Mid-Autumn Festival

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Mid-Autumn Festival (Birthday of the Moon)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Folkloric
Date of Observation: Full moon nearest September 15; fifteenth day of the eighth Chinese lunar month
Where Celebrated: China and throughout the Far East; in Asian communities all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Moon Cakes (Yueh Ping), Moon Hare, Moon Toad, Moon Viewing, Round Fruit
Related Holidays: Autumn Equinox


The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The CHINESE NEW YEAR takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

The names of each of the twenty-four two-week periods sometimes correspond to seasonal festivals celebrated during the period. Beginning with the New Year, which takes place in late January or early February, these periods are known by the following names: Spring Begins (New Year and LI CH'UN), the Rain Water, the Excited Insects, the VERNAL EQUINOX, the Clear and Bright (CHING MING ), the Grain Rains, the Summer Begins, the Grain Fills, the Grain in Ear, the SUMMER SOLSTICE (DOUBLE FIFTH), the Slight Heat, the Great Heat, the Autumn Begins, the Limit of Heat, the White Dew (MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL), the AUTUMN EQUINOX, the Cold Dew, the Hoar Frost Descends, the Winter Begins, the Little Snow, the Heavy Snow, the WINTER SOLSTICE, the Little Cold, and the Great Cold.

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the autumn season extends throughout the seventh, eighth, and ninth months. This makes the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month the season's midpoint. From this point onward, the power of the sun begins to wane; the days grow shorter and cooler, and the nights grow longer. According to the Gregorian calendar, mid-September marks the time when the full moon-commonly called the Harvest Moon or Hunter's Moon-is at its lowest angle to the horizon, making it appear larger and brighter than usual. The Chinese celebrate the moon's birthday on this day, believing that it is the only night of the year when the moon is perfectly round. The Mid-Autumn Festival is therefore a double feast-a time for worshipping the moon goddess and for expressing gratitude for the harvest.

The Mid-Autumn Festival has been compared to the American THANKSGIVING , and there are some similarities. Family reunions are common, with family members often travelling long distances to be together. They feast, exchange gifts, and eat MOON CAKES . Many of these reunions take place out-of-doors in the evening, where the size and brightness of the moon can be admired.

Village theatricals are a popular way of entertaining the gods on this day. They are usually held in open-air theaters attached to temples, or in special sheds erected for the purpose. These temple-dramas are similar to the medieval miracle plays in Europe, which were performed on the porches of cathedrals. But they tend to avoid religious messages and focus instead on plots taken from legend or history, or from episodes in famous novels. Other popular entertainments include lion dancers and stilt walkers.

The Mid-Autumn Festival continues for three days. The evenings are devoted to MOON VIEWING parties, and the days are usually spent hiking and picnicking in the mountains. In addition to being a harvest festival and a celebration of the moon's birthday, it is also a festival of liberation, commemorating the day on which the ancient Chinese people overthrew the Mongol overlords and brought Mongolia under Chinese rule (see MOON CAKES ).


Moon Cakes (Yüeh Ping)

Made of grayish flour to resemble the color of the moon and often stacked in a pyramid thirteen-cakes high to represent the thirteen months of the Chinese lunar year, moon cakes are the most distinctive offering of the Mid-Autumn Festival. They are round like the moon and filled with melon seeds, cassia blossoms, orange peel, walnuts, date paste, or smashed bean. They are sent from neighbor to neighbor and exchanged among friends during the festival. In cities, confectioners make moon cakes and donate them to the poor. In rural villages, "moon cake societies" are formed to make sure that everyone has an adequate supply of cakes when the festival arrives. While most moon cakes are only a few inches in diameter, imperial chefs have made them as large as several feet across, decorated with images of the moon palace, the cassia tree, or the rabbit (see MOON HARE ). Mid-Autumn Festival

Legend says that during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), these cakes were used to convey secret instructions to Chinese patriots concerning the overthrow of their Mongol rulers. There was a Mongol spy living in every household, and the only way the Chinese people could communicate with each other was to conceal their messages in moon cakes. Information about the time and place of the revolution was spread by hiding it on small squares of paper inside the moon cakes that were sent to friends and relatives during the Mid-Autumn Festival in 1353. The midnight attack came as a complete surprise and hastened the dynasty's downfall.

