TraditionsThe Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the few most important holidays in the Chinese calendar, the others being Spring Festival and Winter Solstice. Accompanying the celebration, there are additional cultural or regional customs, such as:
- Eating mooncakes.
- Matchmaking. In some parts of China, dances are held for young men and women to find partners. "One by one, young women are encouraged to throw their handkerchiefs to the crowd. The young man who catches and returns the handkerchief has a chance of romance."
- Carrying brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, floating sky lanterns
- Burning incense in reverence to deities including Chang'e
- Fire Dragon Dances.
- Moon rabbit is a traditional icon
Houyi and Chang'eCelebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival is strongly associated with the legend of Houyi, his student Feng Meng, and Chang'e, the Moon Goddess of Immortality. Tradition places these two figures from Chinese mythology at around 2200 BCE, during the reign of the legendary Emperor Yao, shortly after that of Huangdi. Unlike many lunar deities in other cultures who personify the moon, Chang'e simply lives on the moon but is not the moon herself.
There are many variants and adaptations of the legend of Chang'e that frequently contradict each other. However, most versions of the legend involve some variation of the following elements: Houyi, the Archer, an emperor, either benevolent or malevolent, and an elixir of life.
One version of the legend states that Houyi was an immortal and Chang'e was a beautiful young girl, working in the palace of the Jade Emperor (the Emperor of Heaven, 玉帝 pinyin:Yùdì) as an attendant to the Queen Mother of the West (the Jade Emperor's wife). Houyi aroused the jealousy of the other immortals, who then slandered him before the Jade Emperor. Houyi and his wife, Chang'e, were subsequently banished from heaven. They were forced to live on Earth. Houyi had to hunt to survive and became a skilled and famous archer.
At that time, there were ten suns, in the form of three-legged birds, residing in a mulberry tree in the eastern sea. Each day one of the sun birds would have to travel around the world on a carriage, driven by Xihe, the 'mother' of the suns. One day, all ten of the suns circled together, causing the Earth to burn. Emperor Yao, the Emperor of China, commanded Houyi to use his archery skill to shoot down all but one of the suns. Upon completion of his task, the Emperor rewarded Houyi with a pill that granted eternal life. Emperor Yao advised Houyi not to swallow the pill immediately but instead to prepare himself by praying and fasting for a year before taking it. Houyi took the pill home and hid it under a rafter. One day, Houyi was summoned away again by Emperor Yao. During her husband's absence, Chang'e, noticed a white beam of light beckoning from the rafters, and discovered the pill. Chang'e swallowed it and immediately found that she could fly. Houyi returned home, realizing what had happened he began to reprimand his wife. Chang'e escaped by flying out the window into the sky.
Houyi pursued her halfway across the heavens but was forced to return to Earth because of strong winds. Chang'e reached the moon, where she coughed up part of the pill. Chang'e commanded the hare that lived on the moon to make another pill. Chang'e would then be able to return to Earth and her husband.
The legend states that the hare is still pounding herbs, trying to make the pill. Houyi built himself a palace in the sun, representing "Yang" (the male principle), in contrast to Chang'e's home on the moon which represents "[Yin and Yang]" (the female principle). Once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Houyi visits his wife. That is the reason why the moon is very full and beautiful on that night.
This description appears in written form in two Western Han dynasty (206 BC-24 AD) collections; Shan Hai Jing, the Classic of the Mountains and Seas and Huainanzi, a philosophical classic.
Another version of the legend, similar to the one above, differs in saying that Chang'e swallowed the pill of immortality because Peng, one of Houyi's many apprentice archers, tried to force her to give the pill to him. Knowing that she could not fight off Peng, Chang'e had no choice but to swallow the pill herself.
Other versions say that Houyi and Chang'e were still immortals living in heaven at the time that Houyi killed nine of the suns. The sun birds were the sons of the Jade Emperor, who punished Houyi and Chang'e by forcing them to live on Earth as mortals. Seeing that Chang'e felt extremely miserable over her loss of immortality, Houyi decided to find the pill that would restore it. At the end of his quest, he met the Queen Mother of the West, who agreed to give him the pill, but warned him that each person would only need half a pill to regain immortality. Houyi brought the pill home and stored it in a case. He warned Chang'e not to open the case, and then left home for a while. Like Pandora in Greek mythology, Chang'e became curious. She opened up the case and found the pill, just as Houyi was returning home. Nervous that Houyi would catch her discovering the contents of the case, she swallowed the entire pill, and started to float into the sky because of the overdose. She kept floating until she reached the moon, where she stayed with her pet rabbit, also known as the Jade Rabbit.
Some versions of the legend do not refer to Houyi or Chang'e as having previously been immortals and initially present them as mortals instead.
There are also versions of the story in which Houyi was made king as a reward for killing nine of the suns and saving the people. However, King Houyi became a despot who either stole a pill of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West or learned that he could make such a pill by grinding up the body of a different adolescent boy every night for a hundred nights. Chang'e stole the pill and swallowed it herself, either to stop more boys being killed or to prevent her husband's tyrannical rule from lasting forever.
The Hare or The Jade RabbitAccording to tradition, the Jade Rabbit pounds medicine, together with the lady, Chang'e, for the gods. Others say that the Jade Rabbit is a shape, assumed by Chang'e herself. The dark areas to the top of the full moon may be construed as the figure of a rabbit. The animal's ears point to the upper right, while at the left are two large circular areas, representing its head and body.
Overthrow of Mongol ruleAccording to a widespread folk tale (not necessarily supported by historical records), the Mid-Autumn Festival commemorates an uprising in China against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368) in the 14th century. As group gatherings were banned, it was impossible to make plans for a rebellion.Noting that the Mongols did not eat mooncakes, Liu Bowen (劉伯溫) of Zhejiang Province, advisor to the Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, came up with the idea of timing the rebellion to coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival. He sought permission to distribute thousands of moon cakes to the Chinese residents in the city to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake, however, was inserted a piece of paper with the message: "Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month" (traditional Chinese: 八月十五殺韃子; simplified Chinese: 八月十五杀鞑子). On the night of the Moon Festival, the rebels attacked and overthrew the government. What followed was the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), under Zhu. Henceforth, the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated with moon cakes on a national level.