Watching the Mid-Autumn Moon
Chinese moon festival traditions & poetry
The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival falls on Sept. 12 this year. It’s the night
when the moon is full and near to earth, and shines most brightly. On this major
Chinese holiday families and friends gather to enjoy each other’s company, share
food, and eat moon cake. The holiday is based on the lunar calendar and has a
tradition that goes back many centuries.
Since ancient times, the moon
had rich meaning to Chinese people whose calendar, planting season and life were
all tied to the moon. The moon also held deeper mysteries in ancient Chinese
culture and has been the subject of legends and poetry.
Chinese people would stand on a high hill in the cool, crisp autumn night, or
simply open their windows, to watch the
bright full moon, marvel at its beauty, and send prayers and wishes to the moon
The moon was given different names depending on its phase and
fullness. It is called silver or jade hook, jade arch or arch moon, or golden
wheel, silver plate or jade mirror, as it
goes through its phases.
The Legend of
Many well-known legends about the moon have been passed down,
including the ones about Wu Gang chopping down the Cassia tree and Chang Er
being banished to the moon.
Chang Er was the beautiful wife of Hou Yi, an
archer at the imperial court. According to the legend, there were ten suns in
the sky during prehistoric times, and the heat made life for humans very
miserable. Hou Yi, being an accomplished archer, shot down nine of the suns. For this, a goddess rewarded him with a
magic immortality potion.
Hou Yi gave the potion to Chang Er for
safekeeping, but Chang Er drank the potion, and as punishment the goddess
banished Chang Er on the moon. It is said that the moon was enhanced by Chang
Er’s beauty, and ever since then, Chinese people have gathered during each
autumn moon to admire the moon and eat moon cake in her memory.
History of Moon Festival
The Mid-Autumn Festival has a long history in China. The term “Zhongqiu,” or
Mid-Autumn, first appeared in a book believed to be from the middle of the 2nd
century BC called the Rites
of Zhou, also known as Zhouli, which, among other things, depicts a ceremony
that people held to show veneration for the moon.
During the Tang Dynasty
(618-906 AD), the ceremony became more popular, and the Mid-Autumn festival was
designated as an official holiday. August 15 in traditional Chinese lunar calendar is documented as the date of the
Mid-Autumn festival in the Book of Tang, known as Tang
Shu or Taizong Ji.
The Festival became even more widely celebrated after
the Song Dynasty, and during the Ming and Qing Dynasties it became one of the
major holidays in China, as important as the New Year.
Throughout history, many poems and songs about the moon and mid-autumn have
been written, simply too numerous to be counted. Some can be found in the book
Shi Jing, a
collection of Classic Poetry, which first appeared in the middle of the second
Writing poetry was an art form and also a philosophical and
spiritual discipline that was widespread among scholars and officials, even
emperors. The clear, bright moon inspired ancient poets as a symbol of purity,
nobleness, and broadmindedness. Others also saw it as a heavenly mystery to be
“It was not the east that was bright,
it was the light
of the moon coming forth,”
is a line from the Shi Jing.
“How wide the
world was, how close the trees to heaven.
And how clear in the water the
nearness of the moon!”
is a poem by Meng Haoran (689–740 AD).
stars lean down from open space,
and the moon comes running up the
is part of a poem by Du Fu (712-770 AD).
“The moon, grown full
now over the sea,
setting right the whole of heaven,”
is by Zhang Jiuling,
a prime minister in the Tang Dynasty.
The famous Chinese poet Li Bai
(701-762 AD), of the Tang Dynasty, wrote a poem titled “Drinking alone with the
Moon,” which seems to speak of humanity lost in delusion and loneliness, yet
still yearning for a connection with heaven.
“From a pot of wine
among the flowers, I drank alone.
was no one with me–till, raising my cup,
I asked the bright moon,
bring me my shadow and make us three.