The Mid-Autumn Festival (also the Mooncake Festival or Lantern Festival) is considered to be one of the most significant festivals for Chinese people. Celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, the 3,500-year old tradition is commonly observed all over the world to worship the moon, celebrate the harvest season, and most importantly, to eat mooncake.
Like most traditional celebrations observed today, the practice has been handed down through generations of Chinese culture and is usually linked to significant historical events. A major part of the celebration includes the parades that feature children with colorful candle-lit paper lanterns. This is usually followed by an assortment of lantern-themed activities, such as exhibitions and others.
Another important part of the festivities, which is widely recognized even by Western societies, is the tradition of people giving mooncakes filled with lotus paste and a salted egg yolk to acquaintances and friends.
But why do the Chinese celebrate by giving out and eating mooncakes? The origin of the custom has several different origin stories.
The Mid-Autumn Festival itself can be traced back as far as the Zhou Dynasty, the longest of all Chinese dynasties that reigned in the years 1046 – 256 BCE, but the mooncake custom wasn’t solidified until the Tang Dynasty (619-907) when Chinese folklore tells the tale of a Turpan businessman who offered cakes to Emperor Taizong after his victory on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month against the Xiongnu, the nomadic peoples of ancient central Asia.
According to the story, Taizong looked at the moon while eating one of the cakes and said, “I’d like to invite the toad to enjoy the hú (胡) cake.” He shared the cakes with his ministers, and the custom of eating these hú cakes was soon practiced in celebration of the event. As the practice began to spread throughout the country, the round cakes eventually became known as mooncakes. The mooncake giving was later linked to the harvest festival during the Song Dynasty (906–1279).
According to a different tale, the traditional mooncakes played a significant part during the Chinese rebellion against the Mongols at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368).
Rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang distributed thousands of mooncakes to Chinese residents in the Mongol capital in the guise of celebrating the Mongol ruler. Each cake concealed a piece of paper saying, “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eighth month.” The plan succeeded, and the Mongols were overthrown. Zhu then founded the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and supposedly began the tradition still practiced today.
Another important part of the celebration still being observed today is moon worship. There is an ancient Chinese belief in rejuvenation which was then associated with the moon and water. Offerings are usually made to the well-known lunar deity, Chang’e, the Moon Goddess of Immortality.
While changes in technology, science, economy, culture, and religion have contributed to the evolution of how the tradition is celebrated today, the festival’s traditions and myths have remained rooted in the three concepts of gathering, thanksgiving and praying.
The event is widely celebrated not only in China but also in many parts of the world with strong Chinese influence such as Vietnam and some parts of the Philippines.