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The Mid-Autumn Festival - customs, legends and curiosities + Chinese vocabulary list

· Chinese Festivals,Chinese culture,Chinese Vocabulary

This article is part of a series about traditional Chinese festivals. The series also covered the Chinese New Year and the Dragonboat Festival.

In less than a week (on October 4 to be more precise), the probably second most important but definitely the second most famous Chinese festival is coming up: the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节 Zhōng​qiū​jié ). The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar calendar. In Gregorian calendar, that’s some time between late September and early October.
 
In fact, the Mid-Autumn Festival has become so significant , that some of its traditions can now be found all over the world.
 
That’s reason enough for us to take a closer look: what are the most essential traditions and what are the stories behind the Mid-Autumn Festival? Of course we will round things off with a vocab list to help you manage this important Chinese holiday.
 

1. Customs, or what to do during the Mid-Autumn Festival

Mooncakes

Although they are The most commercialized part of the Mid-Autumn Festival, mooncakes (月饼 yuèbǐng) are nonetheless an integral component of any celebration. Typically, they consist of a thin, tender pastry crust enveloping a sweet or salty filling. On top of the mooncake skin, Chinese characters are imprinted, mostly the characters for Mid-Autumn or something auspicious like “longevity” (长寿 cháng​shòu​).

Image showing man holding up mooncakes with Chinese characters imprinted

This is also a good chance to brush up your knowledge about Chinese characters, for instance, with Zizzle App

The most traditional mooncakes are filled with a paste made of lotus seeds or sweet beans and whole egg yolks, symbolizing the full moon. Over the years, mooncakes have kept up with modern taste and contemporary versions may contain pastes tasting like coffee, green tea or any kind of fruit. Even Western brands such as Starbucks or Häagen Dazs create their own types of mooncakes.

Nowadays, Chinese rarely make their mooncakes themselves (although it is not too complicated!) but rather buy them and gift them to family, friends and business partners. This commercialization has its downside: It is estimated that in Hong Kong alone, as many as two million mooncakes are thrown away per year.

Lanterns

A similarly important part of the Mid-Autumn festival are lanterns (not really a surprise here).
 

Image of colorful Chinese lanterns during Mid-Autumn Festival
It is not entirely clear how lanterns became one of the symbols of the Mid-Autumn Festival as they were not traditionally involved in moon worshipping. In any case, they have gained popularity as far back as the Tang Dynasty.
 
An old but nowadays not so often practiced tradition involves writing riddles on lanterns and having other people guess the answer (灯谜 dēng​mí ). Handmade paper lanterns lit with a candle have been gradually replaced by bulb-lit plastic lights. They also come in all kinds of shapes, from traditional images of local culture to more modern comic and cartoon figures.
 
But attention: The Mid-Autumn Festival is not the same thing as the Lantern Festival (even though both involve lanterns).

The Hong Kong Fire Dragon Dance

In Hong Kong, a special tradition, the Fire Dragon Dance (舞火龙 wǔ huǒlóng) has emerged in the Tai Hang area in Causeway Bay. Supposedly, Tai Hang, once a village, was ravaged by storms and diseases on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival. To stop the disasters, the villagers were told to stage a fire dance for three days and three nights.

The villagers did what they were supposed to and built a “Fire Dragon” from straw. And this tradition continues even today, with over 300 performers and lots of firecrackers.

2. Legends, or the Stories Behind the Mid-Autumn Festival

By now you have probably realized that the moon plays an important part in the festival, which is why this holiday  is sometimes also known as the Moon Festival. 

The Tragedy of Chang’e

Most tales point to Chang’e (嫦娥 cháng'é), the Immortal Moon Goddess. The most popular version of the story involves Chang’e’s husband Hou Yi, who was an excellent archer. Because there were ten suns burning at that same time, causing great disaster to the people, Hou Yi shot down nine of them and only let one shining. For this feat, Hou Yi was granted an elixir of immortality.
 
