Mooncakes, a traditional Mid-Autumn Festival treat (Photo from Britannica)

This past Monday was the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), also called the Harvest Moon Festival in China because the moon is at its fullest. Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, usually in September or October according to the Gregorian calendar.

The festival began in ancient times as a celebration of the autumn harvest and a time to honor the moon. People offered sacrifices to the moon – or, more accurately, to the goddess Chang’e enthroned in the moon.

According to one version of the story ^{[1]}, the ten suns of the Jade Emperor transformed themselves into suns to ravage the earth with their heat. The Emperor sent the archer Hou Yi (后羿) to divert his sons, but indignation against the sons over the damage wrought on the people incited Hou Yi to shoot them down instead. He left only one hanging in the sky.

Hou Yi shooting the suns (Image from Colnet)

Incensed at Hou Yi’s disobedience, the Jade Emperor banished the archer and his wife Chang’e (嫦娥) from heaven. Struggles in their earthly lives prompted Hou Yi to seek out the Queen Mother of the West, who lived on earth and possessed a store of elixirs that granted immortality.

When Hou Yi reached the Queen’s home on Mount Kunlun, she gave him the elixir and two basic instructions: Both Hou Yi and Chang’e were to drink half of the potion (or eat half of the pill, depending on how the story is told); neither were to drink all of it, or else be lifted off the earth.

Queen Mother of the West (Source unknown)

At home, Hou Yi tucked the elixir away and bid that Chang’e not disturb it, but Chang’e did not control her curiosity. She uncovered the elixir and, in her eagerness for immortality, drank it all. (Another version ^{[2]} that sheds Chang’e in a less selfish light features Hou Yi’s student Pang Meng, who desired immortality, trying to steal the elixir from her. To protect herself, Chang’e consumes it.)

As the Queen Mother warned, after drinking the whole elixir, Chang’e began to float up to heaven. Hou Yi watched helplessly below.

Eventually Chang’e landed on the moon, a compromise between the heaven from which she had been banished and the earth to which she could not return. For company she has only the Jade Rabbit, a selfless creature who the Jade Emperor granted immortality and a place on the moon. There, Jade Rabbit pounds immortal herbs with a mortar and pestle.

Chang’e and the Jade Rabbit (Image from nomen.fr)

Happy belated Mid-Autumn Festival! (I meant to post on this holiday sooner, but school obligations interrupted those plans. Whoops!)

[1] “Houyi and Chang’e – the Goddess of the Moon.” Stories & Histories, Shen Yun Performing Arts, n.d., link.
[2] “Mid-Autumn Festival.” Traditional Chinese Festivals, China Internet Information Center, n.d, link.