We love to share our knowledge of Chinese culture with our customers and readers of the blog. You’ll already be aware of the importance of festivals to the Chinese, and one of the most significant is celebrated over the next couple of days – the Mid-Autumn Festival. So what do we know about its history and origins?
The term ‘Mid-Autumn’ first appeared in the book ‘Rites of Zhou’, written in the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). But it wasn’t until the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD) that the 15th day of the 8th lunar month was established as the ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’.
From then, worshipping the moon was established as a traditional custom. Ancient Chinese emperors worshipped the moon goddess as they believed that this would bring them a plentiful harvest the following year.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912 AD), the Mid-Autumn Festival was as popular as Chinese New Year. People celebrated it with many different activities, including burning pagodas and performing the fire dragon dance.
Worshipping the moon would sometimes involve placing a large table in the middle of the yard or garden under the moon, and putting offerings such as fruit and snacks, on the table. The sacrificial offerings would include apples, plums, grapes and incense, but mooncakes and watermelons (pomelos in the south) were the most important. The watermelon skin would be sliced and opened up into a lotus shape when offered as a sacrifice.
The tradition of eating mooncakes during the festival began in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), a dynasty ruled by the Mongols. At the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the Han people’s resistance army wanted to overthrow the rule of the Mongols, so they planned an uprising together. But they had no way to inform other Han people who wanted to join them of the time of the uprising without being discovered by the Mongols. The military counselor of the Han people’s resistance army, Liu Bowen, came up with the strategy of using mooncakes. Liu Bowen asked his soldiers to write “uprising on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival” on slips of paper, put them in mooncakes, and then sell them to the other Han people.
When the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival came, a huge uprising broke out and the Han people succeeded in battle. From then on, people ate mooncakes every Mid-Autumn Festival to commemorate the uprising.
Today, it is still an occasion for friends and relatives to eat mooncakes and watch the moon, which is a symbol of harmony and unity. The festival is celebrated with many cultural or regional customs, including burning incense in reverence to deities, performing lion dances and carrying brightly lit lanterns.