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The Moon Festival: Chinese Thanksgiving Day

Updated on September 19, 2013

The September 12th (2012) before long was the August 15th in Chinese calendar, which is one of the most meaningful Chinese traditional festivals, the Moon or the Mid-Autumn Festival.


Like other traditional festivals, the Moon Day has its long history. According to The Rites of Zhou, an encyclopaedia of three thousand years ago, ancient emperors and kings laid emphasis on a rite of worshipping the Sun in spring and the Moon in autumn. Gradually, this royal rite became popular among noble people and scholars. They generally sacrificed fancy food on an incense burner table in a garden to the most amazing moon hanging up in the sky, (according to the Calendar, the Moon on that day is the fullest and brightest.), and expressed their thoughts and feelings to the star. Afterwards, this rite spreaded far and wide in public and became a routine custom, but it had not been commonly regarded as a festival until Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), and had become prevalent among public since Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.).

Houyi shooting the suns
Houyi shooting the suns | Source
Chang'e flying to the Moon
Chang'e flying to the Moon | Source

About the origin of the festival, there arose different legendary stories in different versions. The most famous and popular one is the Moon Fairy. In the description of the legend, there was a hero, whose name was Houyi, in remote antiquity. Houyi married a beautiful and virtuous girl, Chang'e. At the time, there were ten suns rising and playing in the sky. They scorched the earth, so that none of crops could grow. Then, Houyi bravely climbed up to the grand Kunlun Mountain, and shot down nine suns with his arch and arrows. He ordered the last one to serve for the people by rising and setting on time. Houyi was therefore highly respected by people, and accepted many students. One day, Houyi ran into a god in Kunlun Mountain. The god sent him two magic pills and told him that he would be immotal if took one pill, and fly into the Heaven to become a god if took the both. Houyi so loved his wife that was never willing to leave her. He gave them to Chang'e when he got home, and told her that they would take one each later, and they would happily live long together. However, after he left home, Chang'e could not control herself curious about the pills and the Heaven. As a result, she took the both pills, and flying up all the way into the Heaven the moment she swallowed those pills. Finally, Chang'e was trapped into the Moon Palace by Jade Emperor of The Heaven, and never set free. Since then, she has lived in the exotic palace only with one company of the Jade Rabbit. (It is in the legend that she tried to grasp something when she flew away from the Earth, but only caught hold of a little white rabbit, which became exotic and was called "Jade Rabbit"). So, Chang'e became the most beautiful but most lonely woman in the universe. There was a famous poet in Tang Dynasty, Li Shangyin, who used to write one famous poem sentence: Chang'e must have regretted stealing the pills, for she had sufferred endless loneliness in the indefinite universe (嫦娥应悔偷灵药,碧海青天夜夜心).


Let us talk back to the husband, Houyi. When he went home from work, he figured out what happened. He knew that he would never see his wife again, however he missed her. Then, he looked into the sky and shouted. All of sudden, he found that the Moon was especially bright and clear, and furthermore, he saw a swaying shadow in it, which seemed like Chang'e. He kept running toward the Moon for dear life, but of course he never caught up with the star. He finally gave it up, and helplessly put an incense burner table in the garden and brought Chang'e's favourite food to memorize his lovely wife. While public people knew about Chang'e, they all prayed this goddess who used to be their friend on a happy life.


One story led to another. There is a god whose name is Wu Gang in the Heaven. He fell in love with Chang'e. However, Chang'e only misses her husband. So, when Wu Gang payed court to her, she told him that she would accept him unless he hacked down that towering laurel tree in front of the Moon Palace. Wu Gang, with no words, began to hack the tree with a trenchant axe, but every time he cut off one piece of wood the tree automatically grows out a new piece to cover it up. Even so, Wu Gang never gave it up! He keeps hacking in vain until today. People can see a person-like shadow in the Moon, which is Wu Gang still hacking the Laurel Tree.

The Mooncake

The mooncake is a special food only for Moon Festival. It is an inevitable and most meaningful gift for friends and relatives during the Day, and families share one cake implying together forever.


