Have you heard of Mid-Autumn Festival?
Also known as Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, this special holiday takes place in China every September or early October.
I’ve been in China for quite a few years and have been lucky enough to join in on the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations.
In this article, I’ll tell you what the festival is, what people typically do, and how it came about (including a lovely legend from ancient times).
But first, when does the holiday actually take place?
When is Mid-Autumn Festival?
Mid-Autumn Festival always falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.
This is considered to be around the start of autumn for many countries in the northern hemisphere.
As is the case with quite a few Chinese holidays, the specific date is dictated by the Chinese lunar calendar. This means that the date changes slightly from year to year.
In 2023, the festival will be celebrated on September 29th.
What is the Mid-Autumn Festival?
In China, the Mid-Autumn Festival is about celebrating the autumn harvest.
Traditionally, it was about appreciating the food on your plate with your family. But today, it’s more about spending time with family as food has become more abundant.
Around this time of year, it’s believed that the moon is at its fullest and brightest.
The festival is very important in Chinese culture due to the intoxicating story behind it (more on that later), and why people eat moon cakes around this time.
The festival is actually celebrated in many Asian countries including Vietnam and South Korea. Naturally, each country has slightly different traditions.
What do people do at Mid-Autumn Festival?
Mid-Autumn Festival is a national holiday in China. This means many Chinese people have time off work to spend with their loved ones.
Here’s what the locals might typically do:
- Have a family reunion
- Relax and spend time together
- Eat together – both at home and at restaurants
- Eat moon cakes between meals
- Go traveling – to another province or locally.
In Hong Kong and some parts of the world, there are lion dances you can go and see.
Often, Mid-Autumn Festival is likened to a Chinese version of America’s Thanksgiving. This is because it’s basically a time for a family reunion and eating plenty of food!
I’d say this holiday is the second biggest in China after the Chinese New Year (which you can read more about here.)
Why do people celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival?
The holiday is said to have roots in the Shang Dynasty, which took place around 1600-1046 BC.
It was a celebration of the autumn full moon and harvest season. Family members would come together to (hopefully) celebrate a plentiful crop and enjoy the fruits of their labor under the glowing moon.
In China, locals will enthusiastically remind you to look at the moon around this time as it’s supposed to be the time when it’s at its biggest and brightest.
And, many Chinese people believe that the holiday is special because of the ancient legend, which I’ll share with you now.
Chinese mythology and the elixir of immortality
Chinese mythology is still very much an important part of Chinese culture.
There are a few legends behind the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the story about Chang’e and Hou Yi is the most well-known one.
Legend of Chang’e and Hou Yi
This married couple lived in ancient China when it’s said that there were 10 suns in the sky.
The overload of suns was causing water to dry up and crops to die, and this was destroying the earth and everyone on it.
A skilled archer, Hou Yi heroically shot down nine of the suns with his bow and arrow in a bid to save humanity.
Here, the story becomes a bit unclear with many differing accounts of what happened next, but the version I like best goes like this.
By means of a thank you for saving the world, the Queen of Heaven gifted Hou Yi an immortality elixir.
However, Hou Yi was an old romantic and didn’t want to live forever. He wanted to be by his wife Chang’e’s side in this life and the next.
Realizing that others may seek to use his gift for the wrong reasons, Hou Yi decided to keep the elixir safe and asked Chang’e to guard it.
What could possibly go wrong?
Impressed by his archery skills, people had flocked from all over to learn from Hou Yi. You could say he became somewhat of a celebrity.
However, one of his students, Peng Meng, had an ulterior motive.
Hearing that Hou Yi and Chang’e held the key to immortality, Peng Meng stormed their home one day wielding a sword and demanded that the elixir be handed over to him.
It was now Chang’e’s turn to be the hero. Not convinced that the student had good intentions, she drank the potion herself.
Almost immediately, Chang’e felt a lightness about herself and she began to float. She is said to have floated higher and higher until she eventually reached the moon.
This is where she was now destined to spend eternity.
I guess nobody had really outlined the terms and conditions of immortality!
What happened next?
When Hou Yi learned of his wife’s sacrifice, he was heartbroken.
He screamed his wife’s name over and over searching for some sign of her. As he sadly looked up at the night sky defeated and unsure of what to do next, he noticed that the moon was much brighter than usual.
Looking closely and carefully he could see a familiar figure on the moon. It was his wife looking over him.
Hou Yi is said to have then set up an altar with Chang’e’s favorite snacks and fruit in honor of her time on earth.
Nowadays, some Chinese people still set up an altar with their own offerings for Chang’e while remembering the brave sacrifice she made.
According to Chinese mythology, one of Chang’e’s few companions up in the sky was the mythical jade rabbit.
That’s why you’ll see jade rabbits appear as decorative motifs on mooncake boxes and containers.
You can even find bite-size cakes in China in the shape of rabbits, which are a big hit with children.
(Rabbits are also one of the animals celebrated in the Lunar New Year, making them extra special.)
More about moon cakes
Moon cakes are the biggest symbol of the Mid-Autumn Festival. And eating them is a Chinese tradition!
But what exactly are they?
I’d say they’re a pastry-type creation, like a cross between a cake and a biscuit.
Generally, they’re round in shape and are about the size of your palm. They’re meant to represent the shape and beauty of the moon itself.
On the top, they have beautifully intricate designs.
