For every festival in China, you are sure to find a bounty of folk tales claiming origin to the day. Mid-Autumn Festival, coming up this weekend, is no exception — it is considered the most important of Chinese Holidays, in addition to Chinese New Year and Spring Festival — so this day has funky folk tales staking their claim to why the moon is celebrated on this spirited day. Read more for the stories and traditions that stem from the stories to impress your Chinese friends during the festivities.
Folk Tale o’ Clock
Off to the Moon
The most heralded origin story of the Mid-Autumn Festival begins with a sprightly young man named Hou Yi and his beautiful wife, Chang Yi. Our heroes lived many moons and many suns ago — so many suns ago, that there were actually ten suns surrounding the earth. These ten suns tormented the denizens of earth with excruciating heat and dry land.
Hou Yi was known for his masterly archer skills and one day he had a go at shooting the suns down with his bow and arrow. Shockingly enough, Hou Yi was able to peg down nine of the ten suns — immediately making him the hero of his people. After this momentous feat, Hou Yi stumbled across Wangmu, the Queen of Heaven (talk about a run-in!). Wangmu rewarded Hou Yi with an elixir of immortality that would cause him to ascend to heaven and become a god if drunk. Little did he know that Wangmeng, Hou Yi’s apprentice in Archery and a shrewish, jealous man had seen this exchange between Hou Yi and Wangmu.
Wangmeng followed Hou Yi home to his wife and hid in the bushes. Hou Yi asked his wife to hold onto the elixir as he was about to embark on a hunting excursion. Sometime after Hou Yi had departed, Wangmeng jumped at the c
hance to snag the elixir: he rushed into the house and overpowered Chang’e with his bulk, demanding she hand it over. Chang’e, flustered, was not sure what to do, so she chugged it herself. At that moment, she started to ascend out of the house, through the roof, up, up, and away.
As she ascended, Chang’e’s heart ached at the realization that she was going to be seperated from her beloved forever. This heartache pulled her to the moon, the nearest heavenly to the Earth.
When Hou Yi returned home, he saw the empty elixir and his missing wife; putting this together he realized what had happened. Stumbling outside, in a grief-stricken daze, Hou Yi cried up to the heaven in throes of pain. His cries halted when he gazed upon the moon — and what’s this!– he saw the visage of his beloved wife, Chang’e. He immediately took Chang’e’s favorite foods to an altar and provided it as offerings to his heavenly love.
As word spread of Chang’e’s lunar exile, people began flooding to temples and offering sacrifices to Chang’e. This quickly became a custom, which exists today as, you guessed it, Mid-Autumn Festival!
Jade Rabbit Blasts Off to the Moon!
One day three immortals decided to take a little day trip down to Earth from their plush heavenly abode. Appearing as three old street people, they roamed around the countryside. They got a bit hungry and decided to test the mortal earthlings on their graciousness by asking a rabbit, a fox, and a monkey for a delicious snack. The fox and the monkey both jaunted off to gather some food, coming back with a nice little bite to eat. The rabbit could not find something in time and showed up empty-handed. Feeling much turmoil because he could not provide a snack, the rabbit yelped out, “Just eat me!” and hopped into the fire to roast himself into a crispy, hearty meal for the three strangers. The three immortals were deeply moved by the rabbits extraordinary display of selflessness and immediately granted him immortality in heaven. They sent the rabbit to accompany Chang’e on the moon, turning him into a sparkling, jade rabbit. Now the rabbit prances around the Moon Palace, spending his days pounding elixirs of immortality for his heavenly neighbours.
Getting Nitty Gritty with the History
There is actually quite a bit of history behind the origin of this festival that is, well, grounded on earth. Follow the timeline below to see how this celestial celebration came about:
- Zhou Dynasty (1024-256 BC): This is what we like to call a dynasty that is “real ancient with it”. The emperors at this time would oftentimes head over to the Altar of the Moon and make sacrificial offerings at the time of the Autumnal Equinox. This tradition of sacrificial offerings to the moon still exists today in rural areas but it is not a big part of the modern festival.
- Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD): This triply-royal period introduced the lovely act of socializing whilst gazing at the moon. Family members sit around a table outside, sipping tea and snacking on moon-shaped offerings — think watermelon, boiled green soybeans, oranges, pummelos and wine (not moon-shaped, but a necessary component of any celebration). This custom was introduced as a way to make the stiff, formal sacrificial ceremony relaxed and focused on family time — which remains today one of the main focuses of the Mid-Autumn Festival. a large It eventually started to appear in works of literature, with passages praising the alabaster orb
- Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD): Mooncakes… ah, the infamously dense and overly chewy pastries that are ubiquitous with the Mid-Autumn Festival. These mooncakes became a ‘thing’ when the army of the Yuan Dynasty spread intel by hiding notes inside of mooncakes. The leader of the army would pass mooncakes on as ‘gifts’ to his soldiers which would contain the intel during the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival.. Since then, this has passed on into tradition and mooncakes remain a wildly popular and important aspect of the festival to this day.
Wherever you go in China, the folk tales that are told and the history of traditions are bound to change. For each of the ‘stories’ above you can expect, at least, thirty variations… so don’t be offended if your story was not the found here–better yet, leave us a comment with your own version of one of the origin stories or folk tales!
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