The Stories Behind Mid-Autumn Festival
It's hard to believe but 2021 is drawing closer to an end as summer makes way for autumn. Before you know it, it will be Halloween and Christmas.
But before that, the Chinese will be celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival, a time most of us associate with mooncakes.
In the past, it would have meant a big reunion dinner with the whole family. Kids would go around the neighbourhood with brightly coloured paper lanterns. Even before the pandemic, the Mid-Autumn celebration has become smaller in scale but it's still celebrated with a lot of joy, with many gifting mooncakes to family, friends and business associates throughout the season.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is regarded as the most important festival after the Spring Festival (Lunar New Year). In ancient times, farmers celebrated it to mark another bountiful harvest. However, there are a few tales associated with the festival that make for a more interesting perspective.
Mooncake as a transporter of secret information
Mooncakes have been around longer than we think. Legend has it that mooncakes helped start a revolution during the Yuan Dynasty, which was ruled by the Mongols. A Han rebel leader named Liu Bo Wen planned to rise up against the Mongols. After obtaining permission to pass gifts to his friends in several bases, Liu commanded his subordinates to hide pieces of paper written with the date of the rebellion in the desserts. The date was the 15th night of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar—this is the date on which Mid-Autumn Festival has been celebrated ever since.
Moon Goddess Chang'e
There are a few versions of the story of Chang'e. One of the more familiar one is this: When 10 suns appeared over Earth, they destroyed crops and caused much hardship to the people. An excellent archer named Hou Yi shoots nice of the 10 suns down to save them. As a reward, the Queen Mother of the West gifts him the elixir of immortality. Wanting to stay with his beloved wife Chang’e, Hou Yi does not drink it. He gives it to her instead, making Chang’e promise to keep it safe.
While Hou Yi is away from home, his wicked student arrives to steal the elixir. Knowing it must not fall into the wrong hands, Chang’e drinks it and ascends to the moon.
In another version, Chang'e drinks the elixir to prevent Hou Yi, who has turned into a tyrant, from becoming immortal and the festival is held in her appreciation.
Indeed, Chang'e's story is so popular and familiar that even Netflix has made an animated feature about the moon goddess, albeit a very modern take.
The Jade Rabbit
The lady on the moon has a loyal companion, the immortal Jade Rabbit. As the name suggests, this mystical creature is no ordinary bunny.
Long ago, three animals lived together in a forest: the otter, monkey and rabbit. The Jade Emperor transformed himself into an old, starving beggar to test the virtue of the animals. While the monkey gathered fruit and the otter caught fish, the rabbit was only able to offer grass. In an act of selflessness, the rabbit sacrificed himself in a fire the beggar had started. Touched by the rabbit's sacrifice, the Emperor sent the rabbit to the moon.
So when you gaze up at the moon this Mid-Autumn, be sure to look closely. Who knows, you may just make out the shape of an elegant lady and her adorable friend.