Mid-Autumn Festival: harvest festival celebrated by Chinese

Updated: 17 Sep 2012
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Mid-Autumn Festival decorations
Mid-Autumn Festival decorations
Moon Cakes
Moon Cakes
Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations
Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations
China's Mid-Autumn Festival is traditionally celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunisolar month (see Mid-Autumn Festival Dates), which is in September or October. The festival is the second most important festival after the Spring Festival to Chinese people. Every year, when the festival comes people go home from every corner of the country and the world to meet their family and have dinner with them.
Celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival has a history of over 3,000 years, dating back to the moon worship in ancient times. Read more on history and origin of Mid-Autumn Festival
The festival is celebrated extensively across the country, and is one of the few reunion holidays for Chinese families. On that day, Chinese family members stay together, admiring the full moon and eating mooncakes.
The History and Origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival
The Mid-autumn Festival dates back over 3,000 years, to moon worshipping in the Shang Dynasty. Ancient Chinese emperors worshiped the moon in the autumn, as they believed that the practice would bring them another harvest year. The word “mid-autumn” first appeared in the Zhou Dynasty. During that time, worshipping the moon on the 15th night of the eighth month had spread to high officials and rich families. The practice entailed placing a large table in the middle of the yard under the moon, and they put offerings such as fruits and snacks on the table. However, not until the early Tang Dynasty was the day officially celebrated as a traditional festival. It then became an established festival during the Song Dynasty, and has become as popular as the Spring Festival since the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Appreciating the moon has been a custom since the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Not only the rich merchants and officials, but also the common citizens, liked appreciating the moon together at that time. The rich merchants and officials held big parties in their big courts. They drank and appreciated the bright moon. Music and dances were also indispensable. The common citizens just prayed to the moon for a good harvest.
The tradition of eating mooncakes during the festival bgan in Yuan Dynasty. At the end of Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368, a dynasty ruled by the Mongols), the Han people’s army wanted to overthrow the rule of the Mongols, so they planed an uprising, but they had no way to inform every Han who wanted to join them of the time of the uprising without being discovered by the Mongols. One day, the military counselor of the Han people’s army, Liu Bowen, thought out a stratagem related to mooncakes. Liu Bowen asked his soldiers to spread the rumor that there would be a serious disease in winter and eating mooncakes was the only way to cure the disease, then he asked soldiers to write "uprising, at the night of Mid-Autumn Festival" on papers and put them into mooncakes then sell them to common Han people. When the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival came a huge uprising broke out. From then on, people eat mooncakes every Mid-Autumn Festival to commemorate the uprising.
Mid-Autumn Festival Customs

Gazing at the Moon
Appreciating the moon has been a custom since the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Not only the rich merchants and officials, but also the common citizens, liked appreciating the moon together at that time. The rich merchants and officials held big parties in their big courts. They drank and appreciated the bright moon. Music and dances were also indispensable. The common citizens just prayed to the moon for a good harvest.
Nowadays, people still like appreciating the moon on Mid-Autumn Festival in China. Chinese family members have dinner together in the evening of Mid-Autumn Festival. After the dinner, they may talk about their work, the children, and their future plans. Sometimes, people go to a park to see the decorations made for the festival.
Eating Moon Cakes
Eating mooncakes is the most popular celebration of the day. Mooncakes are traditionally Chinese pastries, which is made of wheat flour and sweet stuffings such as sugar and lotus seed powder. Moon cake is a symbol of family reunion, and the cake is traditionally cut into pieces that equal to the number of people in the family.
Making Chinese Mid-Autumn Lanterns
Mid-Autumn lanterns are not as colorful as those of the Lantern Festival. There is no big lantern party during Mid-Autumn Festival, but children like making colorful lanterns very much. They make lanterns of different shapes and let them float on the rivers. They don’t leave the riverside until the light of the lanterns disappears. Sometimes, they make Kongming (Hung Ming) lanterns, which can fly because the burning candles heat the air in the lantern. The lantern rises with the heated air.
