Author: Elaine Guo
Editors: Kai Yim, Zoey Gong
Mid-Autumn Festival: Harvest & Gratitude
Today is the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie,中秋节), the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese lunisolar calendar. This day boasts an incredible, bright full moon, earning its common name, the “Moon Festival.” The Mid-Autumn Festival is a time of family reunion and celebration, a major cultural event in China and many other East and Southeast Asian societies.
For millennia, Chinese rulers have worshipped the moon and celebrated the autumn harvest during the fullest moon of the 8th month. To show their gratitude for a bountiful harvest, rulers made offerings and sacrifices to the moon and its relevant folk deities—the goddess Chang’e above all others.
Read on to discover the rich mythology, history, and food and wellness traditions of this important autumn festival.
One of the most widely told Mid-Autumn Festival legends is the one of the moon goddess, Chang’e. And as the story goes, long ago, China suffered from terrible droughts because ten suns existed in the sky and the extreme heat made people’s lives very difficult. The Jade Emperor tasked a famed archer, Hou Yi, to shoot down nine of those suns. As a reward for saving humanity, he granted Hou Yi an immortality elixir.
Taking the elixir would turn anyone immortal and they'd need to leave earth behind. However, Hou Yi had a wife named Chang’e whom he loved dearly, and couldn't begin to think of leaving her, so the couple hid it in their home instead.
Yet the news of the gift of the elixir did not stay hidden for long. On the 15th day of the 8th month, when Hou Yi was away on a hunt, his evil apprentice broke into their home and tried to force Chang’e to give up the elixir, but she refused.
In the subsequent struggle, Chang’e swallowed the elixir out of desperation, and began floating away into the sky, transforming into a deity. Because she loved her husband deeply and wished to stay nearby, she chose the moon as her heavenly residence.
When Hou Yi learned of this, he was so saddened that, on this day each year, he would display Chang’e favorite fruits and cakes out in the courtyard while gazing longingly at the moon. The people of the town, sympathizing with his sadness, soon joined him. This is the origin of moon-worship on the 15th day of the 8th month.
The roundness of the full moon represents abundance and the joy of a family reunited and made whole. For centuries, Chinese families and friends gathered on Mid-Autumn to share a bountiful meal beneath the full moon, celebrating the harvest and the bonds of family.
Today, the festival is the second-most important cultural celebration in China, and family reunion is still the highlight of the day—as seen by the surge in train ticket sales as millions of Chinese rush home to spend the day with their loved ones.
Mid-Autumn Festival Foods & Wellness
Mooncakes (yue bing 月饼)
As with all major Chinese festivals, the Mid-Autumn celebrations center on an array of seasonal and symbolic dishes. The quintessential food is, of course, the mooncake—so much so that some refer to this day as the Mooncake Festival.
Shanghainese mooncakes @zoeyxinyigong @huang_yangzi
Traditional mooncakes vary by region but are usually rich, heavy, and dense compared with most Western cakes and pastries. They are typically eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea. The classic Cantonese mooncake features a salted duck egg yolk and sweet lotus paste enclosed in an egg wash pastry stamped with flower and auspicious motifs. Other fillings include anything from sweet jujube date paste to crushed mixed nuts to salted meats and mushrooms.
The Bejiing style mooncakes usually feature hawthorne paste or wisteria blossom jam inside a flaky puff pastry crust stamped with red auspicious characters.
Other styles of mooncakes exist all across China and the Sinophone world, and in modern times, innovations like mochi crust mooncakes or cakes filled with chocolate, jelly, and liquor infusions.
Traditional mooncake fillings tend to be beneficial foods for the autumn season. And as the general applying TCM principle says:
"Nourish Yang in spring and summer, Yin in autumn and winter."
Duck egg yolks and mushrooms, for example, are great to nourish Yin during the dryness common in autumn. Lotus seed paste is good for clearing Lung heat that has a tendency to rise, as autumn is the season when the Lungs are most active. Hawthorn stimulates the appetite, prompting people to eat more in preparation for the collecting action that autumn requires. Though modern varieties of mooncakes can be innovative and exciting, it’s still best to limit consumption of the overly sweet and decadent varieties (like ice cream) and stick with more traditional fillings.
But why do the Chinese celebrate by giving out and eating mooncakes? The origin of the custom has several different origin stories.
Shanghainese mooncakes @zoeyxinyigong @huang_yangzi
One origin story of the mooncake says that it was invented by a Tang Dynasty general on Mid-Autumn as a form of army rations. With this invention, the Tang army was able to take over China from its predecessors, and the Mid-Autumn Festival’s increase in popularity during the Tang Dynasty was partly thanks to the proliferation of the pastry.
Today, mooncakes are a common gift between friends and family in the month or so before the Mid-Autumn festival, and many mooncake makers have developed elaborate packaging and gift boxes to go with their products.
