The Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival dates back over 3,000 years, to moon worshiping in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC).
As well as the history below, there are several legends that explain the origin of China's Mid-Autumn Festival in a more fanciful way.
Ancient Chinese emperors worshiped the harvest moon at Mid-Autumn, as they believed that the practice would bring them a plentiful harvest the next year.
Sacrificing to moon has various names in different regions of China. It is called ‘worshiping the moon’ in Suzhou of Jiangsu Province, ‘thanking peace’ in Zhenjiang of Jiangsu Province, ‘paying respect to the moon palace’ in Zhenghe of Fujian Province, ‘making wishes to the moon’ in Zhongmou of Henan Province, and ‘worshiping moonlight’ in Sihui of Guangdong Province.
The word 'mid-autumn' first appeared in Zhou Dynasty literature. During that time, worshiping 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.
The custom of offering sacrifices to the moon originates from worshiping the lunar goddess, and it was recorded that kings offered sacrifices to the moon in fall during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045–770 BC). Sacrificing to the moon was very popular in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), and become a custom ever since.
The sacrificial offerings include apples, plums, grapes, and incense, but mooncakes and watermelons (pomelos in the south) are essential. The watermelon’s (pomelo's) skin is sometimes sliced and opened up into a lotus shape when offered as a sacrifice.
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, began 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.
In the early Tang Dynasty the day was officially celebrated as a traditional festival. It then became an established festival during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), and has become second in popularity to the Spring Festival since the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties.
The tradition of eating mooncakes during the festival began in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368, a dynasty ruled by the Mongols).
At the end of Yuan Dynasty the Han people’s resistance wanted to overthrow the rule of the Mongols, so they planned 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.
The military counselor of the Han people’s resistance 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 slips of paper, put them in mooncakes, then sell them to the common Han people.
When the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival came a huge uprising broke out. From then on, people ate mooncakes every Mid-Autumn Festival to commemorate the uprising (though this is little-remembered today).