Mid-Autumn Festival is September 13, 2019. In addition to celebrating with mooncakes and viewing elaborate lantern displays, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a holiday to give thanks.
Originally celebrated to give thanks for the harvest, the Mid-Autumn festival also celebrates the importance of the moon. There are several myths and fables explaining the importance of the moon and origins of the festival.
Chang’e and Hou Yi
The most well-known of these fables involve Chang’e (the Moon Goddess) and her husband Hou Yi. During this ancient time, there were 10 suns that were burning all the plants and life on earth. In order to save his people, Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns with his bow and arrow and becomes a hero. As a show of thanks, the Queen of Heaven gives Hou Yi an elixir of immortality. Choosing to spend time with his beloved wife, Hou Yi did not immediately drink the elixir.
One day, a student of Hou Yi’s goes to his house to steal the elixir. Chang’e is the only one home and certain she can not defeat the traitorous student, she swallows the elixir herself. She immediately flew higher and higher until she stopped on the moon. Upon hearing of his wife’s heroics, Yi gave offerings of cakes and fruits to the moon and his people acted in kind.
The Jade Rabbit
In the most often recited tale, there once was an old man who was begging for food from a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. The fox and the monkey dutifully went off and gathered hearty provisions for the man. The rabbit however, had nothing to offer but grass. Feeling so terrible and ashamed, he offered his own body and threw himself into a fire the man had built to cook the food. To the animals’ amazement, the rabbit was not burned but saved as the old man was actually a powerful immortal, the Jade Emperor.
In one popular legend, the rabbit goes to live on the moon with Chang’e while in another, the old man/Jade Emperor pays tribute to the generous rabbit by drawing his likeness on the moon for all to see as a reminder to be generous and give thanks.
Wu Gang (sometimes referred to as Wu Kang)
Wu Gang was a mere mortal woodcutter who wanted to become immortal. He went up to the mountains to learn from other immortals their secrets. The first immortal taught him about the power of herbs, but a few days later he grew tired of herbs. A second immortal taught him chess but he quickly tired of that too. A third immortal gave Wu Gang books to read about how to become immortal but those couldn’t keep his interest either. Finally, frustrated with Wu Gang’s restlessness, the immortals banished him to the moon where they planted and enormous tree. They told him once he cut down the tree, he would be immortal.
If you look up to the moon on a clear night, you can see the shadows of Wu Gang still cutting down the tree because for every chop he makes, the tree magically returns back to its originally state. (Which doesn’t exactly explain why we should pray to the moon on September 27 but it is does give you something to think about as you moon gaze and notice shadows on the moon’s surface.)
Wondering about mooncakes? We’ve got the lowdown.
By Kathleen Siddell, September 2015; Updated September 2019.
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