Scholars decoding time-honored Mid-Autumn Festival

By CHEN LIANSHAN, HUANG TAO, and YUAN JIN / 09-28-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: “Huan Yue Tu,” a painting dating back to 907–979, depicting women’s moon worship rituals on the Mid-Autumn night

The Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, is one of the most important traditional festivals in China and also an integral part of traditional Chinese culture. In a recent forum, Chen Lianshan, a professor from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University, Huang Tao, a professor from the School of Humanities at Wenzhou University, and Yuan Jin, associate dean of the School of Cultural Creativity and Media at Hangzhou Normal University, “decoded” this festival from multiple perspectives.


Huang Tao: The direct origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival dates back to the Tang Dynasty when moon appreciation started to gain popularity. The Complete Tang Poems [the largest collection of Tang poetry compiled in 1705–06] includes over 130 poems dedicated to moon appreciation on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. These poems, along with other related literary records, serve as evidence of the formation of the Mid-Autumn Festival in the Tang. By the middle to late Tang, the festival had already become a national event. During the Song, the festival evolved into a grand celebration featuring moon appreciation, gatherings, and feasts. According to the Dongjing Menghua Lu, or The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor, a memoir written by the Song writer Meng Yuanlao, “As the Mid-Autumn Festival was coming, all the restaurants [in the Song capital, located in present-day Kaifeng, Henan Province] began to sell newly brewed liquor and adorned their cai lou [a traditional architectural arch in front of restaurants, generally used to celebrate festive events] with colorful silk. Colorful jiu qi [flags hanging outside taverns and restaurants as advertisements in ancient China] with the image of “Zui Xian” [Drunk Deity] were hung on painted poles outside restaurants. Citizens eagerly rushed into restaurants to sip the newly brewed liquor. Around noon, all the liquor had been sold out, and restaurants had to take down their flags. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the autumn delicacies—crabs, pomegranates, quince fruits, pears, dates, chestnuts, grapes, and tangerines—were sold at the market. On the night of the festival, noble families enjoyed the full moon on their grand terraces, while commoners crowded restaurants to appreciate the moon, with music lingering in the air. Residents close to the imperial palace could hear music from the palace in the middle of the night, like a fairy melody from beyond the clouds. Children in alleys played all night long. The night markets were lively and opened until dawn.”

The imperial court also attached great importance to this festival and granted a day off to government officials. The Mid-Autumn Festival during the Tang and Song was not only lively and grand, but also filled with romance, and buzzed with liquor, music, poetry, and mythology.

The Yuan followed the customs from the Tang and Song. During the Ming, the festival became a day of worshiping the moon and family reunions, and mooncakes appeared as a seasonal delicacy.

After the Ming and Qing, the practical nature of the festival was highlighted, with the importance of humanities and kinship eclipsing the romance of moon appreciation and revelry of indulging in liquor from the Tang and Song. Rituals such as moon worship and the myth of Chang’e had already existed prior to the Tang. They were incorporated into the customs of the Mid-Autumn Festival by the Tang people, adding profound cultural connotations.  

Customs and connotations 

Chen Lianshan: The customs of the Mid-Autumn Festival encompass both behavioral traditions, such as moon appreciation and eating mooncakes, as well as folk and mythological legends. Moon mythology differs greatly among different ethnic groups. Chinese moon mythology has three characteristics.

Firstly, the moon is believed to have the power to raise the dead because of the lunar cycle. Mythological elements of the moon are also associated with immortality: the moon goddess Chang’e was able to enter the moon because she stole the elixir of immortality, the jade rabbit pounds the elixir of immortality in the moon palace, and Wu Gang is known for endlessly cutting down a self-healing osmanthus tree on the moon.  

Secondly, according to Chinese yin-yang philosophy, the sun represents yang energy while the moon represents yin energy. Therefore, the moon deity is associated with femininity. In the pre-Qin text Guizang, a woman named Heng’e (later changed to Chang’e to avoid the taboo of the name of Emperor Wen of Han) was punished and transformed into a toad in the moon for stealing the elixir of immortality. After the Han, Chang’e gradually evolved into a beautiful moon goddess accompanied by a jade rabbit. Hence, when people enjoy the moon, they are also appreciating the beauty of the moon goddess. Since Chang’e is associated with the moon deity, it has become a tradition for women to host moon worshiping ceremonies.  

