Header image courtesy of Billy Kwok (via Unsplash)
It’s once again that time of the year—lanterns are strung up above shopping avenues, mooncake boxes fill up shop windows, rabbit-themed displays pop up around town. Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) is one of the most important traditional Chinese holidays in Hong Kong and the occasion calls for family gatherings, mooncakes, and moongazing. But what’s the story behind it, and how do you celebrate? For those who want to brush up on their Mid-Autumn Festival lore, read our ultimate guide to this holiday.
Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which tends to fall between mid-September and early October on the Gregorian calendar. Under a full moon, family reunions take place, neighbourhoods are decorated in colourful lanterns, and festive foods are consumed. Some communities also host fire dragon dances. Moon worshipping on Mid-Autumn Festival was once a widespread traditional practice that is now only seldom seen, but moongazing is still popular.
Simply put, the holiday likely began as a harvest celebration during the Shang or Zhou dynasty. It is believed to be over 3,000 years old, but the first written record of the term “mid-autumn” did not appear until the Western Zhou dynasty, around 500 years or so later.
Mid-Autumn Festival really started to take off in the early Tang dynasty, and by the Northern Song dynasty, it had firmly cemented itself as a well-loved folk festival. Aside from expressing gratitude for a good harvest, the festival is also associated with the custom of moon worship, as the moon is fullest on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Many legends surround the Mid-Autumn Festival, and its connections to the moon. From a mythological perspective, the Mid-Autumn Festival bears a long association with the legend of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e (嫦娥; soeng4 ngo4). Her tale, in which she rushes to the moon—to protect her husband Hou Yi from his wicked apprentice Peng Meng and prevent him from stealing the couple’s pills of immortality—is one of the most well-known in the Chinese mythology catalogue. It is said that Hou Yi was so heartbroken after Chang’e ascended to the moon that he began to leave out offerings of her favourite food—mooncakes—in the hopes that she would return to Earth. It is a sad conclusion to a dramatic story but it does draw connections to the practices of moon worship and gifting mooncakes.
Chang’e is not the only one on the moon—the Jade Rabbit also resides there, courtesy of the Jade Emperor’s favour, where it brews divine potions, such as the elixir of life. Its fascinating tale has also inspired a lot of Mid-Autumn Festival paraphernalia to be rabbit-shaped.
Unity and togetherness are prized values of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and so, one of the customary things to do during the holiday is to spend quality time with family, friends, and loved ones, whether it’s sharing a meal, eating mooncakes, or moongazing.
Lighting lanterns is also an important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many lanterns used to be made out of simple paper and wire, usually shaped as collapsible cylinders or spheres, with a small candlestick in the centre for light, but these days, plastic versions with battery-powered LED lights instead of a live flame prove to be the more popular choice, and often come shaped as recognisable characters from pop culture. Regardless of construction material, shape, or size, the lanterns are hung up high and also carried by children during Mid-Autumn Festival to symbolise good fortune, hope, and prosperity.
Hong Kong is masterful at putting on glorious seasonal displays and shows, and Mid-Autumn Festival is one such occasion where you can feel fully immersed in the festive spirit. From colourful lanterns, supersized installations of glowing moons and bunnies, and interactive public art to Mid-Autumn Festival carnivals and markets, there’s plenty to see.
Most spectacular of them all is the iconic fire dragon dance, which takes place in the Tai Hang neighbourhood over the course of three nights. Dozens of performers lift the blazing ”dragon”—constructed of over 10,000 burning incense sticks and woven grass—through the streets while rhythmic drumbeats drive them on, delighting onlookers in the audience.
It’s believed that this community tradition was started by Hakka villagers in the nineteenth century to stave off a deadly plague, caused by an ill-meaning python who had been helping itself to their livestock around the Mid-Autumn Festival. Legend has it that after the python’s demise at the hands of the villagers, many deaths followed as a result of the plague unleashed, all until Guanyin revealed herself to a villager in his dreams and instructed him to perform the fire dragon dance and set off firecrackers to drive away the plague. Miracles do happen, and the performance was repeated year after year for good measure. Having outlasted the highs and lows of the past 140-plus years, the fire dragon dance has since become an integral part of Hong Kong and recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Click here for our guide to this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival displays and events.