Today there are twenty to thirty varieties of moon cakes. Their roundness makes them a perfect symbol not only for the moon, but also for family unity.

Moon Hare

In China, the association between the hare and the moon is very ancient. Shepherds or nomads who slept under the open sky would see figures outlined on the face of the moon and make up stories about how they came to be there. The hare and the frog (see MOON TOAD ) are probably the best-known inhabitants of the moon, which Chinese mythology says is populated by both humans and animals. There is an old superstition that the hare, who never closes her eyes, gives birth with her eyes fixed on the moon. How brightly the moon shines on the night of this festival determines how many hares will be born during the coming year.

Images of the Moon Hare appear everywhere during the Mid-Autumn Festival, usually in the form of small clay statues. This legendary rabbit comes from an old Buddhist tale brought to China from India. The animals of the forest were scrambling to prepare offerings to the Buddha, who had taken the form of a Brahmin (or saint) and asked for food and water. The rabbit, embarrassed by the meager collection of herbs and grasses he'd managed to gather, caught sight of the cooking fire and leaped into it, offering himself to the Buddha but pausing first to remove any small creatures who had lodged in his fur. He was rewarded by having his image appear on the face of the moon where everyone could admire the example of his self-sacrifice.

The moon is a symbol of longevity in Chinese mythology because it is the dwelling place of the immortals. The Moon Hare is traditionally pictured under the Sacred Cassia Tree, pounding the Pill of Immortality with his mortar and pestle. The cassia tree blooms just in time for the moon's birthday, and Chinese physicians believe that its aromatic bark cures disease. Next to the hare is the woodcutter Wu Gang, who is doomed to continually chop down a cassia tree as punishment for a mistake he made while studying to become an immortal. Every time the axe makes a cut, the tree miraculously heals itself and the cut closes up.

Moon Toad

The Moon Toad (or frog) comes from the legend of Chang E, the goddess who inhabits the moon and who was changed into a three-legged toad because she found her husband's supply of the elixir of life and drank it all. When her misdeed was discovered, she fled to the moon, where she has lived ever since. Once a month, on the fifteenth day, her husband leaves his palace on the sun and comes to visit her. This explains why the moon is at its most beautiful on this day.

Just as the MOON HARE promises long life to those who are virtuous, the threelegged Moon Toad offers wealth to those who please the Moon Queen. He is often depicted with a string of gold coins.

Moon Viewing

In Japan, the custom of tsukimi or "moon viewing" is observed at the same time as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. People set up a table facing the horizon where the moon will rise and place offerings on the table for the spirit of the moon. These offerings might include a vase holding the seven grasses of autumn, cooked vegetables, and tsukimi dango or "moon-viewing dumplings" made of rice flour. Moon-viewing festivals are particularly popular in Tokyo and in Kyoto, where people watch the moon from boats with dragons on their bows.

Round Fruit

The fruits associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival include apples, pomegranates, honey peaches, crab apples, sour betel nuts, and grapes-round fruits whose shape symbolizes the fullness of the moon and family harmony. Pears are excluded-not only because they are not perfectly round, but because the word for pear is li, which is pronounced the same as the word meaning "separation." On a day set aside for family reunions, pears would be considered an unlucky offering.

Chinese women set up an altar in the courtyard with five round plates filled with the fruits listed above. In the center are MOON CAKES baked especially for the holiday, and nearby are red candles and bundles of incense. Behind the family altar is a large paper scroll on which the MOON HARE appears, sitting under the Sacred Cassia Tree. Sometimes the scroll will show the MOON TOAD entangled in a string of coins. After a brief service in honor of the Moon Queen at midnight, the festival meal is eaten outdoors under the full moon.


Bredon, Juliet, and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1927. Mid-Autumn Festival

Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1991.