Thirdly, the Chinese believe that the perfect moon is the full moon. The Lantern Festival, Zhongyuan Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival are all celebrated on the day of a full moon. The full moon of the Mid-Autumn Festival is endowed with the symbolic meaning of family reunion. In contrast, European medieval legends say that the full moon drives people to madness or even transforms them into werewolves. Hence, the full moon seems not so popular in Europe.

Yuan Jin: The Mid-Autumn Festival is an old festival that embodies the Chinese people’s perception of nature and life. 

In ancient times when people knew little about astronomy, the sun and the moon, representing yin and yang, were mysterious. The worship of the sun, moon, and stars has long existed. As the mystery surrounding the moon waned, from the Sui and Tang onwards, appreciating the moon and reciting poetry became a fashionable trend among literati. After the Song, the festival had more “common touch.” In modern times, the tradition of moon worship has not faded, but has evolved with different names. At night, families set up altars in their courtyards, offering mooncakes, lotus root, pomegranates, persimmons, watermelons, and other seasonal fruits. In Quzhou, Zhejiang Province, the locals serve candy, rice cakes, tea, and other offerings to the moon, a practice known as “Bai Yuepo.”  

Family reunion is another major theme of the Mid-Autumn Festival. During the Ming, it was customary for married daughters to return their parents’ home on Mid-Autumn night. On this night, mooncakes were the essential festive food for family gatherings. Mooncakes vary in shape and flavor in different regions. For example, in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, mooncakes are often flavored with salt and pepper, roses, ham, fresh meat, or red bean paste. In Zhuji, a small city in Zhejiang, people prefer to make huge mooncakes and stack them on the table as an offering to the moon, a practice known as “Yan Chang’e” [lit. feast Chang’e].

On Mid-Autumn night, people often enjoy the breeze and go for a night stroll. For example, in Suzhou, there is a custom among women to “walk the moon.” They dress up and stroll in consort two or three together. In Fuzhou it is believed that going out for a stroll on Mid-Autumn night can ward off illnesses, hence the term “walking away a hundred diseases.” Wujiang District in Suzhou has long been economically prosperous. During the Ming and Qing, it was customary to decorate dragon boats with colorful lanterns. In the preface to “The Song of Mid-Autumn Dragon Boat,” Zhu Heling (1606–1683) described a typical Mid-Autumn night, in which the streets of Wujiang were packed with lantern fairs and dragon boats passing by.

Today’s Mid-Autumn Festival 

Chen Lianshan: With the development of science and technology, humans have successfully landed on the moon and seen its true face. The moon palace, Chang’e, and the jade rabbit don’t actually exist, and the shadow within the moon is not the osmanthus tree, but merely lunar craters. As a result, the mythical beliefs surrounding the moon have inevitably faded. Although people no longer believe in moon myths, they still appreciate them as a form of literature and art. The images of Chang’e flying to the moon, the moon palace, and the jade rabbit often appear on various mooncake packaging. China’s first moon rover was named “Jade Rabbit.” The moon mythology continues to be an integral part of the customs and traditions surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Huang Tao: The modern significance of Mid-Autumn Festival customs and cultural connotations can be summarized as follows:

Firstly, through activities such as gathering, celebrating, and exchanging gifts, the festival deepens the emotional connections and strengthens interpersonal relationships among family members, friends, colleagues, and others.

Secondly, the festival promotes a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature through customs like moon appreciation, boating, and observing the tides.

Thirdly, people also celebrate bountiful harvests by enjoying newly harvested grains, fresh fruits, and watching performances.

Yuan Jin: The Mid-Autumn Festival expresses the emotions and beliefs of the Chinese people. Due to social transformation, especially increased social mobility and the dissolution of traditional social structures, there has been a rupture in the transmission of traditional festivals. This is manifested by the gradual disappearance of traditional customs and a relatively weakened sense of festival consciousness. However, from the perspective of contemporary societal life, the Mid-Autumn Festival still holds a practical significance that aligns with people’s daily necessities. It is a holiday for family reunion, which is particularly important in the current context of increased social mobility and the emerging trend of individualization.