Home China Legend of the Moon Festival, Also Known as the Mid-Autumn Festival

Legend of the Moon Festival, Also Known as the Mid-Autumn Festival

The Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival or Zhongqiu Festival, falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. It is based on the lunar calendar and is usually held on the first full moon in September. In 2016, it falls on September 15. It is in the middle of autumn, and is a harvest festival.

Wheat is traditionally harvested in the north and rice in the south of China. It’s the Chinese equivalent of the American Thanksgiving Day. In rural China, the Moon Festival celebrates a bountiful harvest, as did the first Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims.

Lady Chang’e and Hou Yi

Celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival is strongly associated with the legend of Hou Yi and Chang’e, the Moon Goddess of Immortality. Tradition places these two figures from Chinese mythology at around 2,200 B.C., during the reign of the legendary Emperor Yao, shortly after that of Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor.

There are many variants and adaptations of the legend of Chang’e that frequently contradict each other. However, most versions of the legend involve some variation of the following elements: Hou Yi, the Archer, an emperor, either benevolent or malevolent, and an elixir of life.

One version of the legend states that Hou Yi, an immortal with a beautiful wife, Chang’e, was working in the palace of the Jade Emperor, the Emperor of Heaven, as an attendant to the Queen Mother of the West (the Jade Emperor’s wife).

Hou Yi aroused the jealousy of the other immortals, who then slandered him before the Jade Emperor. Hou Yi and his wife Chang’e were subsequently banished from Heaven. They were forced to live on Earth. Hou Yi had to hunt to survive, and he became a skilled and famous archer.

At that time, there were 10 suns, in the form of 3-legged birds, residing in a mulberry tree on the eastern sea. Each day, one of the sun birds would have to travel around the world. One day, all 10 of the sun birds circled together, causing the Earth to burn.

Emperor Yao commanded Hou Yi to use his archery skill to shoot down all but one of the suns. Upon completion of his task, the Emperor rewarded Hou Yi with a pill that granted eternal life. Emperor Yao advised Hou Yi not to swallow the pill immediately, but instead to prepare himself by praying and fasting for a year before taking it.

Hou Yi took the pill home and hid it under a rafter. One day, Hou Yi was summoned away again by Emperor Yao. During her husband’s absence, Chang’e noticed a white beam of light beckoning from the rafters and discovered the pill. Chang’e swallowed it and immediately found that she could fly.

Houyi helplessly looking at his wife Chang'e flying off to the moon after she drank the elixir. (Image: via wikipedia / CC0 1.0)
Hou Yi helplessly looking at his wife Chang’e flying off to the moon after she drank the elixir. (Image: via wikipedia / CC0 1.0)

Hou Yi returned home; realizing what had happened, he began to reprimand his wife. Chang’e escaped by flying out the window into the sky.

Hou Yi pursued her halfway across the heavens, but was forced to return to Earth because of strong winds. Chang’e reached the moon, where she coughed up part of the pill. Chang’e commanded the hare that lived on the moon to make another pill. Chang’e would then be able to return to Earth and her husband.

The legend states that the hare is still pounding herbs, trying to make the pill. Hou Yi has since built himself a palace in the sun, representing “yang” (the male principle), in contrast to Chang’e’s home on the moon, which represents “yin” (the female principle).

Once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Hou Yi visits his wife. That is the reason why the moon is very full and beautiful on that night.

Tang Emperor Xuan Zong

Another legend is the Tang Emperor Xuan Zong, who, with the help of a Taoist priest, threw up his walking stick, which created a bridge to the moon. The emperor followed the priest up the bridge, and entered the moon palace, where he saw the jade rabbit attempting to make the elixir of life.

The emperor saw moon maidens dancing and singing music. On his return, he created a song and dance piece called Rainbow Petticoats and Feather Dresses.

Wu Gang, the moon’s woodcutter

Another legend is of Wu Gang, the moon’s woodcutter. He tries again and again to cut down the moon’s tree of immortality, which just magically heals after every chop. He was sentenced to this by the Jade Emperor for selfishly seeking the elixir of immortality.

Traditional food eaten during the Moon Festival

Taro, pomelo (Chinese grapefruit), and snails. The taro, because it saved Chinese soldiers from starvation; pomelo, because the sweet fruit is believed to scare off evil, and it has a round shape; and snails, as a reminder of the Earth’s wealth. Dishes served should be 5, 7, or 9, because these are lucky yang numbers.


Mooncakes symbolize both longevity and good health. They are imprinted with the Moon Goddess, a grove, the Jade Rabbit, or a toad. The centers can contain red bean paste (sweet), lotus seed paste, melon, dried fruits, coconut, pineapple, and often have an egg inside.

Moon Cakes. (Image: Karen via flickr / CC BY 2.0 )
Moon Cakes symbolize both longevity and good health. They are sold by Chinese bakeries and given as gifts by businesses for consumption on the day of the Moon Festival. (Image: Karen via flickr / CC BY 2.0 )

In the 14th century, messages were contained within the Moon Cakes for secret communication against the ruling Mongols (Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan) that replaced them with the Ming Dynasty. Mooncakes are credited with the victory.

Mooncake symbols

  • The yolk symbolizes the moon.
  • Mooncakes are round like the moon.
  • The circle (shape of the mooncake) is a symbol of harmony.
  • The round shape also stands for family unity.
  • The round shape symbolizes the cycle of life.
  • Connects the past, present, and future.
  • Long life and good health.

Celebrating the Moon Festival

There are many Moon Festivals that people go to. Mooncakes are sold by Chinese bakeries and given as gifts by businesses for consumption on the day of the Moon Festival. Moon poetry is also read under the full moon. Children used to play with a variety of clay toys.

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