Zhōngqiū Festival (中秋節) also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, Moon Festival or Harvest Festival is held on the 15th day of the eight month of the lunar calendar. It is a full moon day. With cool autumn weather in the Northern Hemisphere and usually clear sky, it is a good time to enjoy the Moon at night. Having harvested the crops at that time of the year, the festival is a time of celebration, gathering and thanksgiving for the farming community. In 2023, the Festival falls on 29th September (Friday).

The Legends of the Festival

Long long ago, there was a hero named Hou Yi (后羿) who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang’e (嫦娥). One year, there were ten suns in the sky burning the Earth, causing a horrible drought and scorching the plants. Hou Yi shot down nine of them to save the people from starvation. The Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wangmu) (西王母娘娘) rewarded his heroic deed by giving him a pill that would make Hou Yi immortal. Hou Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the pill.

One day, Hou Yi took his apprentices to an archery practice. One of his students named Peng Meng (蓬蒙) pretended to be sick and stayed behind. After Hou Yi left, Pang Meng sneaked into Hou Yi’s house and demanded the immortal pill from Chang’e. Chang’e swallowed the pill one second just before Pang Meng could grab it.

Suddenly, her body became light. She began to rise, higher and higher towards Heaven, and could not get back to Earth. As she drifted close to the Moon, she decided to stop and live there as it was still close to Earth.

Feeling sorry for Chang’e in her loneliness, the Queen Mother of the West gave Chang’e a beautiful white jade rabbit to keep her company. Chang’e became a Moon Goddess.

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Image of the Moon as seen in in the Southern Hemisphere at night. On the right photo, red lines are added to trace out the shape of the ‘rabbit’

When Hou Yi came home that night and found out what had happened, his heart was broken. He missed Chang’e very much and he searched everywhere for her. Suddenly, he saw a figure on the Moon. It was Chang’e with her white jade rabbit. Hou Yi set a table out in the yard and put fruits and cakes on the table. He gazed at the bright Moon, thinking about how he could be reunited with his wife.

People soon learned about these activities, and since they were sympathetic to the couple, they participated in offering fruits and cakes to Chang’e.

Another version of the story is after Hou Yi shot down nine of the ten suns, he was pronounced king by the thankful people. However, he soon became an arrogant and autocratic ruler. In order to live long without death, he asked for the immortal pill from the Queen Mother of the West. His wife Chang’e stole and took the pill on the 15th of the eighth lunar month because she did not want the cruel king to live long and hurt more people. Hou Yi was so angry that he shot at his wife as she flew toward the moon, but he missed. Chang’e fled to the moon. Thereafter, people offer a sacrifice to Chang’e on every 15th of the eighth lunar month to commemorate her.

The third version of the story is Chang’e stole the immortal pill deliberately for herself. She was transformed into an ugly toad as punishment for her actions of stealing the immortal pill,

The stories of mooncakes

Mooncake ( 月餅) is a traditionally regarded as an indispensable delicacy offered between friends and relatives as presents  during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

According to Chinese folklore, a Turpan (吐魯番) businessman offered cakes to Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty (唐太宗) in his victory against the Xingnu (匈奴) on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Taizong took the round cakes and pointed to the moon with a smile, saying, “I would like to invite the toad to enjoy the (胡) cake.” (“應將胡餅邀蟾蜍”) After sharing the cakes with his ministers, the custom of eating these cakes spread throughout the country. Taizong renamed cakes as mooncakes. While this story explains the beginnings of mooncake-giving, the popularity and ties to the Festival began during the Song Dynasty (906–1279 CE).