Generally, the mooncake is in the round shape that symbolizes the reunion, whereas the various beautiful patterns, such as Chang'e Flying toward The Moon, A Moon Hanging up in The Galaxy, or The Moon in The Lake, show a romantic imagination. The custom of eating moon cake on Moon Day first appeared in Tang Royal Palace. It was called "Palace Cake" in North Song Dynasty, and gradually became popular in public. According to Tang's document, the first connection between the cake and the Moon was about a war. The current No. 1 General, Li Jing, in early Tang Dynasty won the war with Xiongnu, an ancient nationality in China, and came back with his grand army on August 15th. A Xiongnu business man dedicated Xiongnu cakes to the emperor. The emperor pointed at the full Moon in the sky and said with smile on the face that the cake was supposed to be dedicated to the Moon. Since then, Tang's emperors always granted the cake to officials on Moon Festival, but it had yet been called "Moon Cake". Based on folk legend, pubic people has begun to eat Moon Cake since late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.). The current Mongolian governors were so cruel to people that the rebellion strength arose secretly and rapidly in public. Zhu Yuanzhang, the leader of an insurrectionist, decided to associate other insurrectionary armies to start a war on the Moon Day night of the year. However, his information was hard to pass to other leaders because of the strict search. Then, he got an idea that hid notes in cakes and sent cakes out. Eventually, the Yuan Dynasty was thrown over, and Zhu Yuanzhang became the first emperor of the following Ming Dynasty. To celebrate the victory, Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the Cake as the special Festival Cake and bestowed it to his officials and soldiers. Since then, the Moon Cake had become the sacrificial offering to the Moon and was given the meaning of "reunion". With time, the Moon Cake was made more and more beautiful and tasty, and became a fashionable gift. On the Moon Festival night, all families sit together to divide up the round moon cake enjoying the peaceful and happy moment. So, the Day is also called "Reunion Festival".


Nowadays, the Moon Cake is of great variety and fine manufacturing skill. Based on the producing places, there are mainly Beijing Cake, Guangdong Cake, Suzhou Cake, Yun-Gui Cake, Hongkong Cake, Shanxi Cake, and even Japanese Cake, etc; based on taste, there are sweet, salty, sweet-salty, and hot-spicy; based on the fillings, there are Osmanthus Flower, Prune, Five Nut Kernels, Bean Paste, Rose Paste, Lotus Paste, Rocky Candy, Gingko, Meat-product, Black Sesame Seeds, Ham, and Egg Yellow, etc; based on the peel quality, there are starch and syrup, mixed sugar, crisp, and cream, etc; based on the outside look, there are smooth and lace. Of these, Guangdong Moon Cake is well known by its fine materials and producing process, as well as its deliciousness and beautiful patterns. It has actually become the major brand and popular among all Chinese from all over the world.


The Customs on Moon Day

Admiration of the Moon

Ancient royal families, noble people, and men of letters liked to express their thoughts and feelings facing up to the Moon at the night of August 15th, which was called "admiration of the Moon". Gradually, to admire the Moon had become a fixed program on this festival. Public people appreciate the beauty of the Moon, and pray on family reunion and happy life. More deserved to mention, those people who have to stay away from homelands and families tend to rise nostalgic feelings when they see the bright full moon, which is actually a cultural complex and a feeling of national belonging. Another famous poet in Tang Dynasty, Wang Wei, wrote another one very famous poem sentence: the moon rises from above the sea, then everywhere is in the moment (海上升明月,天涯共此时)!


There is an ancient story behind this custom. In the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), there was an ugly girl, whose name was Wu Yan, in Qi Country. Although ugly, Wu Yan was known by her noble virtuousness and behavior, and thus was selected to accompany the king. However, the king had never received her because she looked ugly. At one night of August 15th, the king passed by while she was alone admiring the Moon. He found her so beautiful in the silvery moonlight that let her become his queen. Since then, young girls admire the Moon at the night to pray to be as beautiful as Chang'e in the Moon Palace.

With the development and progress of the society, the utility values become popular among people. Pristine festivals are given secular interests. All those pure romantic and even poetical stories are forgotten behind those utilitarian activities and petitions. In this case, ordinary people tended to have their simple but solid expectation for reunion, happiness and health to the clean clear Moon.

Lantern | Source

Crab dinner

To eat crabs on Moon Festival is also a popular custom handed down from royal family. People sit together around the table with flowers, pomegranades, and other seasonal fruits arranged on it. The crab is cooked in lotus leaves, and brought in the center of the table. After eat crabs, people are supposed to drink sage soup, and then wash hands with the soup.

Playing flower lanterns

Playing flower lanterns is an important program on the Moon Night. Unlike on Yuanxiao Festival, when the large-scale lantern meetings are held, playing lanterns on Moon Night only occurs at home and among children, and mainly in south China. There are various shapes of lanterns, such as sesame, egg shell, wood shavings, rice straw, fish, birds, and beasts. They can all be surprisingly cute.

Dancing Fire Dragon

Dancing fire dragon is a major entertainment in Hongkong region. In Tai Hang district, people hold a great occasion of fire dragon dancing for three days in a row. The fire dragon can be more than 70 meters long with 32 sections and a large number of long live incenses on it. The winding fluctuant fire dragons are dancing in the light and music one by one, which is really a spectacular view. The players include the general coach, coach, conductors, and securities, etc. and they together can reach the number of over 30,000. It is legendary that there used to be a large python living in Tai Hang region years and years ago. It was cruel and so harmful. The local people tried best to find and kill it, but the dead snake body was secretly gone the next day. Days later, epidemic infectious disease happened in this area without reasons. Then, some god told the village people in their dreams that the infectious disease would be gone only if they danced the fire dragons. People followed this instruction, and then they recovered from the disease. And the traditional activity is handed down from generation to generation.

