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Of Moons, Rabbits, and Goddesses: The Out-of-this-World Origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The moon is shining, the crops are thriving, and China’s favorite lunar pastries are back in season — this can only mean one thing: The Mid-Autumn Festival is fast approaching! 

Like its name implies, the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) annually takes place in the middle of the autumn season — or more specifically, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. This year, that celebratory date will fall on September 29th, an event that will no doubt continue to be eagerly anticipated by millions of celebrants around the world.

Of course, with more than three thousand years’ worth of history, the Mid-Autumn Festival’s origins have been inevitably mythicized and debated on throughout the generations. From stories of forbidden love to the successful launch of a revolution, here are some thrilling tales of the popular holiday came to be: 


Chang’e and Hou Yi: The Moon’s Tragic Romance

When it comes to popular legends, one simply cannot talk about the Mid-Autumn Festival without mentioning the tragic love story between Chang’e and Hou Yi, the beloved moon goddess and her lover. Thousands of years ago, a brave hero named Hou Yi gained renown after shooting down nine out of ten suns with his strength. Noble, handsome, and compassionate, he first lived a happy life with his beautiful and kind wife, Chang’e.

In recognition of his achievements, the Empress of Heaven gifted Hou Yi with a special elixir that would grant him immortality and allow him to ascend to the heavens as a god. However, since he did not want to part with his wife, Hou Yi left the elixir in Chang’e care. Shortly after, rumors of the gift spread throughout the land until, one day, a bandit named Pengmeng decided to seize the elixir for himself, threatening Chang’e when Hou Yi had left to go out hunting. 

Desperate and defenseless, Chang’e was left with no choice but to swallow the elixir herself, transforming into a goddess who ascended into the heavens. Although she was now an immortal being, Chang’e fiercely missed her husband and decided to live as close to him as possible by settling on the moon, where the heavens are nearest to the earth. In return, Hou Yi continued his loving devotion to his wife by offering her a table full of her favorite foods every full moon. 

Eventually, this tradition passed down generation after generation. Now, the Chinese annually celebrate the selfless love between Hou Yi and Chang’e by offering the moon goddess gifts when the moon shines brightest — during the Mid-Autumn Festival. 


The Legend of the Jade Rabbit

Have you ever wondered about the tale of the jade rabbit on the moon? Once upon a time, there once lived three friends in a forest: Fox, Monkey, and Rabbit. Looking down from heaven, the Emperor of Heaven saw these creatures and decided to test their virtue by asking them for food. 

Upon hearing this request, the three animals went their separate ways. First, Fox returned and offered a fish it had caught from the river. Next, Monkey brought some fruits that it had gathered in the forest. Lastly, Rabbit came forward with its apologies, having come back empty-handed. Feeling sorry towards the Emperor for not being able to give him food, Rabbit instead offered him its life, jumping into a fire to become the Emperor’s meal. 

The Emperor was deeply moved by Rabbit’s sacrifice. As a reward, he then picked up Rabbit’s bones, sent them to the moon, and gave them new life, transforming Rabbit into an eternal jade being to accompany the goddess Chang’e. Rabbit loved his new companion but pitied Chang’e after hearing her tragic love story. Hoping to reunite his new friend with her sweetheart, Rabbit decided to dedicate his efforts into creating medicine that would one day help Chang’e return to Earth. 


The Emperor Who Visited the Heavens

According to one famous story in the Tang Dynasty, the Mid-Autumn Festival originated as a celebration of heavenly miracles. It was said that one night, during ancient times, the Emperor Xuanzong was invited by his Taoist friend to visit the moon — the land of immortal beings. Using his extraordinary abilities, the Taoist constructed a magnificent silver bridge that connected the Earth to the moon. 

After crossing the long bridge, the Emperor and the Taoist reached the Moon Palace. Filled with delight at the sight of divine deities, otherworldly festivities, and garments of rainbows and feathers, the Emperor Xuanzong returned to Earth with an inspired heart. From then on, he organized formal annual celebrations of the night that he experienced heavenly joy, eventually creating the Mid-Autumn Festival that we now know today. 


The Mooncake Rebellion

Do you know the reason why we eat mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival? It was once said that during the Yuan Dynasty, there ruled a cruel government that tormented its people. 

Tired and angry at the injustice that they suffered, the people gathered and organized a nationwide rebellion, with the noble Zhu Yuanzhang as their rebel leader. Seeking an end to their struggles, Zhu and his troops decided to schedule their uprising for the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Zhu Yuanzhang then came up with the idea to deliver mooncakes that contained the details of their revolution in order to secretly relay the plans to the rest of the resistance. 

In the end, the revolution proved to be successful, leading Zhu Yuanzhang to become the first emperor of the newly established Ming dynasty. Since then, mooncakes have been created every Mid-Autumn Festival as a symbol of unity in remembrance of the struggles that the people have overcome. 


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