Most people with a passing interest in China have heard of Spring Festival. The lunar new year, with its red envelopes and zodiac animals, has become a truly global fixture in recent times, as well as a key event in the western cultural calendar.
Yet China’s second biggest festival remains a mostly regional affair. Celebrated throughout East and Southeast Asia, it has comparatively less traction in the English-speaking world despite offering its own delightful ensemble of rituals, traditions and folklore.
When is it?
Zhōngqiūjié, literally Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinese, takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar, when the moon is said to be at its fullest and brightest. As any foreign resident planning a vacation in China can attest, converting lunar dates to the Gregorian calendar is a tricky business. Generally speaking, the day falls sometime in September or October each year.
A quick history lesson
The origins of Mid-Autumn festival extend deep into China’s past. Harvest festivals celebrated during the autumn full moon have been commonplace among many of the country’s ethnic groups for millennia, but it is believed the seeds of the festival we know today were sown around 3,000 years ago when the Chinese Emperor made worship and offerings to the moon in hope of a bountiful harvest.
During the Tang dynasty, some 1,500 years later, Mid-Autumn Festival began to blossom as an important cultural event in China. An annual date was set a few centuries after, and by the time of the Ming and Qing emperors it had become one of the main festivals in the country.
Tale of the moon goddess
The moon is central to the beliefs and rituals of Mid-Autumn Festival (it is sometimes known simply as the Moon Festival) and it follows that the story most commonly told in association with the day has the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e, at its heart.
According to legend, hero and archer Houyi is charged with saving the Earth by shooting down all but one of ten suns that are scorching the planet. He dutifully does so and is rewarded for his efforts with the elixir of life, but his wife, Chang’e, drinks the potion herself and ascends to the moon to escape retribution for what she has done.
An alternate version of the myth has Chang’e drink the elixir to protect it from a thief, while others tell an even more outlandish tale. In one, Chang’e becomes addicted to the elixir and is accompanied to the moon by a rabbit, which helps to maintain her habit by pounding herbs in a pestle and mortar.
So far-reaching is this folktale in China today that the Chinese space agency’s lunar exploration program is named for Chang’e. The small robotic rover designed to collect samples from the moon’s surface is called Yutu, the name of her leporine companion.
How do people celebrate?
As with any festival, traditions vary from place to place, but many Mid-Autumn customs are common throughout the Chinese world. Chief among these are family reunions, with the fullness of the moon thought to represent the wholeness of the family unit.
Mooncakes are another ubiquitous part of Mid-Autumn Festival, round, intricately decorated pastries traditionally made with lotus seed paste, salted egg yolks and lard. Today, common flavors in China include nuts, red bean and custard, with caviar and beef wellington but a few of the endless modern variations that seem to get more experimental with every passing year. Mooncake fever has seen Guinness release their own flavor to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in Malaysia, while mooncakes for dogs are now a thing in Hong Kong.
Moon-gazing is another quintessential, and less calorific, way to celebrate. Following Chang’e’s ascent to the moon, Houyi forgave her and, missing his beloved wife, prepared a feast each year on the day the moon was at its fullest in the hope of seeing her again. This part of the story is said to be the origin of Mid-Autumn Festival’s most enduring tradition, as families across China gather on this night to admire the beauty of the moon and feel connected to loved ones elsewhere gazing up at the same luminous sight.
Other, more regional traditions include lighting paper lanterns and eating pomelos, the world’s largest citrus fruit. The latter is a common festive foodstuff, particularly in southern China, due to the moon-like symbolism of their large, orbital shape. Peeling the fruit in a certain way, known as killing the pomelo, is supposed to ward off negative energy and also allows the skin to be worn as a silly-looking hat.
How to get involved
Mid-Autumn Festival may not yet be well-known outside of Asia, but there are still plenty of ways to get involved wherever you live. Most Chinese bakeries and grocery stores sell mooncakes at this time of year, and major cities with large Chinese communities like London and San Francisco hold sizeable public celebrations. In smaller towns and cities check in with the local Chinese Association – there will no doubt be something going on.
Ultimately, Mid-Autumn Festival is about family. The best and truest way to commemorate the day, and night, is to get together with loved ones, head outside and spend some time gazing up at the full moon.
Autumn Small Group Tours
A curated collection of our favorite Autumn Small Group Journeys designed for a small group of like-minded travelers to experience together.