Inside, moon cakes are traditionally filled with things like:
- Red bean paste
- Lotus seed paste
- Salted duck egg yolk.
Some of these fillings can be a bit of an acquired taste, but overall moon cakes have the salty-sweet ratio nailed down.
Nowadays, you can get all sorts of uniquely designed cakes along with some creative, non-traditional fillings.
I recently saw a chocolate hazelnut coffee moon cake that I will most definitely be trying in the near future! I recall enjoying a strawberry flavored one a few years ago too.
While moon cakes are delicious, they’re generally quite unhealthy. They can contain just as many calories as a burger!
For this reason, they’re often cut up into smaller portions and shared among family and friends.
The shareable nature of this snack also adds to the harmony of spending time with loved ones. In China, they say that a family with mooncakes is a happy one.
They can be expensive
Good quality mooncakes can also be very expensive. So, don’t feel offended if you’re only offered a small piece to try!
Other traditional foods
Pomelos, a citrus fruit that I’d honestly never heard of until moving to China, are very popular during this time. This is because they’re harvested in autumn.
They’re quite similar in taste to grapefruit, but a little less bitter.
The Chinese word for pomelo (yòuzi) sounds like a Chinese phrase which means bless and protect the children.
Therefore, this fruit is a nice way for families to show their care for younger members while they’re all spending time together.
Some families may also enjoy duck during Mid-Autumn Festival.
This has origins in another ancient tale about overthrowing an evil leader. Apparently, his name sounded similar to the local word for duck.
This is why eating duck is symbolic of overcoming oppression.
Nuts and other fruits or vegetables, which are harvested in fall, are also enjoyed in a nice nod to the traditional roots of this celebration.
Special greetings for Mid-Autumn Festival
There are three mains ways to wish someone well during Mid-Autumn Festival:
- Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! – Zhōng qiū jié kuài lè – 中秋节快乐！
- Happy Moon Festival! – Yuè liàng jié kuài lè – 月亮节快乐！
- Happy Mooncake Festival! – Yuè bǐng jié kuài lè – 月饼节快乐！
Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to master, so good luck learning these phrases.
Mid-Autumn Festival is a public holiday
Chinese people enjoy one day off for this public holiday, which is usually extended to two or three consecutive days.
However, this may include part of the weekend. Employees will generally have to work an extra day around the holiday to make up for the time off work.
This is most likely a Saturday or Sunday just before or after the holiday.
Sometimes, the holiday falls around the same time as National Day, so you end up getting a whole week off work!
You can read more about national holidays and time off in China here.
Is this a good time to travel?
Although the middle of autumn is an ideal time to travel in China weather-wise, it’s best to avoid traveling during the actual Mid-Autumn holiday.
Airports and high-speed train stations are incredibly busy, and tickets sell out quickly.
Remember, family reunions are a key element to Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese people travel all over the country to see loved ones.
Also, keep in mind that a lot of Chinese workers can only travel during public holidays. This means that tourist attractions and popular public spaces will be packed.
I once heard a local Chinese friend describe the beach as ‘human soup’ over a long weekend!
From my own experience, theme parks will have long lines for rides and entry tickets for some attractions may sell out early in the day.
It’s a bit too chaotic for me, which is why I prefer traveling at different times.
Psst! A quick travel tip
If you’re planning a trip to China, don’t forget the internet is censored there.
So, when using Wi-Fi you won’t have access to your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail, Google and heaps more, unless you get a VPN before you go.
You can find out more about getting a China VPN here.
Or, if you just want to see which apps are banned (it’s most), see this page.
It’s a lovely time of the year
Personally, I think this is a really lovely festival.
It’s basically all about spending time with family and friends, and enjoying plenty of delicious food together. And, eating the odd moon cake!
Add in the romantic legend behind its origins, and what’s not to love?
Do you have any questions about Mid-Autumn festival in China? Please let me know in the comments below. You might also enjoy reading the dramatic story behind Dragon Boat Festival.
Main image credit: Jason Goh on Pixabay.
FAQ about Mid-Autumn Festival in China
What is the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival?
Traditionally, it was a time to celebrate the autumn harvest and full moon, believed to be brightest at this time of year. Nowadays, it’s a chance for a family reunion (as people have time off work) while appreciating everything they have.
Why do Chinese people celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival?
They celebrate the end of the autumn harvest season and having an abundance of food. There’s also an ancient legend about a husband and wife losing each other because the wife took an elixir of immortality. It’s said that she floated up to the moon, which made the moon brighter than ever.
What do you do on Mid-Autumn Festival?
There’s typically a family reunion. Everyone gets together for a meal at home or at a restaurant, especially on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s a public holiday so many people have time off work to go traveling, either to visit their family or just go sightseeing.
What traditional activities do people do?
People give moon cakes to each other, for good fortune and happiness. Moon worship isn’t really practiced these days, though giving and eating moon cakes is a way of honoring the holiday and the story behind it.
How long is Mid-Autumn Festival?
The public holiday is for one day. However, depending on the Chinese calendar, the holiday might extend into the weekend, or merge with the National Day holiday around the same time.
How do you say ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’ in Chinese?
It’s Zhōng qiū jié or 中秋节 in Chinese characters.
Do people in Hong Kong celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival?
Yes, and they celebrate it the same way as people in mainland China – with family gatherings. In Hong Kong, you can also go and see lion dancing as part of the celebrations.