Customs of Ethnic Minorities on Mid-autumn Day
Dai Ethnic People
Customs of sacrificing and worshipping the moon equally flourish in minorities. On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, moon worship is popular among the Dai people in Yunnan. Based on the Dai legend, the moon was once Yan Jian, the third son of the Emperor of Heaven. Yan Jian was a heroic and strong youth who led the Dai people to beat enemies and won Dai folks over. Later, after his unfortunate death, he became the moon and rose into the sky giving off the soft moonlightand giving light to the Dai people in the dark. Every Mid-Autumn Festival, in order to hunt for festival game men go up onto the hills and shoot fire finches and pheasants with powder shotguns early in the morning. Young women are busy going to lakes and ponds catching fish, and preparing for festival dinners. Grannies are busy pounding glutinous rice and cooking food of various sizes. They put a circular glutinous rice pie on each corner of the table and imbed a stick of unlit joss stick in each pie. Once the moon comes up over the mountain forest, they will light the joss sticks and all family members will start to "worship the moon". Then they'll fire powder shotguns to the sky to honor Yan Jian, the hero. Finally, all family members will happily sit at the little square table, tasting food, talking, laughing and enjoying the moon. They don’t finish until they have enjoyed themselves to the full.
Oroqen Ethnic people
In sacrificing to the moon, Oroqen people put a basin of water in the open, set offerings there, and then kneel down before the basin and kowtow to the moon. Tu people fill the basin with clear water so that the reflection of the moon can project into the basin, and then, people ceaselessly strike the moon in the basin with little stones, which is called "striking the moon".
Zhuang Ethnic People
The activity of "sacrificing to the moon and inviting gods" of Zhuang people in West Guangxi is more typical. In the middle of the eighth month of the lunisolar calendar, on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, at the village head and end people will set an altar, placing the sacred offerings and censers, and erect a branch or bamboo pole, about one foot high, symbolizing Sheshu (referred to a proper tree planted in a proper place), which is also used as a ladder for the Moon Goddess to descend to the world and go back to heaven. Here is preserved the details of the ancient lunar myth. The overall activity is divided into four stages: 1) inviting the Moon Goddess to descend to the world, which requires one or two women to be the spokespeople of the Moon Goddess; 2) antiphonal singing between the goddess and people; 3) divination and fortune-telling by the Moon Goddess; and 4) a mantra of farewell to the goddess sung by singers, sending the Moon Goddess back to heaven.
Mongolian Ethnic People
Mongolians "chase the moon". On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Mongolians enjoy playing the game of "chasing the moon". People will mount their horses, galloping on the grasslands under the silver-white moonlight. They gallop towards the west, with the moon rising in the east and setting in the west. Tenacious Mongolian riders will not stop "chasing the moon" until the moon sets in the west.
Tibetan People
Tibetans "look for the moon". The custom for Tibetan people in some areas of Tibet to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival is called "looking for the moon". On that night, young men, women and children search for the moon’s reflection in ponds, following the reflection of the moon in the water along the river, and then go home for reunions and moon cakes.
Hezhe People
The Hezhe people enjoy "moon worship". In the Hezhe settlements of the northeast of China, every Mid-Autumn Festival, people will pick grapes and worship the moon. It is said to be in commemoration of a clever and laborious Hezhe wife. She could not suffer her mother-in-law's sadism and escaped to the riverside to beg for the moon's help. Finally, she ran onto the moon.
De'ang People
De'ang people enjoy "dating under the moon (chuanyue or chuanyueliang)", a De’ang courtship custom. Young De'ang men and women in Luxi, Yunnan, go out once on every Mid-Autumn Festival, with a big and extraordinarily bright moon hanging in the sky. From hilltops to village edges, there comes a melodious sound of gourd pipe music from time to time, as the young men and women are "dating under the moon" together and unburdening themselves to each other. Some of them also deliver orange areca nuts and tea in order to woo their date.
A'xi People
A'xi people, a branch of the Yi ethnic group, "dance in the moon". "Dancing in the moon" is the traditional custom of A'xi people at Mid-Autumn Festival. On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, people from every village will gather on the open ground of the mountain village. Girls in veils dance, as do the guys carrying the big sanxians (three-stringed Chinese instruments) on their shoulders. However, more intriguing still is the antiphonal singing as young men and women express their loving feelings to each other.