Around this time of year, you’ll no doubt have at least glimpsed the avalanche of mooncakes and their ilk being joyfully advertised in countless hotels, bakeries, cake shops, and restaurants around Hong Kong. Securing the best ones is a competitive race—many producers sell out of their stock well before Mid-Autumn Festival rolls around, so if you’re in it to win it, best put your orders down early for mooncake gift boxes.
Mooncakes come with a colourful history of their own, and the origin of these golden pastries, often intricately stamped across the top, are the subject of many tales. One speculates that mooncakes emerged in the Tang dynasty as a Mid-Autumn Festival gift to the Emperor Taizong (唐太宗) to commemorate a battle victory. According to the tale, he liked the cake so much that it became a fixture of the holiday. Another tells of a time when the Emperor Taizong visited Chang’e’s moon palace and tried her favourite food, mooncakes, which he loved so much he had his servants recreate the treat when he returned to Earth.
While mooncakes come in many regional shapes and sizes, the most favoured kind found in Hong Kong are the Cantonese style, made of shortcrust pastry. Common traditional fillings include double egg yolks, lotus seed paste, mixed nuts, red bean paste, and egg custard, while more avant-garde fillings can include durian, matcha, Earl Grey tea, and more. Snow skin mooncakes, made with glutinous rice flour, are also immensely popular.
Mooncakes go well with osmanthus-flavoured wine, another Mid-Autumn Festival tradition. Osmanthus flowers bloom in the autumnal season, symbolising luck, wealth, auspiciousness, and longevity; this sweet and floral wine is consumed to celebrate long life and health.
Glutinous rice balls—tongyuen (湯圓)—are much-loved treats enjoyed during Mid-Autumn Festival, as their round shape reflect the moon and embody unity and togetherness.
Pomelos are also eaten on Mid-Autumn Festival. Not only do their plump shapes serve as a reminder of the full moon, but the pomelo’s Cantonese name—“柚” (jau2)—has a similar pronunciation as “佑” (jau6; bless). Back in the day, once the pomelo fruit has been eaten, its thick peel can be repurposed into a traditional DIY lantern. Ah, the nostalgia...
Chinese culture is not the only one in Asia that celebrates the mid-autumn harvest and full moon. In South Korea, Chuseok (추석; “autumn evening”) is considered one of the most significant traditional holidays of the year. It coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival on the lunisolar calendar around the autumn equinox, and is dedicated to celebrating the mid-autumn harvest season. Instead of doughy mooncakes, the songpyeon (송편)—a small, half-moon-shaped steamed rice cake with sweet or semi-sweet fillings—is enjoyed.
In Japan, Otsukimi (お月見; “moon-viewing”) traces its origins back to the Heian period. Celebrations take place over several days; people gather to take in the beauty of the moon, prepare decorations made of Japanese pampas grass, share Otsukimi dango rice dumplings, and make offerings of sweet potatoes, beans, and chestnuts to the full moon.
Cambodia has a slightly different version of the Mid-Autumn Festival called Bon Om Touk. Known as the Water and Moon Festival, it takes place in November and the festivities begin with boat races during the day and prayers to the moon at night. Cambodian legends also speak of a rabbit on the moon, who serves as a quasi-protector of the people.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s Tết Trung Thu, which had its origins in Chinese culture and is celebrated around the same time as the Mid-Autumn Festival, has evolved over the centuries to become a children’s festival, where kids are often gifted toys. A lot of the Mid-Autumn Festival customs remain—mooncakes are eaten, lanterns are lit, people moongaze and worship their ancestors—but the celebrations also include children’s games.