However, one of his apprentices also learned about Hou Yi’s secret. So one day, when the master was out hunting, the apprentice broke into his house. Chang’e refused to hand the apprentice the elixir and instead swallowed it and flew into the sky. She suddenly realized that she would be separated from her husband forever now. This heartache pulled her to the moon, the nearest heavenly body to the Earth.
 
When Hou Yi returned home, he realized what had happened and, stricken with grief, he cried out to the moon in pain. He saw that his beloved wife was now on the moon and started to offer his wife’s favorite cakes and fruits in the yard.
 
When people learned about what had happened, they were quick to join in. As you might have guessed, all these things supposedly happened on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar calendar, which is why we are here now!

The Jade Rabbit

Chang’e is by no means alone on the moon!
 
The story of the jade rabbit (玉兔 yùtù) has it that one day, three immortals decided to travel to Earth and pay a visit to its inhabitants. They strolled around the countryside appearing as three ordinary people. They wanted to test their graciousness by asking a rabbit, a fox and a monkey for some food.
 
The fox and the monkey both went out to gather food, soon returning with some nice snacks to eat.
 
The only one not crowned with success was the rabbit, who showed up empty handed. The rabbit was feeling really bad about it and suddenly cried out: “Then just eat me!” He finished his words by jumping into the nearest fire to have himself roasted. The three immortals were so moved by the selflessness of the rabbit that they immediately decided to grant him immortality as well.
 
To this date, the rabbit now lives on the moon as well, accompanying Chang’e while pounding elixirs of immortality for his heavenly neighbours. The story also has it that the rabbit was turned into a jade rabbit, but we really don’t know the sense behind this folly.

3. Curiosities, or Anecdotes to Impress Your Friends With

The jade rabbit is not the only curious story about the Mid-Autumn Festival. In fact, just like with every other aspect of life, Chinese are very creative and the Mid-Autumn Festival proves no different.

The 14th Century Overthrow of the Mongolian Empire

It is even said that mooncakes have played an important political role during the Yuan Dynasty. Supposedly, the Han people successfully overthrew the Mongolian Empire in China using mooncakes. Apparently, soldiers communicated with their uprising citizens through messages hidden in the mooncakes, thus spreading important intel. This communication was important as it allowed the people to coordinate the rebellion and it was particularly crucial because the Mongols severely restricted the capacities of the Han Chinese. 

Hong Kong’s Law Concerning “Tampering with Hot Wax”

This story may still belong to the realm of legends.

What is certainly true though is that some customs associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival have led to the creation of very hard modern day legislation.

In Hong Kong, young people have traditionally used an empty moon cake tin as the container to bring candle wax to boil. Once the wax fire reaches its peak, one would splash water onto the hot burning wax (煲蜡 bāo là), creating a spectacular sizzling. The practice has been deemed “annual legal arson”, as apparently, every year, the flames caused several cases of severe burn. In any case, the government reacted and banned the practice, making Hong Kong probably the only jurisdiction in the world in which “tampering with hot wax” is specifically outlawed. 

中秋节快乐!Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Kevin and Alexandra from Zizzle

And here comes the list of handy words you might use in those days.

Download Zizzle App for iOS or Android to remember them even more quickly and efficiently!

Vocabulary List

中秋节 zhōngqiūjié = Mid-Autumn Festival
节日 jié​rì = holiday

月饼 yuèbǐng = mooncake
蛋黄 dànhuáng = egg yolk
莲子 liánzǐ = lotus seeds
豆沙 dòushā = sweetened bean paste
咖啡 kāfēi = coffee
绿茶 lǜchá = green tea
长寿 cháng​shòu = longevity

星巴克 xīngbākè = Starbucks

舞火龙 wǔ huǒlóng = Fire Dragon Dance
舞 wǔ = dance

月亮 yuèliàng = moon
嫦娥 cháng'é = Chinese goddess of the moon
玉兔 yùtù = Jade Rabbit


灯笼 Dēnglóng = lantern
灯谜 dēng​mí = riddles written on lanterns

蜡烛 làzhú = candle
煲蜡 bāo là = burning wax
蜡 là = wax

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