Sunday, September 19, 2004


Zhōng qīu jié 中秋節
Mid-Autumn Festival

The Chinese calendar is based on the lunar cycle and the moon is important to the Chinese. Autumn Moon Festival, literally ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’, or the Birthday of the Moon is on 8/15 of the lunar calendar, a full moon night. It is a time to have the family together, eat a festive meal including moon cakes, and enjoy the moonlight. Children & adults carry paper lanterns and climb hills to get a good view of the full moon. They give thanks to the bright, silvery moon of the eighth lunar month. Some call it a “Chinese Thanksgiving”. (In Taiwan this is also Teacher’s Day.)

When the moon is round, families unite. Yuè yuán, rén yuán. (月圓, 人圓)

The next Mid-Autumn Festivals (lunar 8/15) are: Sept. 25, 2007; Sept. 14, 2008; Oct. 3, 2009; Sept. 22, 2010, Sept. 12, 2011; Sept 30, 2012, Sept. 19, 2013; Sept. 8, 2014; Sept. 27, 2015; Sept 15, 2016; Oct. 4, 2017; and Sept. 24, 2018. There are also converters on the web to determine Western dates from Chinese lunar dates and vice versa.

Not that long ago, most people in the world were farmers. They grew their own vegetables and fruit and they raised their own pigs, cows, and chickens for milk, eggs, and meat. Sometimes they had a lot of food and sometimes not enough. But after the fall harvest families and friends would gather together to give thanks for all they had to eat, for the rain, the sunlight and the earth that made all life possible. In America this holiday is called Thanksgiving. In China, the people celebrate the Autumn Moon Festival. If we lived in North China, wheat is important; in South China, rice is more important.

Mooncakes are round like the moon. The round shape is a symbol for togetherness and harmony. Made of flaked pastry, they often have egg yolks in the center, to represent the moon, and sweet fillings of red bean paste, lotus seed paste, coconut or nuts. The sweetness of them represents good fortune or good harvest. Traditional red bean paste filling takes days to make. Special molds are used which press special designs in the top. Now “everyone” buys mooncakes instead of making them at home.

On the evening of the Autumn Moon Festival, people carrying paper lanterns climb hills and mountains to get a good view of the full moon. They give thanks to the bright, silvery moon of the eighth lunar month. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also partially a Festival of Lights. The lanterns they carry all have candles in them. Before electricity, people were more aware of the length of the days and the stars, and what happened in the night sky.

Days in China, as days here, get shorter in the fall as there are more hours of darkness each day, but the moon triumphs. They say that the moon is its roundest on 8/15 (lunar).

The later one stays up, the longer one’s parents live. (Although the family “should” be together for Autumn Moon festival and it is always good to remember and worship one’s ancestors, this is not the special day to remember the dead. That is Qing Ming, celebrated on April 4th, one of the few holidays using the Gregorian calendar.)

There are many legends about the moon that people remember at the Mid-Autumn Festival. The most popular are about how long ago Chang Èr, lady moon, flew to the moon and how, not quite so long ago, mooncakes saved the day. Chang Èr is also known as Lady Moon and still lives on the moon with a rabbit and a cassia tree. Many mooncakes are stamped with designs of the Moon Lady, the Jade Rabbit, or groves of cassia trees. (Most ground cinnamon sold in the USA is actually cassia.) When you look at the full moon, who or what do you see?

Longer version: According to one legend, 10 suns blazed in the sky in ancient times. The heat burned the earth, fields could no longer produce crops, and people were going to die. The emperor asked for archers to shoot all the suns. Brave Hou Yi was the best archer in the land. He shot down nine of the suns and stopped before shooting the last one. For saving the people, Hou Yi became King and was given an immortality pill or elixir (perhaps from Queen of Wang Mu on the Kun Lun Mountain).

Unfortunately, Hou Yi became a tyrant indulging in debauchery and random killing. His subjects were afraid and hated him. His wife, Chang Èr, was heart-broken by her husband’s change and what was happening to the country. She knew that if he took the immortality pill, the country would never recover. So, to save her countrymen, Chang Èr stole the immortality pill and swallowed it herself. Her body became so light that she flew into the air. Chang Er escaped to the bright, full moon on 8/15 of the lunar calendar. She became the Moon Goddess. She still lives there alone except for the Jade Rabbit and cassia trees.

At this special time of year, the Moon Lady will grant your secret wish. If you have a special wish? Don't tell anyone; don't say it out loud! Tell your secret wish to Chang Èr.

Another Mooncake Story:

During the 14th century, China was under the harsh rule of the Mongols. A great number of Chinese secretly met and decided to revolt against the Mongols. Secret messages about the time and place of the revolt had to be sent to the Chinese people in the cities and villages. The Chinese were unable to come up with a plan to deliver the messages without the Mongols discovering until they thought of embedding them in mooncakes. They were made, the secret messages inserted, and distributed by the Chinese to all their friends and relatives.

When the Chinese cut the mooncakes to eat, they found the secret message about the revolt. On 8/15 of the lunar calendar, the Chinese revolted against the Mongols and drove them out of China. Today some bakers put square printed pieces of paper on mooncakes so you may find may find one on the bottom of a cake or pasted on top of the cake box. This folktale is not necessarily supported by historical records.

For a PDF copy of a (two-sided) one-page handout, or an 8 page illustrated story, just send email to . For more festival information, read Wikipedia's festival entry.

Picture Books:

  • I did not care for Moon Festival by Ching Yeung Russell as a read to a group book. I'd recommend using the pictures and your own words.

  • Although it does not mention Mid-Autumn Festival, I have enjoyed using Round is A Moon Cake by Roseanne Thong with groups at this time of year. While reading, I passed around many of the objects she mentions (round paper lantern, round handleless Chinese teacup, rectangular hong bao envelope, square chop, etc.) I filled the square box that the ink for my chop came in with plastic toy cats (and tigers and lions) for the square cat basket mentioned in the book.
Updated: September 2007


Robin said...

There should be 3 Chinese characters at the top of this post. I do not know how one can change their settings to display them if you are getting 3 question marks.

dc said...

Here is a website that instructs how to install Chinese fonts:

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