Miao People
Miao people enjoy "teasing in the moon (naoyue)". On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Miao people will stream along the narrow paths in the silk-like moonlight, playing the melodious lusheng (a wind instrument with multiple bamboo pipes) and dancing Miao dances with songs. Young men, during the activity of "teasing in the moon", will look for their lovers, express their affections and then marry forever, just as the moon marries with the clear water.
Gaoshan People
The Gaoshan people "admire the full moon". Gaoshan people live in the mountainous regions of Taiwan Province. At Mid-Autumn Festival, with the bright moon riding high in the sky and the radiance lighting up the earth, they, dressed in national costumes, sit around together, singing and dancing, drinking and admiring the full moon, sharing the happiness of a family union.
Dong People in Hunan Province
On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a funny custom of "stealing moon vegetables" is popular in Dong villages in Hunan.
According to a legend, on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, fairies from the Moon Palace would descend to the world and spread nectar over the mortal world. The nectar from fairies is selfless. Therefore, people in that evening might share the fruit and vegetables with nectar together. Dong people named this custom "stealing moon vegetables".
On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dong girls with umbrellas will choose garden lands of their own lovers to pick melons and vegetables and it would not be considered as "stealing". "Hey! Your melons and vegetables have been taken by me. You please go to my home to have oil-tea!" they also intentionally yell. First, they place red string as if they are fairies from the Moon Palace. If they pick a twin vegetable or fruit, it signifies that they will have happy affections. So, cow peas growing in pairs have become the picking targets. Sisters-in-law also go to others’ garden lands to "steal moon vegetables" this night. However, they wish to pick the fattest melon or a handful of fresh green soybeans, because this symbolizes stout and strong children (maodou, green soybean in Chinese, sounds similar to a word for‘children’in Chinese). Guys also have the custom of "stealing moon vegetables" because they wish fairies from the Moon Palace to grant them happiness as well. However, they can only cook them up to eat in the wild rather than bring them home. "Stealing moon vegetables" gives the Dong village unbounded joy and a magical touch on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Hakka People
Hakka people's customs, such as eating mooncakes and admiring the full moon, are almost identical to those in other places of our country. Hakka call it "Eighth Month Festival" or "Mid Eighth Month".
When the full moon rises on Mid-Autumn Festival night, Hakka people will place mooncakes, peanuts and pomelos to prepare for the activity of "moonlight piety" in courtyards, pavilions or grain drying areas in front of houses facing the moon.
After the worship of the moon, the whole family will admire the full moon and eat outside. Admiring the full moon is an adult affair. Generally kids won't sit still there and admire the full moon, but chase and play with each other in the bright and clear moonlight, which is their way of enjoying the moment. There is something special about eating things. Parents tend to want everybody to eat those offerings used to worship Luna (the Moon Goddess) first. Chinese sacrificial culture has such a tradition that liberalists often still share the offerings and eat after the gods, so that they end up part of the whole sacrificial ceremony. The shared food, has received Luna's blessings and has performed the traditional sacrificial culture. Meixian people's belief is that anyone who ate those offerings would be "better-behaved, more blissful and propitious".
In Meizhou, except for mooncakes, the traditional Mid-Autumn food with universal significance, the pomelo is an essential festival food, including golden pomelo (Shatian pomelo), honey pomelo or Shuijing pomelo. Eating pomelos has some beliefs attached to it. For example, cutting the pomelo is called sha you (killing the pomelo) which has a meaning of exorcism. It is also said that peeling the pomelo skin off is ‘ghost skin peeling' which signifies the attempt to get rid of ghosts and disasters.
Moon cakes in Hakka regions, apart from common moon cakes, have "five-kernel moon cakes" and a kind of round cake made with glutinous rice flour and sugar, compressed into different size. Though the social economy progresses continually, Hakka people are always passing down their traditional catering culture, as well as developing folk catering culture.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is in September or early October in the Gregorian calendar. In 2012 the Mid-Autumn Festival will fall on September 30th. It will occur on these days in coming years:[9]
2013: September 19
2014: September 8
2015: September 27
2016: September 15
2017: October 4
2018: September 24
2019: September 13
2020: October 1
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