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Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

I would like to take a moment to introduce our readers to a popular and well enjoyed festival here in China. Today is the Mid-Autumn Festival. While that name is the English translation the Chinese call it, Zhōngqiū jié (中秋节). My first introduction to the festival was a tame 2 hour celebration last year in the USA and I was told that it was called the Moon Festival. This is true, but it isn’t the official name. The festival always occurs on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The Chinese may use the Gregorian calendar for official business and record keeping, but they use a lunar calendar for celebrations and determining when the best times are for a person to do things that cause life changes, like getting married, starting new projects, moving and even having children. 🙂

Anyway, back to the Mid-Autumn Festival. This festival has a long history filled with traditions and stories. While the festival has been mentioned in ritual descriptions from 3,000 years ago, the festival became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). While events vary from region to region of China, the people spend time with their families, eat moon cakes and watch the moon in appreciation while telling stories. There are two varieties of stories that are told particularly for the moon festival and I have found them to be fascinating.

The first story I heard was about Houyi (后羿, Hòu​ Yì) and his wife, Chang’e (嫦娥, Cháng’é). According to the story I was told, Houyi and Chang’e had been immortals who had angered the other gods and had been banished to live on earth as mortals. One day, the ten birds that were the alternating suns of the world, circled the world together scorching the earth. The Emperor of China, Emperor Yao commanded Houyi, a master archer, to shoot down nine of the suns to protect the earth. In payment for saving the earth, Emperor Yao gave Houyi a pill that gave eternal life, but only half was needed for one person. Houyi hid the pill in a box at his home. Some time later, Emperor Yao summoned Houyi to help with another event affecting the country.

While Houyi was away, Chang’e found herself suffering from boredom. She began examining her husband’s things and found the pill. Houyi returned at that moment and Chang’e was so startled, she swallowed the whole pill. She started to float into the sky because of the overdose. Although Houyi wanted to shoot her in order to prevent her from floating further, he could not bear to aim his bow at her. Chang’e kept on floating until she landed on the Moon. When Chang’e landed on the Moon, she coughed up half the pill. She asked the Jade Rabbit, the rabbit who lived on the moon, to compound another pill for her to return to earth and her husband. The Jade Rabbit consented if she would help him with making the elixirs for the gods while he tried to make a pill just like the one she had swallowed. Today, the Jade Rabbit is still trying to make a pill by mixing and grinding various herbs.

The second story I heard was about the overthrow of the Mongol rule. This story has not been supported by historical records, but it does make a good story. The Mongols had been ruling China during the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368 AD). The Han people tried to rebel, but as group gatherings were banned, a rebellion was difficult to plan. When the leaders of the rebellion noted that the Mongols did not eat moon cakes, one of the advisers suggested they time the rebellion to coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival. After seeking and receiving permission to distribute moon cakes to the Han Chinese residents as a blessing of longevity for the Mongol Emperor. Inside each moon cake was a piece of paper that said, “”Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month.” The night of the 15th day of the 8th month, the rebels attacked and overthrew the Mongol government. They were then able to establish the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

No matter the stories and traditions, the Chinese government didn’t make the Mid-Autumn Festival a public and official holiday until 2008. The past month has been filled with hubbub as people send moon cakes to friends and family far away, bakeries and tea shops offer specials for moon cakes, and the parks are cleaned and decorated for the night of the festival.

I was able to visit a local branch of a cake store here in Beijing and take pictures of the moon cakes to share with you. While I can’t share the actual moon cakes, the pictures are pretty!

May your day be a good day and I hope you enjoy the moon tonight!

Stacks of boxes for moon cakes.

A box for moon cakes.

Individually wrapped moon cakes for sale.

Shelves filled with different flavors of moon cakes.

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