Another popular legend concerns the ethnic Han Chinese (漢族) uprising against the ruling Mongols (蒙古族) at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (元朝) (1280–1368 CE). Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) using the advice of Liú Bówēn (劉伯温) ordered the mooncake makers to conceal a small piece of paper with a secret message in the mooncakes. The message said they were to rebel on Mid-Autumn Day “八月十五夜起義”. Another two versions of the message with similar meaning were “八月十五殺韃子” or “月圓殺韃”. When people cut the mooncake on Mid-Autumn Festival, they saw the secret message. Eventually the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown and Zhu Yuanzhang became the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

Traditional mooncakes always have designs printed on them, created by pressing them into the carved moulds and baking them. Sweet mooncakes are filled with bean paste, lotus seed paste and preserved duck egg yolks. Savoury mooncakes contains nuts and meat. Both are very rich foods and meant to be shared.

A mooncake cut into halves to show the yolk of a preserved duck egg among the lotus seed paste.

Many types of fillings can be found in traditional mooncakes according to the region’s culture. The Cantonese mooncakes are round pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 3–4 cm thick. They contain rich thick fillings surrounded by a thin (2–3 mm) crust and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. There are various types of fillings:

  • Lotus seed paste (蓮蓉)
  • Sweet bean paste (豆沙) made from red bean or adzuki bean
  • Jujube paste (棗泥) the ripe fruits of the jujube (date) plant. The paste is dark red in color
  • Five kernel (五仁) A filling consisting of 5 types of nuts and seeds, coarsely chopped, held together with maltose syrup. Commonly used nuts and seed include: walnut, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds or almonds. In addition, the mixture will usually contain candied winter melon, jinhua ham (金華火腿) as additional flavoring.
The mooncakes are cut open to show the fillings : . the
Mooncakes are cut open to show the fillings : lotus paste (left) and five kernel (right)

Snow skin mooncake is a non-baked mooncake which is similar to mochi ice cream (雪米糍雪糕麻)  or yukimi daifuku (雪見だいふく), as both have glutinous rice crusts and have to be kept frozen. Snow skin mooncakes are very popular nowadays.

Snow skin mooncake
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The four words written on the mooncake box ‘Lian Xiang Mooncakes 蓮香月餅’ show very fine calligraphy in clerical script (隸書)
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All these Chinese scripts on the 4 sides of the mooncake box show very beautiful handwriting in standard scripts (楷書) ‘蓮蓉第一家’, ‘蓮香餅好月團圓’, ‘香遠益(溢)清’, ‘豐美鮮腴’


A notable part of celebrating the Festival is playing with brightly lit lanterns. Traditionally, the lantern has been used to symbolize fertility, and functioned mainly as a toy and decoration. Lanterns were made in the image of natural things, myths, and local cultures.  Brightly coloured paper lanterns made in the forms of star fruit (Carambola)(楊桃), rabbits, dragon flies, gold fish, aeroplanes are popular. Over time, a greater variety of plastic lanterns are made with modern themes such as Hello Kitty, Snoopy, Pokémon and other comic figures.

Brightly coloured paper lanterns made in the forms of star fruits
Brightly coloured paper lanterns made in the forms of rabbits
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Brightly coloured lanterns with the images of Hello Kitty and Snoopy
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Miniature model of Sung Fook Lan Incence House ( 生福蘭香莊) (Artist : Louise Chan of Joyful Miniature Association of Hong Kong.)  Right before the Mid-Autumn Festival each year, traditional incense shops in Hong Kong display all kinds of lanterns as a notable part of celebrating the Festival.
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Brightly-lit lanterns in the forms of rabbits, aeroplane, tank, dragonfly, etc. in the Sung Fook Lan Incense House

One tradition involving lanterns is dēng mí (燈謎). Riddles are written on lanterns and people are asked to provide the answers.

Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance in Hong Kong

(Artist: Tony Lai of Joyful Miniature Association)

Tai Hang Village (大坑村) is located in Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣), Hong Kong. According to the local legends, about a hundred years ago, a plague infected the entire village, but after the villagers performed a fire dragon dance and set off firecrackers during the Mid-Autumn Festival, the plague disappeared. Since then, residents of Tai Hang Village perform the fire dragon dance with burning joss sticks annually to pray for safety during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The villagers of Tai Hang perform fire dragon dance during the Mid-Autumn Festival
Miniature model of the villagers of Tai Hang perform fire dragon dance during the Mid-Autumn Festival

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Calligraphy for the Festival

花好月圓人壽 甲午中秋 蕭燿漢 (Pretty flowers, full moon and longevity' clerical script by Patrick Siu, ink on pink rice paper, 136 x 68 cm
花好月圓人壽 甲午中秋 蕭燿漢  (‘Pretty flowers, full moon and longevity’, in clerical script by Patrick Siu, 2014, ink on pink rice paper, 136 x 68 cm

A painting of Chang’e 

Unidentified Artist after Tang Yin (唐寅). Hanging scroll; ink and colour on paper, 136.2 x 58.7 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art

A supremely gifted scholar and painter, Tang Yin (唐寅)(1470–1524) forfeited all chances of an official career after being involved in an examination scandal in the capital in 1499. Turning to painting and writing poetry for a living, he led the life of a dissolute scholar and died in poverty. The brilliantly executed Moon Goddess, Chang’e is a poignant reminder of Tang Yin’s dashed dreams for success in the official examinations, symbolized by the cassia (玉桂) branch in the goddess’s left hand. (The word for “cassia” [gui] is a pun on the word for “nobility” [also pronounced gui].) Tang Yin’s poem, in bold calligraphy, reads:



English Translation﹕

She was long ago a resident of the Moon Palace,
Where phoenixes and cranes gathered and embroidered
banners fluttered in heavenly fragrance.
Chang E, in love with the gifted scholar,
Breaks off [for him] the topmost branch of the cassia tree.


A famous Shi (poem)(詩) related to the Mid-Autumn Festival



大意是﹕『雲母製成的屏風染上一層幽深黯淡的燭影,銀河逐漸低斜下落啟明星也已下沉。 廣寒宮的嫦娥想必悔恨當初偷吃不死藥,如今落得獨處於碧海青天而夜夜寒心。』

http://www.tunghai74.org/letters/MoonFestival.htm (Chinese translation)

Two versions of English Translation ﹕

A screen made of mica reflects shadows and shades in candlelight,
The Milky Way slides low and stars dim as approaches daylight.
Maybe the Moon Goddess regrets ever having stolen the elixir of life,
As night after night she must over azure seas hover and in the blue resides.

(Betty Tseng 曾培慈)(南緯28°)

On a mica screen, a candle casts dark shapes;

the Milky Way slowly descends, the Morning Star is low.

Chang’e must regret stealing the elixir of life;

blue sea and blue sky, night after night in her heart.

(Hugh Grigg)

A famous Ci (詞) related to the Mid-Autumn Festival

Celebrated under a bright, full moon in September, the Mid Autumn Festival is to reunite spiritually with loved ones who are no longer with us, like Chang’e and Hou Yi. It is also a time to send good thoughts to those who are far away, but who can look up at the same bright moon and think of us too. In Chinese poetry throughout history, there are works related to sending thoughts to loved ones in the Mid-Autumn Festival. Su Shi (蘇軾)(1037 – 1101), the greatest poet and scholar in the Sung Dynasty wrote  ‘Prelude to Water Music’ (水調歌頭) in 1076.


丙辰中秋, 歡飲達旦, 大醉, 作此篇, 兼懷子由。






‘Prelude to Water Music’

Mid-Autumn night in the year of Bingchen (1076) : I made merry till sunrise and, getting very drunk, wrote this piece; I was also missing Ziyou.

Full moon, when did you appear?

Winecup in hand, I ask the dark night sky:

And wonder, in the court of heaven,

What age it is tonight?

Blithely would I return, riding on the wind-

only, in those crystal towers and halls of jade,

So high up, I fear I should be cold.

Get up and dance!

Come, shadow, move!

After all, there’s nothing like being among men.

Rounding the vermilion chamber,

Peering in at gauzy window,

She shines down on the sleepless.

