Beyond Mooncakes: The Nostalgia of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival
“Before my bed, the moon is shining bright,
I think it is frost upon the ground
I raise my head and look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home.”
So reads “Thoughts On a Still Night” by the prolific Tang dynasty poet, Li Bai (701-762 C.E.) The poem is both timeless and context-specific, reflecting Li’s sadness at being away from home during the Mid-Autumn Festival on the one hand, and his duty to country as an imperial scholar in a distant province on the other. While his writing was inspired by his own circumstances, his yearning and nostalgia for home is universally relatable.
“Thoughts on a Still Night” is one of the most famous Chinese poems of all time, included in virtually every anthology of Chinese poetry, like Three Hundred Tang Poems, a collection first compiled in 1763 by the Qing Dynasty Scholar Sun Zhu. But perhaps more significantly to its continued relevance in Chinese literature canon, “Thoughts on a Still Night” is the first poem that school children learn, due to its relatively simple language, vivid imagery, accessible subject matter (the moon), and emphasis on family.
As the continued popularity of “Thoughts on a Still Night” suggests, the importance of the moon to Chinese culture spans the practical, literary, and even political. The Chinese calendar is lunar, with months that match the lunar cycles; thus, the two most important holidays in the Chinese calendar are the Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival or Lunar Festival), which typically takes place in late January or February of the Gregorian Calendar, and the Mid-Autumn Festival, which takes place in late September/early October — or, on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. According to Chinese tradition, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the day of the year that the moon is at its brightest and roundest.
But the moon also has political meaning; its movements and that of other celestial bodies were believed by Chinese astronomers to have reflected and even predicted the events on earth. For example, In the fourth century BC, astronomer Shi Shen, wrote:
When a wise prince occupies the throne, the moon follows the right way. When the prince is not wise and the ministers exercise power, the moon loses its way. When the high officials let their interests prevail over public interest, the moon goes astray toward north or south. When the moon is rash, it is because the prince is slow in punishing; when the moon is slow, it is because the prince is rash in punishing.
While less credence is given to the moon’s ability to predict or indicate political happenings today, the moon still remains culturally and socially significant, and perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the annual Mid-Autumn Festival — best understood in Western terms os a Chinese Thanksgiving. The full moon represents wholeness, and is a day of reunion. Families come together and feast on symbolic foods, many of which are chosen for their roundness, echoing the shape and symbolism of the full moon. This includes “mooncakes”, traditional pastries with either sweet or salty fillings, which are gifted as much as they are eaten.
But beyond its food traditions, the Mid-Autumn Festival is revelatory of many of the myths that underlie Chinese society and beliefs — and which can be found in classic literature.
The Tragedy of the Lady on the Moon
One of the most common origin stories of the Mid-Autumn Festival is the legend of Chang’E (嫦娥) the Moon Goddess, who is mentioned in the Chinese literary classic, Journey to the West.
Chang’E and her husband Houyi were immortals living in the heavens in the court of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the immortals. The Jade Emperor had ten sons, who once transformed themselves into ten suns scorching the earth. Unable to stop them, he asked Houyi, a famous archer, to do something, so Houyi shot nine of the ten suns down, leaving just one to give light to the earth. Enraged over the death of his sons, the Emperor banished Houyi and Chang’E to the earth to live as mortals.
But their life on earth was difficult, and Houyi felt that his wife should not have to suffer for his mistake. He returned to the heavens to beg the Empress for an elixir of immortality. She took pity on them and gave Houyi the elixir, with the warning that while drinking half would grant each of them everlasting life, if one of them were to drink the whole thing, the imbiber would turn into an immortal who would ascend to the skies, but still be banished from the heavenly palace.
When Houyi returned, Chang’E was ecstatic. When her husband rested from his journey, she couldn’t help drinking it all, immediately became weightless, and floated into the heavens, alone, where, banished from the heavenly palace, she could only live a lonely life on the moon and watch her mortal husband live and die from afar.
The Jade Rabbit
Eventually, Chang’E was joined in her lonely moon palace by the Jade Rabbit, another figure that made an appearance in Journey to the West (as well as Chi Ci, an anthology of Chinese poetry from the Warring States period, among other literature.)
According to legend, three immortals reincarnated themselves into poor elderly individuals and begged for food from a fox, a monkey, and a rabbit. While the fox and monkey both gave food to the immortals, the rabbit went above and beyond. It didn’t have anything to offer, and instead offered itself up as sustenance, immediately jumping into a fire. The immortals were so impressed by this selfless act that they turned the rabbit into an immortal being and sent it to the moon, where it became the companion to Chang E.
The Chinese Sisyphus
According to another legend, during the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), a man by the name of Wu Gang wanted to become immortal as well, but once he achieved his aim and ascended to the palace in the heavens, where the immortals resided, he made a grave mistake and was banished to the moon, where he was given the task of chopping a laurel tree in front of the Moon Palace. The catch, though, was that every time that it was chopped, it would just grow right back, so that Wu Gang’s punishment was, just like Sisyphus of western mythology, eternal.
These legends, as well as Li Bai’s poetry and Chinese literature more generally, all deal with a few common themes, such as the value and purpose of our mortal lives, nostalgia, and yearning. Perhaps this is to be expected in a culture such as that of ancient China, which places strong credence in the idea of fate and predestination. Perhaps it is also to be expected that gazing out at the changing moon, simultaneously so familiar and yet so distant, further brings out this yearning and nostalgia.
Both of these sentiments are captured in the poem, “Mid-Autumn Moon” by Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo (1037-1101 AD):
"As evening clouds withdraw, a clear, cool breeze floods in.
The jade wheel passes silently across the Silver River.
This life this night has rarely been kind.
Where will we see this moon next year?"