Celebrating the Harvest Moon with the Mid-Autumn Festival in China

mooncakes mid-autumn festival
Mooncakes for China's Mid-Autumn Festival. Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.

In the Chinese lunar calendar tradition, the seventh, eighth and ninth months comprise autumn. During fall, the skies are commonly clear and cloudless and the nights crisp and sharp. In these night sky conditions, the moon appears to be the brightest. The fifteenth day of the eighth month is the middle of autumn, thus the festival celebrates the moon's appearance as the brightest and most beautiful throughout the year.

The Mid-Autumn Holiday Period

Students and workers receive a day or two off for the Mid-Autumn Holiday, depending on when it falls. Sometimes the holiday falls close to the October Holiday that celebrates the founding of the People's Republic of China (October 1) so in that case it is combined together.

Early Beginnings of the Mid-Autumn Festival

Enjoying the moon is an ancient tradition in China going back nearly 1,400 years. Visit any historical palace or classical garden and you will very likely find a "Moon Viewing Pavilion" or two. Sitting inside a Moon Viewing Pavilion is lovely to think about actually, isn't it? Taking time with your friends and family to sit outside under a starless sky, gazing at the round white orb shining brightly from the heavens above, is something we, in this century, ought to schedule in our diaries.

Festival History

While celebrating the moon during mid-autumn appears to have occurred since Zhou Dynasty (ending in 221BC ) times, it was during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the festival was made official. Becoming grander over time, by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) times, the mid-autumn festival was second only in importance to the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).

You can read a few of the historical legends about the origin of the festival.

Traditional Activities During the Mid-Autumn Festival

Besides the obvious, moon-gazing, Chinese families celebrate by getting together and eating. Boiled peanuts, slices of taro, rice gruel, fish and noodles are all traditional dishes to eat during the festival, but none of these takes the place of the famous moon cake. Ubiquitously on sale in every supermarket and hotel, moon cakes are now a highly prized commodity. Companies use the festival as a time to thank clients with boxes of moon cakes.

Moon Cakes

Moon cakes are typically round, symbolizing the full round moon of the mid-autumn festival. They are usually made with four egg yolks, representing the four phases of the moon, and are sweet, filled with sweet bean or lotus seed paste. There are savory types as well and these days, you can even get them from Haagen Dazs. Read more about moon cakes and how to make them from Rhonda Parkinson, Guide to Chinese Cuisine.

According to one legend, it was with the help of the moon cake that the Ming Dynasty established. Rebels used the festival as a method to convey their plans for revolt. They ordered the baking of special cakes to commemorate the festival. But what the Mongol leaders didn't know was that secret messages were tucked into the cakes and distributed to allied rebels. On the night of the festival, the rebels successfully attacked, overthrowing the Mongol government and establishing a new era, the Ming Dynasty.