Myths of the Mid-Autumn Festival

by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

Moon Goddess Chang’e and Rabbit Making New Year’s Cake and a Geisha Playing Shamisen (1819) by Ryūryūkyo Shinsai
Image Courtesy of Harvard Art Museum

The Mid-Autumn Festival takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar and was celebrated as early as the Shang Dynasty. Traditionally marking the end of the harvest season, Chinese families would gather together to have mooncakes and give thanks for the year’s harvest or harmonious unions, while praying for a bountiful harvest in the next.

Much of the mythology and many of the traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival center around the moon because of the celebration’s association with the full moon, as well as the traditions of moon worship and moon viewing. On this day, offerings of incense are often made to Chang’e, known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality. 

There are several myths as to how Chang’e arrived on the moon and how the Mid-Autumn Festival came to be celebrated. In one story, her husband, Hou Yi, was a heroic archer. In the distant past, there were ten suns that rose together and scorched the earth, causing hardship for the people. Yi  shot down nine of the suns and was given an elixir of immortality as a reward. He did not consume it right away because he did not want to become immortal without his beloved wife, Chang’e. However, while Yi was away one day, his apprentice, Peng Meng, tried forcing Chang’e to give him the elixir. To prevent Peng Meng from taking it, Chang’e drank the elixir and consequently rose upward towards the heavens, where she chose the moon as her residence so as to continue living as close as possible to her husband. When Yi returned, he was so devastated that he offered fruits and pastries that Chang’e had liked as sacrifices to her, thus originating the traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Alternatively, in another version of the tale, Hou Yi was also the heroic archer that shot down nine suns. He was pronounced king for his courageous act, but he soon became conceited and tyrannical. In order to continue his authoritarian reign, he attained the elixir of immortality. Chang’e, wanting to save the people from his cruel regime, secretly stole and drank the elixir on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar year. When Hou Yi discovered this, he was overcome with anger and shoots at her with his arrows as she fled to the moon. His anger triggered an early death, releasing the people from his tyrannical reign. Deeply grateful for her actions, the people gave thanks to Chang’e by offering sacrifices of fruits and pastries.

Often accompanying Chang’e on the moon is a rabbit. In Buddhist folklore, a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit were stopped by Śakra, ruler of the heavens, disguised as an old man. The man begged the animals for food, and so the monkey foraged fruits for the man, and the fox caught a fish for him. But the rabbit had nothing to offer and thus jumped into a fire offering himself. Touched by the rabbit’s actions, Śakra drew the likeness of the rabbit on the moon for all to see. 

Although the other animals accompanying the rabbit may change depending on which Asian culture the tale belongs to, it is always the rabbit that is venerated on the moon for its selfless and virtuous behavior.

Every year during the Mid-Autumn Festival, both Chang’e and her four-footed companion on the moon are celebrated for their great acts.

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