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Exploring the Rich History of the Mid-Autumn Festival and Mooncakes

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Chinese Mooncakes, both unbaked and baked.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival or Zhongqiu Festival, is a time-honored celebration observed by many East Asian cultures. Held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, usually falling in September or early October on the solar calendar, this festival revolves around family gatherings, appreciating the full moon, and indulging in delicious mooncakes. The Mid-Autumn Festival, for centuries has been integrally tied to its iconic treat, the mooncake.

A Historical Tapestry

The origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival can be traced back over 3,000 years to ancient China’s Shang Dynasty. Initially, the festival was a form of moon worship and an occasion for offering thanks for a bountiful harvest. This practice evolved over the years, incorporating elements of moonlit appreciation and family reunions.

The legend of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, is intricately linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival. The earliest written references to Chang’e, the moon goddess, can be found in various ancient Chinese texts and poems. One of the earliest written references can be traced back to the classic Chinese text “Liezi” (also known as “Lieh-tzu”), attributed to Lie Yukou, a Daoist philosopher who lived around the 5th century BCE. In “Liezi,” there is a passage that briefly mentions the story of Houyi and Chang’e. This passage doesn’t go into great detail, but it does establish the basic premise of the legend: Chang’e consumes the elixir of immortality and floats to the moon. These early references establish that the story pre-dates the written references, and has likely been shared through oral story telling traditions going back perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years before the Shang Dynasty.

The most detailed and well-known early version of the Chang’e legend is found in “Shanhai Jing” (Classic of Mountains and Seas), an ancient Chinese text that is a compilation of mythology, geography, and folklore. It was likely composed during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) and the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The “Shanhai Jing” provides a more elaborate account of Chang’e, Houyi, and the events leading to Chang’e’s ascent to the moon.

In the “Shanhai Jing,” there is a passage that tells the story of Chang’e and her husband Houyi, the legendary archer. The story describes how Houyi saved the world by shooting down nine of the ten suns that were scorching the earth. As a reward for his heroic actions, he was given the Elixir of Immortality. However, fearing that the elixir would fall into the wrong hands, Houyi entrusted it to his wife Chang’e.

The story goes on to describe how Chang’e consumed the elixir and floated up to the moon, where she became the Moon Goddess. To honor his wife and show her that he still loved her, Houyi would leave her offerings including sweets at the Mid Autumn Festival. Today, those treats are represented by the mooncake.

Celebrations Through Time

Throughout history, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the story of Chang’e has undergone various adaptations and interpretations, especially during different dynasties. Cheng’e was originally named Heng’e but it was changed to Chang’e during the Han Dynasty as it is considered bad taboo to share a name with the Emperor. From 180 to 157 BCE, Emperor Wen of Han (Chinese: 漢文帝; 203/202 – 6 July 157 BCE), born Liu Heng ruled. So Heng’e was too close to the Emperor’s given name, so it was changed to Chang’e. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Mid-Autumn Festival reached its cultural zenith that included extravagant celebrations included imperial ceremonies, poetry recitals, and moon-viewing parties. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), mooncakes emerged as a symbol of rebellion. Legend has it that messages were concealed within mooncakes, sparking a successful uprising against Mongol rule.

In modern China, the story of Chang’e demonstrates is cultural significance as the nation’s space program names its lunar space craft, Chang’e. The lander Chang’e 3 landed on the moon on December 14, 2013. More recently, the lander Chang’e 5 landed on the moon on December 1, 2020.


A photo of the lunar lander Chang’e 4, Jan 11, 2019.

Mooncakes: Past and Present

Mooncakes, the quintessential treat of the Mid-Autumn Festival, have a history as rich as the festival itself. Originally, these pastries were used as offerings to the moon, made from wheat flour and filled with nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. However, it was during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties that the modern mooncake, with its flaky crust and diverse fillings, truly took shape.

Traditional mooncake fillings often included lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks, symbolizing the full moon. Over time, these fillings diversified to include red bean paste, nuts, fruits, and even modern flavors like ice cream and chocolate.

Uniting Families and Traditions

The Mid-Autumn Festival holds deep cultural significance as a time for families to come together. People gather to admire the bright full moon, which represents unity and harmony. The sight of the moon evokes nostalgia and warmth, even among those separated by distance. In recent years, the festival has expanded beyond its cultural borders. Countries like Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan also celebrate variations of the Mid-Autumn Festival, each with its unique customs and foods.

Preserving Tradition in the Modern World

In today’s fast-paced world, the Mid-Autumn Festival and its traditions are evolving to stay relevant. While maintaining its core values of family togetherness and reverence for the moon, the festival now incorporates modern elements like digital moon-gazing, where families connect virtually to admire the moon together.

The Mid-Autumn Festival and mooncakes embody the timeless essence of Chinese cultural heritage and family bonds. With a history spanning thousands of years, this festival continues to captivate hearts and minds, fostering a sense of belonging and unity across generations. As we savor the delectable mooncakes and gaze upon the luminous moon, we honor the ancient traditions that have shaped this cherished celebration.

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