The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节 zhōng qiū jié) is one of most significant festivals in China. It falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar with full moon at night. The full moon is a symbol of reunion in Chinese culture. A typical scene of the Mid-Autumn Festival is that the family members get together enjoying the full moon while having moon cakes. Not only in China, this festival is also celebrated in other Asian countries such as Japan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival
The Mid-Autumn Festival has a long history in China. Like other traditional festivals, it has gradually developed and evolved.
The ancient emperors had this custom & ritual system of worshipping the Spring sun and the Autumn moon. As early as in the classic book Rites of Zhou from 2000 years ago, there was already the word “Mid-Autumn Festival” recorded about the festival during Zhou dynasty. Later, the aristocrats and literati bachelors followed the rituals.
In the Mid-Autumn Festival, they watched and worshiped the bright full moon in the sky, shared their feelings with the moon via poems and songs. This moon watching custom was passed on to the common people and formed traditional activities. During the Tang Dynasty the Mid-Autumn Festival has become an official holiday, and slowly transformed to become the second biggest holiday in China.
Mid-Autumn Festival Traditions
In the Zhou Dynasty, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, every household set up a incense burner for the Lunar God and prepared seasonal fruits such as moon cakes, watermelons, apples, plums, grapes, etc. Among them, moon cakes and watermelons were absolutely essential. Watermelon was also cut into the lotus shape as it was sacred. At night, everyone gathered to enjoy the food and watching the moon.
In the Tang and Song Dynasties (early 7th century – 13th century), the Mid-Autumn Festival was more prosperous, it was recorded in Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital:
“Mid-Autumn Night, the homes were well decorated, the folks competed for the restaurant balconies to enjoy the moon.”
On this day, all the shops and restaurants in the capital must be re-decorated – ribbons on the plaques on the archway, sale of fresh fruit and refined food… The night markets were bustling. The people gathered on the rooftops and balconies of the restaurants to get the better view of the moon, while wealthier families got on their own pavilions where they arranged a family reunion feast and moon watching party.
During he Ming and Qing Dynasties (13th century – early 20th century), the moon watching custom at Mid-Autumn Festival stayed the same, until this day.
There’s also a popular related legend about the Story of Chang’e that many Chinese love.
What are Moon cakes?
Moon cakes are so important for the Mid- Autumn Festival that some people jokingly called it the moon cake festival. They are rounded palm-sized cakes with pastry skin and various types of fillings. The sizes are usually around 6-10cm across and 2-4cm deep.
The top traditional fillings of the moon cakes are lotus seed paste, sweet bean paste, five kernels (five nuts) and salty egg yolk, but these types are not enough! There are modern and creative fillings on the market, such as chocolate, cream cheese, motcha and even ice cream!
We’ve recently also published a more in-depth guide on the various kinds of moon cakes.
Having Moon Cakes
The moon cake was originally used to worship the Lunar God. Later, people gradually combined the Mid-Autumn Festival and the having moon cakes together, as the rounded shape of moon cakes symbolised the moon and family reunion.
Moon cakes were originally made in the family. Today, moon cakes are sold in super markets, bakeries and other shops. Moon cakes became more exquisite on the outside, and are sold with different kinds of fillings. Elegant patterns were made on the crust that represent good luck and good fortune. Moreover, sending moon cakes as gifts to the family and loved ones has become a great way of showing feelings of care and nostalgia. People also get together and share the moon cakes with their family, catching up with friends, and have fun under the moonlight.
If you’re also a fan of tea, then you should definitely also checkout our moon cakes and tea pairing guide.