History and Legends
Mid-Autumn Festival is an inherited custom of moon sacrificial ceremonies. The ancient Chinese observed that the movement of the moon had a close relationship with changes of the seasons and agricultural production. Hence, to express their thanks to the moon and celebrate the harvest, they offered a sacrifice to the moon on autumn days.
This custom could be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC) and was more often practiced by the royal class on the Autumnal Equinox. At that time, the custom had no festival background at all. Later in the Sui (581 - 618 AD) and Tang (618 - 907 AD) dynasties, social prosperity inspired the custom of appreciating the moon on the moon sacrifice ceremony day among common people and the two merged. The people expressed their faith more liberally than the royal class and so they did not strictly hold their activities on the Autumnal Equinox. So August 15th of the Chinese lunar calendar, the closest full moon day to the Autumnal Equinox, turned out to be a better choice and was set as a fixed festival. This happened in the Tang Dynasty. By the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1127 AD), Mid-Autumn Festival had already become a widely celebrated folk festival.
Legends About the Mid-Autumn Festival
Hou Yi Shoots 9 Suns
In the distant past, there used to be 10 suns in the sky. Hou Yi -- an archer and a member of the Imperial Guard -- saved the earth from scorching when he drew his supernatural bow and shot down 9 unnecessary suns from the peak of Mount Kunlun.
As a reward, the Queen of Heaven presented Hou Yi with the elixir of life. It was said that even half of the elixir could make a person live forever.
However, Hou Yi was unwilling to leave his wife, Chang’e, so he did not take the elixir. Instead, he gave it to Chang’e for safekeeping. Chang’e put the elixir of life into a case in her dressing table, but she was observed by one of Hou Yi’s disciples, Peng Meng, who was very treacherous.
Lady Chang'e Flies to the Moon
One day when Hou Yi went out to hunt with his disciples, the disingenuous Peng Meng pretended to be ill, and didn’t go with them. Shortly after they left, Peng Meng broke into Hou Yi’s house and warned Chang’e that she had better hand over the elixir of life. Chang’e knew that she couldn’t manage to protect the elixir.
In the crisis, Chang’e fetched the elixir from the case and promptly swallowed it. Immediately she floated up into the sky. It was said that Chang’e became immortal and stayed on the moon nearest to the earth, as she was anxious about her husband Hou Yi.
At nightfall, Hou Yi went back home and was told by his maids what had happened during his absence. Hou Yi was furious and immediately went to kill Peng Meng. The heart-stricken Hou Yi shouted to the sky and surprisingly discovered the moon was extremely bright and clear that night. He caught sight of a swaying figure that was exactly like Chang’e.
Hou Yi hastily asked his maids to put an incense table in the back garden and to place fresh fruit and moon cakes – the favorite food of Chang’e – on the table, convening a memorable ceremony for Chang’e, who lived on the distant moon.
When local people heard the story of Chang’e, they arranged incense tables below the moon for worship of the goddess Chang’e, praying for happiness and safety. Worshipping and appreciating the moon during mid-autumn festival has been a popular activity ever since.
Jade Hare Mashing Herbs
It’s said there used to be three immortals disguised as three poor old men. These poor old men begged for food from a fox, a monkey and a hare. The fox and the monkey offered something to eat, but the hare had nothing to give them. Instead, the hare invited the old men to eat its meat, and promptly plunged into the raging fire.
The three immortals were deeply moved by the hare and decided to bring it to the palace of the moon. The hare living on the moon is commonly known as the Jade Hare. It is good company for Chang’e, and it mashes herbs and makes elixirs of life there, day after day.
An Immortality-Obsessed Man Cutting Down Trees on the Moon
Immortal Wu Cutting Down Trees
When you look up at the bright moon, you can see a black shadow, which is just the legendary Wu Gang, trying to cut down a sweet osmanthus tree.
Wu Gang was an ordinary woodcutter who was obsessed with becoming immortal. He went to mountains and invited an immortal to be his teacher, seeking instructions from him.
Wu Gang, however, was careless and impatient and couldn’t concentrate. The immortal became furious and made Wu Gang stay on the moon, informing him he could become immortal once he had cut down the moon’s sweet osmanthus tree.
Wu Gang tried his best to fell the tree with his axe. The tree, however, would always re-grow naturally into its former state. Day by day, Wu Gang cuts down the sweet osmanthus tree, but he can’t manage to fell it permanently, for it keeps re-growing.