Hong Kong Tourism Board www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/heritage/festivals/he_fest_mida.jhtml

National Heritage Board of Singapore www.nhb.gov.sg/discover_heritage/heritagekids/feature_articles/feature_ festival_chinese.shtml

Taiwan Government Information Office www.gio.gov.tw/info/festival_c/moon_e/moon.htm

Mid-Autumn Festival

Full moon nearest September 15; 15th day of eighth lunar month
This festival to honor the moon goddess is a national holiday in China and a day celebrated throughout the Far East and in Asian communities all over the world. It is also known as the Moon Cake Festival . In Korea, it is called Hangawi or Chuseok; in Vietnam Trung Thursday ; in Hong Kong Chung Ch'iu ; and in Taiwan Tiong-chhiu Choeh .
Family reunions are traditional on this day, giving it some resemblance to the American Thanksgiving. People travel long distances to be together for exchanging presents, feasting, and eating moon cakes. The ingredients of the cakes and the celebration vary according to the region.
In Taiwan, people have picnics and climb mountains to have a better view of the moon. Besides eating moon cakes, people eat pomeloes, a sweet local fruit. The Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the Chinese word for "blessing," so this is considered an especially good time to indulge in pomeloes. It's also a time for lovers to tryst.
In Malaysia, Vietnam, and other areas, it is a children's festival. They parade through the streets on the night of the festival with candle-lit paper lanterns, some of them white and round like the moon, others like all sorts of animals. Dancers parade with dragons made of paper and cloth, and firecrackers are lit after the parades. In Hong Kong children also carry paper lanterns, and many people spend the evening on the beaches watching the moon and the many bonfires that are lit on this night.
In Suzhou, China, a celebration is held in the Museum of Chinese Drama and Opera, with spectators seated at small porcelain tables where they eat moon cakes, drink jasmine tea, and watch a program of Chinese classical music, ballad-singing, acrobatics, and comic scenes from operas.
In Japan, the custom of tsukimi, or "moon-viewing," is observed at the same time as the Chinese festival—at the time of the full moon nearest September 15. People set up a table facing the horizon where the moon will rise, and place offerings on the table to the spirit of the moon. These would include a vase holding the seven grasses of autumn, cooked vegetables, and tsukimi dango, moon-viewing dumplings made of rice flour. Moon-viewing festivals are held at Hyakkaen Garden, Mukojima, Tokyo, and on Osawa at Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto, where the moon is watched from boats with dragons on their bows.
There are 20 to 30 varieties of moon cakes, which in their roundness are symbolic of family unity. Some are made of lotus seed paste, some of red bean paste, some with mixed nuts, and some have a duck egg in the center. In some regions, the moon cakes are crusty, while in others they are flaky.
There are also varying versions of the origins of the festival, which is thought to go back to the ninth century. One version has it that the Chinese, looking at the dark side of the full moon, saw a hare or rabbit, which was able to make a potion for immortality. The festival was the rabbit's birthday, and people sold rabbits on the streets. Moon cakes were made to feed the rabbits. Another version says that the day marks the overthrow of the Mongol overlords in ancient China; the moon cakes supposedly hid secret messages planning the overthrow.
The more accepted version is that the day is a harvest festival at a time when the moon is brightest. At this time of year, as the weather gets colder, people want a day to rest and enjoy life.
Hong Kong Tourism Board
115 E. 54th St. 2/F
New York, NY 10022
212-421-3382; fax: 212-421-8428
Taiwan Government Information Office
4201 Wisconsin Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
202-895-1850; fax: 202-362-6144
BkFest-1937, p. 81
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 115
BkHolWrld-1986, Sep 16
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 191, 225, 231
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 326
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 504
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 158
HolSymbols-2009, p. 578
IntlThFolk-1979, p. 198
OxYear-1999, p. 703

Celebrated in: Singapore

Mid-Autumn Festival (Singapore)
Full moon nearest September 15
The Mid-Autumn Festival, sometimes known as the Mooncake Festival, is observed by Chinese communities around the world. In Singapore, the mooncakes served during the festival recall a 14th-century uprising against the Mongols, when word of the revolt was spread by concealing the message in cakes that were then smuggled out to compatriots. Today the cakes are often sold along with lanterns and are filled with either a sweet bean paste or with melon and lotus seeds, and may be flavored with orange peels, egg yolks, or other spices. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, children all over Singapore have parades so they can show off their lighted lanterns. There are also lantern-making contests, Chinese costume-making competitions, lion and dragon dances, and concerts.
National Heritage Board of Singapore
140 Hill St., 03-02 MITA Bldg.
Singapore, 179369 Singapore
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 158

Celebrated in: Singapore

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