What Is the Moon Festival?

(Last Updated On: September 8, 2022)

Also known as the Mid-Autumn (中秋節) or Mooncake Festival, the Moon Festival is a traditional Chinese celebration that falls in mid-September to early October. Its relative importance rivals that of Chinese New Year, but what exactly is the Moon Festival?

When Did it Start?

Celebrations of the harvest during autumn are not new at all in China. Harvest festivals specifically tied to the autumn full moon date back to the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). The name “Mid-Autumn”, from which the festival is named, dates back to the Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BCE).

Despite kicking in China for a while before gaining popularity, the Moon Festival didn’t become popularized until the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Soon after, the Moon Festival would be set to the 15th day of the 8th month on the Chinese lunisolar calendar. This lines up somewhere between mid-September and early October. Why this day specifically? Well it was widely believed that during this time, the Moon would be at its brightest–and it lined up with the mid-Autumn harvest. 

Moon worship is an important pillar on which the Mid-Autumn Festival is built. The Moon is said to have rejuvenative properties (along with water), and was even linked to women’s period cycles; probably because both are generally monthly. The Zhuang people, an ethnic minority in China, have a fable holding that the Moon gives birth once a month–after giving birth it becomes a crescent. The Sun is said to be the other parent, and the stars their children. Some observations of the Moon Festival hold that Mid-Autumn is a time for the celestial family to all get together.

What’s it Supposed to Mean?

Commonly, the Moon Festival would come with offerings made to the Moon Goddess of Immortality (Chang’e | 嫦娥). In her mythology, Chang’e was originally a mortal married to an archer who impressed a bunch of immortals. The archer, Hou Yi (后羿), was given a potion of immortality; he chose not to take it because he didn’t want to be immortal without his wife. Hou Yi’s apprentice didn’t like that very much and tried to steal the potion from Chang’e and Hou Yi, and Chang’e is said to have consumed the potion to save her own life. She still loved her husband and chose to stay on the Moon. In his grief, Hou Yi would make offerings to Chang’e that consisted of the foods she enjoyed as a mortal (remember the mooncake thing?). As Hou Yi is a mythic hero, the people would similarly follow in his steps with offerings and incense. 

In other versions of the tale, Hou Yi’s apprentice gets so salty he beats Hou Yi to death with a club after Chang’e takes the immortality potion. Neat.

There’s even a version where Hou Yi is a tyrant, and Chang’e takes the immortality potion to spare the world his wrath. The same offerings and sacrifices are offered to Chang’e because of her sacrifice instead. 

Lantern Use

So the story serves as a good bedrock for the Mooncakes and offerings typically made during the Moon Festival in China. But the Chinese also celebrate with lanterns that are either hung around or sent into the sky to float around. The use of lanterns didn’t accompany Moon worship prior to 618 CE. Before their widespread use during the Moon Festival, these lanterns were traditional symbols for fertility–so making the jump probably wasn’t too big for them. Lanterns were used by rivers to guide drowned spirits during the Ghost Festival, which is observed about a month before the Moon Festival. In Hong Kong, the jump was likely made because the lanterns would be left up between the Ghost and Moon Festivals

Other Observations of the Moon Festival

The Moon Festival might be super widespread in China, but China is far from the only country that observes the festival. Japan observes Tuskimi (月見), Korea observes Chuseok (추석 ), and Vietnam observes Tet Trung Thu (節中秋) all on the same day as the Moon Festival. They all celebrate the Mid-Autumn harvest or are observations of Moon worship as well.

In Cambodia, the Boat Racing Festival (បុណ្យអុំទូក) is observed in November, and similarly celebrates the Moon, though it’s also a celebration of Water.  

More Moon mapping here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.