Fire Dragon Dance
Fire Dragon Dance | Source

Throwing a handkerchief to decide marriage

In ancient China, young people did not have much freedom on their marriage. Some rich family might consider to give their beautiful, educated and wilful daughters chances to choose. One chance was to choose their husbands by throwing a handkerchief. Usually, they dressed up like Chang'e standing onto a high platform in a plaza. A large crowd of young men waited below around and expected for good luck. The young girl stood in the high and watched around carefully. If they found someone who they liked, they would throw a handkerchief with beautiful embroidery on it at that man. Whoever picked up the handkerchief, a marriage between them would have been decided. No going back! This event only happened in old days. It sounds interesting but helpless, romantic but thoughtless.

Moon games of Minor Groups

Inner-Mongolian people have the game of "catching up with the Moon". People ride horses running in the grassland in the silvery moonlight. The horse riders usually run toward the west, because the Moon rises in the east and sets in the west. They won't stop until the Moon sets down. Tibet people have another interesting game of "looking for the Moon". At the Moon Night, young men and women and children follow the Moon reflection in water to look for the real Moon along the river. Then, they returned home to spend the reunion night with families. Miao Chu people are good at singing and dancing. They join together and dance in their beautiful music of flute in the clear moonlight. Young people look for their lovers and promise to each other their love clean and clear like the pure water and the silvery Moon, which is called the game of "celebrating the Moon". The Gaoshan Chu people in Taiwan all dress up in their national costumes dancing and singing. They drink as enjoy the Moon to celebrate their happiness. Another traditional activity in Taiwan tells that pretty young girls in beautiful dresses go to vegetable gardens of other people to steal the onion green and other vegetables. If succeed, they would meet their perfect guys. Upon this, there is a popular saying, "stealing the onion green, marry a good man; stealing the vegetable, marry a good husband."

Mongolian grassland
Mongolian grassland | Source

In present days, all families are supposed to return to parents' home on Moon Festival. They sent gifts to each other and have a big reunion supper together. At the dinner, everybody talks about blessing, hope and thank. The 56 nationalities of Chinese people, as well as Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, all spend the Moon Festival in their respect severe way. With the growth of cultural communication between the east and the west, some western people, especially those who live in these oriental countries, tend to spend this festival either. Given the unique meaning and the way of celebration, people also call it "Chinese Thanksgiving Day". In short, a beautiful festival with beautiful stories behind is a precious cultural fortune belonging to the whole human beings.


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    • Frank Poncharello profile image

      Frank Poncharello 

      3 years ago


    • Hui (蕙) profile imageAUTHOR

      Hui (蕙) 

      6 years ago

      Thank you, hush, for your lovely comment, and glad you like it. We have same one moon, clear, quiet and beautiful, which so deserves this devotion.

    • hush4444 profile image


      6 years ago from Hawaii

      What beautiful hub - I enjoyed reading every bit of it! We have moon cakes where I live in Hawaii, but I never knew the whole wonderful story - thank you!

    • Hui (蕙) profile imageAUTHOR

      Hui (蕙) 

      6 years ago

      Steve, it is really our pleasure that you enjoy the Day. I especially like two things on which the festival focuses: the Moon and the Mid-autumn.

    • Steve LePoidevin profile image

      Steve LePoidevin 

      6 years ago from Thailand

      After four years of celebrating the Mid-Autumn festival, I finally have all the detail in one place! Very informative! And I do love moon cakes....ok, I love any cake!

    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 

      6 years ago from Miami, US

      So true! You see the same moon in China that I see in the U.S.

    • Hui (蕙) profile imageAUTHOR

      Hui (蕙) 

      6 years ago

      stephaniedas, it is my pleasure that you love this story. We all have the one moon, which deserves devoting.

    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 

      6 years ago from Miami, US

      How beautiful to have a holiday devoted to the moon. I love the story, too.

    • Hui (蕙) profile imageAUTHOR

      Hui (蕙) 

      7 years ago

      VirginiaLynne, thanks for your comment, and for you like Chinese traditions. I have strong cultural complex of my own country, but regret conventions are disappearing. It is really my pleasure that you enjoy Chinese culture. I go to check those books.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      7 years ago from United States

      I was in charge of a Moon Festival celebration last year and had a lot of trouble getting detailed information. So glad you've put this all together for us. I absolutely love Moon Cakes, but I didn't know there were so many different kinds! There are some great kids books for Moon Festival--you might want to check those out at Amazon. Great hub! Voted up and useful!

    • Hui (蕙) profile imageAUTHOR

      Hui (蕙) 

      7 years ago

      Thank you, kerlynb, so much for reading into the details. I love this festival and its special food. I think it is romantic, isn't it? Of course, all those degendary stories are just what ancient people made up based on their observation. Thanks, again.

    • kerlynb profile image


      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      Talk about a very detailed hub! Voted this up and interesting! Congratulations on this one. I had always wondered why we have mooncakes on Chinese festivals. Now I know it's because of Chang'e :)


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