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Mid-Autumn Festival and Mooncakes: What the Moon Represents in Chinese Culture

This piece was written on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, September 29, 2023. Perhaps you have heard about this festival from its various names such as the Moon Festival, the Mooncake Festival, etc. In China, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the day of reunion, with families separated from afar joining together to feast, admiring the glowing full moon while eating mooncakes. Similar festivities can be found across Asia–Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand– all places with varying degrees of historic Chinese cultural influence and sizable communities of ethnic Chinese. The history of the Mid-Autumn Festival dates back to the Zhou dynasty (roughly 1050 BCE to – 221 BCE): in other words, the festival had been around for nearly three thousand years, though it only started to gain popularity at the beginning of Tang Dynasty (620CE).

What’s so special about this particular date? Mid-Autumn Festivals are on every fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, on which day the moon is the fullest. Scholarly accounts show that moon worship was common in ancient China, linking its crescent-full cycle to birth (A rather romantic imagination of the sun and the moon giving birth to the stars). Taoists also associated the moon with the concept of yin, contrasting with the sun which symbolizes yang. The moon motif encompassed different significances throughout history, and in modern times, the crescent-full cycle is interpreted as the separation and reunion of people. Hence, the fullest moon indicates the time of reunion.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, as a time of family reunion, had been a popular occasion for poets to lament their loneliness and dejection. One of the most famous poems about the festival was written by Tang-Dynasty Poet Libai, known as the Immortal Poet or the Poet Transcendent, “举杯邀明月,对影成三人。” translated here as:

Raising my cup

I invite the moon to toast

facing my shadow

we now make three

Another influential and beautiful poem in the style of ci (a type of poem that can be sung) by Song Dynasty poet Su Shi summarizes the intriguing emotions surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival: “人有悲欢离合,月有阴晴圆缺。此事古难全,但愿人长久,千里共婵娟。”

People experience suffering and joy 

Separation and reunion 

The moon may be dim or bright

Round or crescent-shaped

Imperfections are common since the beginning of time

May we all be blessed with longevity 

So we’re able to enjoy this same moon though thousands of miles apart

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