Spite it cannot be: but

why then is she always whole when you are far from me?

Men grieve, delight, unite, and sundered,

Moons wax and wane, grow dim and bright,

These, from the first, were not for us to hold.

My only wish: that we’ll both live on,

Though a thousand miles apart,

To share the splendour of this shining orb.

( Alice W. Cheang)

Since ancient times, the night of the harvest moon (the 15th of the eight month) has been an occasion for thanksgiving and reunion with family and friends. In 1076, at the height of the New Laws, the poet was in Mizhou. Ziyou is the familiar name by which he always addressed his brother Su Che. The story goes that Emperor Shenzong was greatly moved by Su Shi’s veiled declaration of loyalty (‘blithely would I return …’) despite his alienation from the policies of the faction in power at the time (‘I fear I should be cold’).

Classical Chinese Music related to the Moon

Èr quán yìng yuè (Reflection of the Moon )( 二泉映月) by Huá Yàn jūn (華彥鈞)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fj13KU3SAvE (erhu solo played by Sòng fēi (宋飛)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY_qOFF9_54 (sung by Shí Lìjuān (石莉娟)

Cǎiyún zhuī yuè (Clouds Chasing the Moon) (彩雲追月)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7L2cOASlQg (instrumental ensemble)

Xin Music (欣音樂) of Xinmedia uploaded a few famous pieces related to the Moon and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Please visit the website.

http://solomo.xinmedia.com/music/5929-midautumnfestival (highly recommended) [歌單邀請]中秋夜賞樂。賞月

  1. Yuè Yè (Moonlight)《月夜》, erhu (二胡) sonata by Liú Tiānhuá (劉天華) composed in 1918. Played by Sòng Fēi (宋飛).

2. Yuè er Gāo (Moon on High)《月兒高》, adapted from “Níshang yǔyī qū” (“Colourful Plumage”)《霓裳羽衣曲》. Played by Huáng Chéngquán (黃呈權)(xiāo) and Lǚ Péiyuán (呂培原)(pipa).

3. Pínghú Qiū Yuè (Autumn Moon on a Quiet Lake )《平湖秋月》, adapted from an old piece by Lǚ Wénchéng (呂文成) during a visit Xī Hú (West Lake), Hángzhōu (杭州西湖) in the Mid-Autumn Festival around 1930s. Played by Mǎ Xiànghuá (馬向華) Gāo hú (高胡) solo.

Acknowledgements :

Patrick would like to thank Louise Chan, the artist and maker of the miniature model of ‘Sung Fook Lan Incense House’ and Tony Lai, the artist and maker of the miniature model ‘Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance’ for their wonderful and highly meticulous work which give us a lot of fond memories of the old Hong Kong lives.

Bibliography and further readings and viewing :


http://www.tunghai74.org/letters/MoonFestival.htm (Chinese translation)

https://28utscprojects.wordpress.com/2010/11 (Translation by Betty Tseng)

https://eastasiastudent.net/china/classical/li-shangyin-chang-e/ (Translation by Hugh Grigg)



http://baike.baidu.com/view/538467.htm (水调歌头·明月几时有)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ae2DlIvJczM 【邓丽君】但愿人长久(水调歌头)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX0HoQmXZ10 (邓丽君 – 但愿人长久 [HQ] 彭广毅) (highly recommended)

http://solomo.xinmedia.com/music/5929-midautumnfestival (highly recommended)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fJrJ3H2MDE (鄧麗君唱‘月亮代表我的心’ from 8:41 to 12:04)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fj13KU3SAvE (erhu solo played by Sòng fēi (宋飛)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY_qOFF9_54 (sung by Shí Lìjuān (石莉娟)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7L2cOASlQg (instrumental ensemble)

陆林 (1992) 宋词.北京师范大学出版社

Cheang, Alice W (2003) A silver Treasury of Chinese Lyrics A Renditions Book ISBN 962-7255-28-0