Home China Guide The History and Origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The History and Origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival

the mid-autumn festivalLegend of the moon

The Moon Festival dates back over 3,000 years, to moon worshiping in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). Ancient Chinese emperors worshiped the moon in the autumn, as they believed that the practice would bring them a plentiful harvest the next year.

Sacrificing to the Moon

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 the Zhou Dynasty. 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, and has become a custom ever since.

The sacrificial offerings include moon cakes, watermelons (pomelos in South China), apples, plums, grapes, and incense, of which moon cakes 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

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 as popular as the Spring Festival since the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1368 - 1644) dynasties.

Eating Mooncakes

The tradition of eating mooncakes during the festival began in Yuan Dynasty. At the end of Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368, a dynasty ruled by the Mongols), the Han people’s army wanted to overthrow the rule of the Mongols, so they planed 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.

One day, the military counselor of the Han people’s 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 papers and put them into mooncakes then sell them to 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).

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