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Mid-Autumn Festival: A Guide to Chinese Traditions

What is Mid Autumn Festival?

After Spring Festival, 中秋节 (zhōng qiū jié) Mid Autumn Festival is the 2nd most important Traditional Chinese festival. 

Mid-Autumn Festival is also called Moon Festival, Mooncake Festival, and Zhong Qiu Jie. 

While this observance of the moon is traditionally a Chinese festival, it’s also celebrated in Japan, Vietnam and Korea.

When is Mid-Autumn Festival?

Mid-Autumn Festival follows the lunar calendar and is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is usually somewhere between September and October.

Mid-Autumn Festival 2020 

Thursday, 1 October

Mid-Autumn Festival 2021

Tuesday, 21 September

Mid-Autumn Festival 2022

Saturday, 10 September

Mid-Autumn Festival 2023

Friday, 29 September

Mid-Autumn Festival Moon Phases

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the moon is at its fullest and is said to be at its brightest and roundest which is represented with family gatherings.

The Netflix movie, Over the Moon, is based on the Mid-Autumn Festival story. A young girl, Fei Fei, builds a rocket to travel to the moon to meet the goddess Chang’e. You can watch the movie trailer here:

Click to play

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The Mid-Autumn Festival Story

To understand a little more about the origins of the Mid-Autumn festival and why mooncakes are so important and eaten during the holiday, you can read the story below.

There are many stories about Mid-Autumn Festival and its origins, but this one holds many of the romantic ideals that this festival seems to have.

It’s said that originally, in ancient China, the sky had 10 suns. The heat from the sun caused drought, and all the plants eventually wilted and died. Fearing a catastrophe, the Emperor of China 皇帝 (huáng dì) commanded his right-hand man and archer, Hou Yi 后羿 (hòu yì), to shoot down 9 of the suns and leave only one. Hou Yi climbed to the top of the Kun Lun mountains 昆仑山 (kūn lún shān) and shot down 9 of the suns. When he returned, the Emperor gave him a special pill that would grant him immortality. However, Hou Yi had a beautiful wife, named Chang’e 嫦娥 (cháng é), whom he loved dearly, and since he did not want to face immortality alone, he chose not to take the pill and hid it away instead.

One day when Hou Yi was away from home, one of his students, Feng Meng, found the pill and tried to force Chang’e, to give it to him. Eventually, to stop Feng Meng 逢蒙 (sometimes referred to as 蓬蒙 Peng Meng) from taking the pill himself, Chang’e swallowed it herself and found that not only was she now immortal, but that she could also fly. She flew to the nearest place to Earth, the moon, so she could stay close to her husband. Chang’e was extremely lonely on the moon, her only companion being a Jade rabbit. 

Hou Yi was so saddened that his wife was gone that he looked up to the sky and called her name. He found that the moon was much brighter than ever, and there seemed a figure moving within the moon which resembled Chang'e. That day was exactly the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when he burned incense (xiāng) and gave food offerings. It is said that during Mid-Autumn Festival, Hou Yi and Chang’e are reunited for a short time, which is why the festival is so family-focused.

Since the story is considered romantic to some, it is common for many Chinese couples to get married during the festive period.

Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncakes

One of the most important parts of Mid Autumn festival is the Mooncakes 月饼 (yuè bǐng).

Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncakes

What are mooncakes, I hear you ask? Mooncakes are a densely filled pastry also referred to as ‘reunion cakes. Originally they were made as offerings to the God of the Moon, but now they represent family unity and are often shared among family members with tea during the holiday period.

Chinese Traditional Mid-Autumn Day Festival Food Mooncakes - 20pcs

Traditional Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncakes with a five kernel filling. 

There are several stories about the origin of mooncakes, including this one:

In the 13th Century, the Mongols invaded and began ruling over China. During this period, known as the Yuan Dynasty, rebel Liu Bowen 刘伯温 (liú bó wēn) gave out mooncakes to the people. Baked inside was a note telling the people that a rebellion would occur on ‘the 15th day of the 8th month’. The rebellion succeeded, and the Mongols were overthrown. 

Nowadays, there are several different styles of mooncakes, including ice-cream filled.

The following are some of the more traditional Chinese mooncake fillings:

五仁 (wǔ rén) – Five kernels: This is the one I’ve come across most often and has a filling made up of mixed chopped nuts (at least 5 (五) different ones) combined in a thick sugary paste.

豆沙 (dòu shā) – Sweet bean paste: Although there are several different kinds of bean paste, 红豆沙 (hóng dòu shā) red bean paste is the most commonly used filling for mooncakes.