This Chinese tradition of exchanging mooncakes has a long history as well. According to historical legend, Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) revolutionaries used mooncakes to organize their revolt against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan (1271–1368). It was said that the Mongols did not eat moon cakes and most could not read Chinese. The rebels handed out mooncakes en masse to their Han Chinese compatriots, and inside those mooncakes was the hidden message “on the 15th day of the 8th month, kill the Mongol rulers.” The uprising was said to be a huge success, putting the Ming rebels on their path to overtaking China.
Another mainstay of the Mid-Autumn table are the fresh fruits and vegetables that have come in with the harvest. These also tend to be beneficial to the body during this season, and many are closely linked to the holiday:
Asian Pears (ya li)
Pears have long been an essential element of the Mid-Autumn Festival both for cultural and for wellness reasons. The character for pear (梨) is a homophone of the character for separation (离). Because the Mid-Autumn Festival is about reuniting with family and friends, people eat pears to symbolize “eating away the separation” in hopes that they won’t have to be parted from their loved ones again.
Stuffed Pear @zoeyxinyigong @huang_yangzi
Slightly sour and cooling, pears are commonly used in TCM to moisten the Lungs, placate Heart fire, and cleanse the body of infections and toxins. They alleviate the common ailments that dry autumn weather brings, such as sinus irritations, coughs, dry skin, persistent thirst, and chapped lips.
The beautiful osmanthus flower is in peak bloom during the autumn equinox and has become an auspicious symbol of prosperity for the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is said that, on the moon, the Jade Rabbit (the rabbit spirit who was sent by the Jade Emperor to keep Chang’e company) sits below an osmanthus tree as he makes his elixir of life. Families might gather with a cup of osmanthus tea and a mooncake in hand to listen to the elders tell legends, though the adults might enjoy some osmanthus wine instead.
In TCM, osmanthus is known for reducing phlegm and coughs and for settling the Stomach. It is also good for calming the Shen (spirit), and its sweet scent can reduce anxiety and stress. You can enjoy osmanthus tea, osmanthus-steeped wine, add osmanthus to various baked goods, and sprinkle osmanthus flowers on stir fries.
Pomelo (you zi)
Pomelos, similar to grapefruit, are sweet and help hydrate the body while reducing dampness. High in vitamin C, they are also a great snack to boost the immune system and prevent autumn colds. The Chinese character for pomelo (柚) is a homophone of the word for protection (佑), so pomelos are often used as offerings in prayers for protection against evil.
Lotus Root (lian ou)
Lotus root is harvested in abundance around the autumn equinox and is served at Mid-Autumn to represent family. When cut, lotus pieces are still held together by numerous silk-like fibers, signifying the bonds of family that exist no matter the physical distance. It is both delicious (can be enjoyed in savory and sweet dishes) and a superfood, supporting the Stomach and Spleen, and is packed with essential vitamins and minerals.
Taro (yü tou)
Taro, a starchy root vegetable, is usually eaten skinless, and the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) emperor Qianlong once said that “on the evening of Mid-Autumn, peeling the skin off a taro is akin to peeling the skin off of a demon.” In some dialects, the word for taro also sounds like the words for “luck is inside.” Eating taro is therefore seen as a way of warding off evil spirits and neutralizing disasters.
The silky and smooth quality of taro is a sign that they tonify the Yin, making them perfect for soothing the dryness in the throat and nose we feel during autumn.
Seasonal Dietary Shifts
Autumn is the time of year when life begins to mature and decline. The ancient Chinese realized that, in accordance with seasonal fluctuations, Yang Qi tends to flow outwards and occupies the body surface in spring and summer. Therefore, the innards become relatively depleted of Yang and need replenishing. At the same time, the weather in autumn and winter is cold and dry, and it becomes important to keep warm and alleviate dryness by balancing Yin. The methods of replenishing Yang and addressing dryness will bulk up the body's energy and help it prepare for the coming cold.
In TCM theory, during autumn, the Lungs dominate, affecting:
- the skin
- body fluid metabolism
- blood circulation
- mood (tendency for melancholy)
Since the vigorous summer is over, TCM holds that everything needs to turn inwards to prep for the harsh winter. And as we know here at Five Seasons TCM, food is foundational to ensure that the body adjusts to the changing seasons.
The dry weather usually causes an itchy throat, a dry nose or nasal passages, chapped lips, rougher skin, hair loss and dry stools. It’s therefore best to eat foods that promote the production of body fluids and their lubricating effects throughout the body.
Beneficial foods for this season are lily bulb, white fungus, nuts or seeds, pear, lotus root, pumpkin, honey, soy milk, and dairy products (in moderation). Traditionally, the Chinese added these ingredients to rice porridge for breakfast and soups for lunch and dinner
We also suggest eating foods with sour flavors like hawthorn, pineapple, apple, grapefruit, and lemon. These have astringent properties and thus prevent the loss of body fluids. On the other hand, pungent foods like onions, ginger, and peppers induce perspiration. The body needs extra fluids to counteract the dry environment, so it’s best to limit or avoid pungent flavors.