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The Legends and Origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival

Have you prepared your mooncakes and dice game prizes yet? 

Considered to be one of China’s most important holidays, the highly anticipated Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) is rapidly approaching, with the event being annually celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month — the time in which the moon is believed to be at its fullest and brightest. This year, that day falls on September 10th. 

But beyond the competitive prize-winning fun that we all enjoy during this special day, do you know why the Chinese worldwide actually celebrate the middle of the autumn season? With over 3000 years of history, the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival have been passed down through the generations in multiple legends. Here are four popular stories related to the Mid-Autumn Festival that are still shared today:


1. The Tragic Romance of Houyi and Chang’e

Known to be the most popular legend of the Mid-Autumn Festival, this story details the lives of two lovers who have been tragically forced apart. During the ancient times, a hero named Houyi made a name for himself after shooting nine out of ten suns down with his strength. Later on, he married a beautiful and kind lady named Chang’e to live the rest of his days with. 

One day, however, the Empress of Heaven offered Houyi an elixir of immortality which would allow him to ascend to the heavens as a god. Shortly after Houyi took the elixir home to Chang’e for safekeeping, a bandit named Pengmeng broke into their home and demanded to have it. At the time, Houyi had gone out to hunt, leaving Chang’e defenseless. In a moment of desperation, Chang’e swallowed the elixir and turned into a goddess. 

Despite her new status, Chang’e missed her husband and decided to live as close to him as possible by settling on the moon, where the heavens is nearest to the earth. In devotion to his wife, Houyi prepared a table full of Chang’e’s favorite food during the days of the full moon. This practice eventually evolved into the traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival today. 



2. The Rabbit in the Moon

Once upon a time, there were once three animals who lived in a forest: the fox, the monkey, and the rabbit. Seeing these creatures, the Emperor of Heaven decided to test their virtue by approaching them and asking for food. 

The animals then heeded the emperor’s request and went their separate ways. The fox returned with a fish it caught from a river while the monkey offered some fruits it had gathered in the forest. The rabbit, however, came back empty-handed and felt very sorry towards the emperor. Since it did not have any food, the rabbit decided to instead offer itself and jumped into a fire.

Moved by the act, the emperor picked up the rabbit’s bones and sent them to the moon, giving life to what is now the immortal jade rabbit. Since then, the jade rabbit became Chang’e’s constant companion, helping to make medicine for the immortals in heaven. 



3. Wugang and the Cherry Bay Tree

Wugang was once an ordinary man who wanted to become immortal. Despite his ambitions, however, Wugang was lazy and never wanted to work hard. Dissatisfied with this attitude, the Emperor of Heaven became angry and decided to punish Wugang by planting an impossibly huge cherry bay tree on the moon for the latter to cut down. The emperor then informed Wugang that he could become immortal once the tree fell. 

Because of this, Wugang decided to work hard and is still persevering in his efforts to this day. This is why, during the nights when the skies are clear, the shadow of the Cherry Bay Tree can be seen on the moon. 



4. The Mooncake Rebellion

The reason why mooncakes are eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival is because of the story of Zhu Yuanzhang’s rebellion. Long ago, during the Yuan dynasty, the people were once abused by a cruel government, sparking a nationwide uprising led by Zhu Yuanzhang. 

Although Zhu Yuanzhang wanted to launch the rebellion on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, he found it difficult to contact his supporters due to the government’s constant raids. His troops then proposed the plan of sending the resistance forces messages by hiding notes inside of mooncakes. Because of this, the rebellion was a success, allowing the people to overthrow the capital. In celebration, the newly enthroned Emperor Zhu ordered for mooncakes to be given to all his soldiers and people. 



Want to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with your own mooncakes? Check out our rec list here!

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