莲蓉 (lían róng) – Lotus seed paste: Lotus seed paste is made from dried lotus seeds and is considered the most delicious filling for a mooncake.

Many traditional mooncakes contain the 蛋黄 (dàn huáng) yolk of an egg to represent the moon.

These days, mooncakes have been transformed into a stylish and sometimes expensive treat that can even be bought at 哈根达斯 Haagen Dazs (hā gēn dá sī) and 星巴克 Starbucks (xīng bā kè). Many modern mooncakes have gotten rid of the dense filling and replaced them with ice cream, fruit, and even seafood!

If you would like to learn how to make the more contemporary 冰皮月饼 (bīng pí yuè bǐng) ‘Snowy’ mooncake, you can follow our recipe here!

Other Mid-Autumn Festival Food

While delicacies and traditions differ between provinces, these are some of the dishes and food you’ll find families eating around Mid-Autumn Festival time. 

大闸蟹 ( zhá xiè) Hairy crab 

Mid-Autumn Festival Food Hairy Crabs

Hairy crab is a Shanghai specialty that is in season during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Allegedly, the crabs get ready to lay their eggs during this time, which is why they taste so good.

蛋黄酥 (dàn huáng sū) Egg yolk Shortbread

This egg yolk pastry is a variant on the mooncake, that is said to have come from Taiwan. The usual filling is bean paste with egg yolk, usually from a duck, in the center. Dan Huang Su is best eaten with light tea such as oolong or green tea.

桂花糕 (guì huā gāo) Osmanthus Cake

Mid-Autumn Festival Food Osmanthus Cake

The sweet osmanthus pastry is said to date back to the Ming dynasty. The story goes that poet Yang Shen had a dream of visiting the moon, where he saw a palace and the sweet-smelling osmanthus plant. He took the plant back with him to earth, where it was eventually used to flavor food. 

桂花酒 (guì huā jiǔ) Osmanthus Wine

Mid-Autumn Festival Food Osmanthus Wine

Drinking osmanthus wine during the Mooncake Festival symbolizes a harmonious family, wealth, and auspiciousness. 

鸭子 (yā zi) Duck

Mid-Autumn Festival Duck

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, eating duck during autumn is extremely good for health as it nourishes the body. 

Different provinces prepare their duck in different ways for the Mid-Autumn Festival. For example, in Fujian Province people cook duck with taro, in Jiangsu, osmanthus flower duck 桂花鸭 (guì huā yā) is eaten. This is one of those famous dishes from Nanjing, that dates back over 2500 years. In Sichuan Province, smoked baked duck is eaten during the Mooncake Festival.

南瓜 (nán guā) Pumpkin

Mid-Autumn Festival Food Pumpkin

The pumpkin became a traditional Mid-Autumn Festival food after poor people started to live south of the Yangzte River. A young girl whose parents were extremely ill, took home two pumpkins, prepared and fed them to her parents. After eating they were completely restored, which is why it is eaten during the festival.

柚子 (yòu zi) Pomelo

Mid-Autumn Festival Food Pomelo

Because of its round shape, like the moon, pomelo is a key Mid-Autumn Festival food. It’s considered a lucky fruit, and is offered to the goddess who will bless your family. It also helps cleanse the palette after eating heavy mooncakes.

蜗牛 (wō niú) Snails

Mid-Autumn Festival Food Snails

River snails are commonly eaten in the southern city of Guangzhou. Eating them is said to brighten the eyes.

Mid-Autumn Festival Traditions and Activities

These are some of the most common activities families might do during the Mooncake festival.

  • Spend time with family
  • Feast with family
  • Eat mooncakes
  • Mid-Autumn Festival decorations

Chinese Style Red Paper Lantern - 4pcs

Making decorations such as lanterns is still a traditional activity amongst children.

Mid-Autumn Festival Greetings

中秋快乐! (zhōng qiū kuài lè) Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

祝你和你的家人中秋快乐! (zhù nǐ hé nǐ de jiā rén zhōng qiū kuài lè) Happy Moon Festival to you and your family!

但愿人长久,千里共婵娟。(dàn yuàn rén cháng jiǔ, qiān lǐ gòng chán juān) We wish each other a long life so as to share the beauty of this graceful moonlight, even we’re though miles apart. 

皓月闪烁,星光闪耀,中秋佳节,美满快乐!(hào yuè shǎn shuò, xīng guāng shǎn yào, zhōng qiū jiā jié, měi mǎn kuài lè) A bright moon and stars twinkle and shine. Wishing you a merry Mid-Autumn Festival, bliss, and happiness.

Keep Studying...

Mid-Autumn Festival customs and traditions with audio and video lessons from the pros at ChinesePod.

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