are still followed today.

As the Mid-Autumn festival is connected to the moon, festivities usually begin after sundown.

table full of incense sticks, fruits and candles
Offerings to the moon Goddess. Image Credit: China Daily

Everyone participates in the festivities regardless of age, gender, social status, etc. They dress up in traditional clothes, or they at least wear new and nice clothes, then come together and admire the moon. At the Mid-Autumn Festival, people traditionally worship the moon by offering incense sticks, candles, sweetmeats like mooncakes, fresh fruits like watermelons, apples, red dates, pomelo, plums and grapes. These are arranged on a table that faces the moon. They then pray to the moon to bless them with good fortune, peace and a good harvest. People also gift each other mooncakes, gifts and fruits and wish everyone a prosperous Mid-Autumn.

Reuniting with Family and Friends

In the present day, people host moon-viewing parties, where family members and friends reunite, sit in a circle, traditionally in a garden lit dimly by lanterns. They share slices of mooncakes accompanied by fresh fruit and Chinese tea or osmanthus wine. The 8th month of the Chinese Lunar calendar is also considered the month of the osmanthus, so, during this time, by custom, people will make osmanthus wine. If they wish to, they even compose poetry, just like ancient times.

table full of traditional chinese foods
A mid-autumn festival feast. Image Credit: Serious Eats

They also eat dinner together, either in a restaurant or at home. During this time, restaurants are crowded and it is very difficult to book a table at the last minute. This is why many people reserve their tables months ahead of the day of the festival. Crabs are a popular dish served for dinner on this day. This is because crabs are the sweetest and plumpest during autumn.


round mooncakes with salted egg yolk served with tea
Traditional Mooncakes. The wooden equipment under the sliced mooncake is the mould used to shape the pastries. Image Credit: Whats New Indonesia

Mooncakes are a type of traditional pastry that is round in shape, like the moon, and contain symbols on top symbolizing reunion and the mid-autumn festival.

The pastries have a soft and thin crust with a dense and thick filling inside. They are traditionally filled with lotus seed paste and whole salted duck egg yolks or, with sweet bean pastes and yams. They’re then pressed in moulds to give it its signature shape and symbols, then baked. Baking them leaves the outer skin with a nice golden brown colour.

Modern mooncakes, like the snowskin mooncakes, aren’t baked and they’re made with every flavour and colour imaginable. There’s even durian, truffle and champagne-flavoured mooncakes.

Mid-autumn festivities are not complete without mooncakes. They are the signature food of this festival, like the way turkey is for Thanksgiving in the United States.

Historically, mooncakes weren’t always the festive food of the mooncake festival. It used to be porridge, made from the crops harvested during that time. Moon cakes emerged during the Tang Dynasty. However, they were popularized during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) when, according to legend, Han rebels used to pass hidden messages within these cakes to plan how to free Yuan China from Mongol rule.

Today, mooncakes are an inevitable part of the Mid-Autumn festival. People start purchasing their mooncakes ahead of time so they can gift the best ones to their friends and relatives. Businesses also begin selling mooncakes very early on, packing the pastries in beautiful packaging and gift boxes, clearly indicating that it is meant for a very special occasion.


colourful round paper lanterns
Traditional round paper lanterns. Image Credit: Helper Choice Blog

People also like to hang paper lanterns everywhere. These lanterns come in various shapes, sizes and colours. Shapes of the lotus, dragon, fish, rabbit and round paper lanterns are some popular ones among others. People also like to light sky lanterns and watch them fly high into the sky, slowly being drifted away by the wind.

These days, lanterns featuring cartoon characters and other iconic shapes can also be seen decorating the streets. Lanterns today are also made of a wide range of materials and operate differently too. For example, battery-operated lanterns made of plastic are quite popular in more recent times.

Lanterns often come with riddles attached to them and one activity of the evening is to solve those riddles together. These riddles are sometimes called lantern tigers as solving them feels like fighting a tiger. The decoded riddles often present a message of wisdom or caution.

Traditional Games and Activities

six dice in a red porcelain bowl
Six dice in a bowl. Image Credit: Wikipedia

People also play various games with family and friends on this day, like the dice game. Here, six dice are placed in a porcelain bowl. Each person playing rolls all six dice. The combination of numbers wins them prizes of different ranks. For example, getting one 4 in the group of six dice will fetch the 6th prize. If any die falls out of the bowl while rolling, their turn won’t count and if their combination of numbers does not fetch them any prize, they pass the dice to the next player.  Prize winners are also required to do a task, like performing a dance or singing a song, or a dare of some kind. The bigger the prize, the bigger the task.

Traditionally, winners would get 63 mooncakes of different sizes as prizes. However, these days, the prizes have been replaced with cash and gift items.

Speaking of traditional activities, some people still go and observe the tides, especially in China. The Qiantang River in eastern China is the largest tidal bore in the world. Here, tides are best viewed between the 15th and 18th days of the 8th month.

What does this festival mean to people?

landscape of moon and lanterns
Image Credit: China Daily via Twitter

The Mid-Autumn festival marks the time of the year when the season changes and everyone prepares for winter. Winter is a time when plants slow down their growth. They don’t produce a lot of food, so the autumn harvest produces enough to sustain the people. This is what people used to be grateful for in the past. They would thank the Gods for providing them with the necessary things to keep them healthy and alive.

On this day, the full moon is the biggest and shines the brightest, serving as a symbol of reunion. The moon also symbolizes peace, harmony, good fortune, fertility and, overall indicates a time of hope.

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