The Mid-Autumn Festival is the Thanksgiving of East Asia: it’s a time for family, food, and moongazing. The full moon, this year falling on September 16, is a symbol of unity and completeness. As the biggest festival after the Lunar New Year, families reunite from around the world, with some countries like South Korea giving a three-day bank holiday to allow people to head back to their rural hometowns for elaborate ancestor worship and rituals. Here are some interesting myths and fascinating facts behind the festival that you probably didn't know.
People believe that the moon is at its biggest during the Mid-Autumn Festival – and they’re right. Because of the moon’s elliptical orbit around the earth, the relative distance changes over the course of the year. The path takes a narrower angle during Mid-Autumn, which always falls on the fifteenth of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar: so the moon at this time of year is physically closer, and therefore appears bigger and brighter for all to witness. Over the years, the phrase “the fifteenth of the eight month” has become a Cantonese euphemism for a well-rounded derrière.
Like other ancient festivals from any culture, Mid-Autumn mythology is built on layers of old anecdotes and even older legends, which have been woven together and made new with each retelling. Most scholars recognise that holidays have old, agricultural roots. For ancient China, the harvest moon signalled the autumnal harvest, one of the most important harvests before winter came. Farmers made offerings to the full moon during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 A.D.), and it became an official festival during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.).
There are numerous variants of the tale of Chang’e (Seung Ngo in Cantonese). She’s not a “moon goddess” in the sense that Selene, Artemis, or Diana are in Greco-Roman mythology, but just a lady who lives on the moon. There are a hundred different stories about how she got there: but the most entertaining is a Cantonese rendition including a hero’s quest, love, betrayal and some questionable medication. Here's the famous tale below:
Around 2100 BC, there were ten suns, which were actually ravens, who lived in a mulberry tree in the eastern sea. Each day, one of the sun-ravens would circle the earth in a carriage drawn by the Mother of the Suns, Xihe. One day, the sun-ravens decided that they’ve had enough with the strict work schedule and flew away. The earth was scorched by the intensity of ten suns, and Emperor Yao asked the archer Houyi to shoot down the sun-ravens with his bow and arrow. He shot nine down, saved the universe and was rewarded with kingship, plus a pill of immortality. Houyi soon became an insufferable, arrogant tyrant. When his poor wife Chang’e found his stash of Daoist drugs, she decided to swallow them and leave. She became immortal immediately and gravity could not hold her diaphanous form anymore, so she floated up to the moon.
Chang’e Really is in Space
Well, sort of. The myth says that Chang’e resides on the moon eternally alone, with only a cute jade rabbit who constantly pounds herbs or sticky rice with his pestle and mortar, and an ugly moon toad. Some tales say that Houyi tried to track down his wife, swallowed some other magic pills of dubious origins, and became said ugly toad when he did his moon landing. Whatever really happened, China’s space centre was inspired enough by these ancient stories to name their lunar exploration programme after the tale’s heroine, calling it Chang’e-3. They even took her pet there in 2013, with the lunar rover named Jade Rabbit.
Politics loves to creep into old agricultural, moon-worshipping holidays: but the tradition of passing around mooncakes is not to commemorate the overthrowing of the Mongols.
It is rumoured that revolutionaries during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.) put secret messages inside mooncakes and this started the tradition: but mooncakes pre-date the Yuan dynasty, and the traditional mooncakes are more likely to date back to the Song dynasty (907-1279 A.D.), or even before. One thing is certain – the mooncakes we eat today are nothing like the ones they ate back then.