Mid-autumn festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. It’s also known as Mooncake Festival because a special kind of sweet cake prepared in the shape of the moon and filled with sesame seeds, ground lotus seeds and duck eggs is served as a traditional Mid-autumn festival delicacy.
Nobody actually knows when the custom of eating moon cake to celebrate the mid-autumn festival began, but there are traces of it back in 14th century. At that time, China was in revolt against the Mongols. Chu Yuen-chang, and his senior deputy, Liu Po-wen, discussed battle plan and develops a secret mooncake strategy to take a certain walled city held by the Mongol enemy. Liu dressed up as a Taoist priest and entered the besieged city bearing mooncake.
He distributed these to the city’s populace. When the time for the year’s mid-autumn festival arrived, people opened their cakes and found hidden messages advising them to coordinate their uprising with the troops outside. Thus, the emperor-to-be ingeniously took the city and his throne.
Mooncake of course, became even more famous. And so, every year people eat moon cake and enjoy the harvest moon with their family to celebrate the victory over the Mongols. This is one of the story on mid-autumn festival that I’m familiar with but my favourite tale on how Mid-Autumn festival originates have to be the tale between Hou Yi and Chang Er.
This tale on Hou Yi and Chang Er may differ from the ones you have heard, as they are so many versions told from one generation to another.
The one I’m more familiar with is this one. Once upon a time, there live two immortals in the Heaven, they are Hou Yi and Chang Er. Hou yi and Chang Er were lovers who goes through great obstacle before their love is approved by the Heaven.
The Heaven was ruled by the Jade Emperor and his Empress. One day, ten sons of Jade emperor accidentally transformed into the sun, and revolves around the earth playfully, causing great drought and suffering to the mortals below.
Worried and concern for the mortals, the Jade emperor summons the imperial archer, Hou Yi to help him solve the problem. Hou Yi then went to Earth and shot down nine of the Jade Emperor’s sons. The emperor had thought that Hou Yi would not harm any of his sons. Now that his sons are dead, the emperor was very furious. In anger, the emperor took away Hou Yi and his wife’s immortality and condemn them to live on Earth forever.
Chang Er was grief stricken with her loss of immortality. Hou Yi could not bear to see his saddened wife, and so, he decided to steal the immortality pill from the heavenly medicine manufacturer so that both of their immortality could be restored. He manage to steal the pill from heaven, and brought it to Chang Er. He told her that they only need to take half of the pills to regain immortality.
In the meantime, the Jade Emperor found out about the stolen immortality pill, and command an imperial guard to retrieve the pills and catch both Hou Yi and Chang Er so that he could punish them for their misdeed.
And so, the imperial guard went down to earth in pursuit of the couple and the pill of immortality. But the guard himself was tempted by the idea of immortality. So he waited until Hou Yi is not at home, and attacked Chang Er who is defenseless at home. He demanded for the pill but Chang Er refused to hand it to him. Hou Yi, who seems to forget his arrows went back home to get it and discovered that his wife is in danger. He fought the imperial guard courageously.
Unfortunately, Hou Yi is an archer, not a fighter. He was stabbed right in his heart in front of Chang Er. Chang Er was grief stricken, and wishes to die with her husband too. However, Hou Yi’s dying wish was for Chang Er to regain her immortality and live happily for all eternity.
So, Chang Er took out the pill from her sleeves and swallowed the whole pill so that the guard would not be able to get it and obtain immortality. Right after swallowing the pill, Chang Er started to float towards the sky, and after flying for some time, she landed on the moon. She cried and grieve for her husband’s death.
Her cries was heard by a group of Jade Bunnies that lives on the moon. They went to her and listened to her story. These Jade Bunnies were captivated by Chang Er’s beauty and kindness towards them, so they built a palace for her to stay, knowing that she could never return to Heaven or Earth. They hailed her as their goddess and pledge allegiance to her. These bunnies can be seen pounding on the face of the moon on some cooking utensil.
It is believed that these Jade Bunnies are trying to make resurrection pills so that they could revive their Goddess’s love. It’s said that the resurrection pills is shaped like a mooncake. But it’s not dictate anywhere on whether Hou Yi was revived or not, but in many folklore, it’s told that Chang Er would bestow blessing of love and happiness to lovers who pray hard and sincere enough to the moon during mid-autumn.
According to my husband, however, there’s only one Jade Bunny on the moon, and it’s actually the reincarnation of Chang Er’s husband. He told me that the Jade Empress took pity on the couple, and so reincarnate Hou Yi as a Jade Bunny so that Chang Er will not be lonely on the moon. That explains why Chang Er can always be seen with a bunny everywhere she goes on the moon.
On his explanation to me on why the Jade Bunny is depicted as a creature that’s always pounding on the face of the moon, he said that the bunny is actually chopping a tree which is supposed to be indestructible. Only when he manage to chop down the tree, he will turn back into his original form, and only then, he and Chang Er would be forgiven by the heavenly beings and would be allowed to return to Heaven. (OK, OK, fine…my husband’s version is more romantic…geez…I think i finally lost the romantic charm in me! Malaysian politics to be blame!)
The story of Chang Er and Hou Yi touched many hearts, and with time, people started to celebrate mid-autumn festival by gathering their family and enjoy the sight of the harvest moon together over tea and mooncakes along with other delicacies.
People usually bake mooncake and eat it in hope that Chang Er would bless their mooncake and they would lead a happy life with their loved ones. The mid-autumn festival celebration is also a symbol of appreciation and gratefulness on what they have in life.
However in the modern days, mid-autumn festival is pretty much commercialized. Children these days do not really know what is the meaning of mid-autumn festival besides eating mooncake and playing with fancy lanterns. Maybe you guys should tell your children what mid-autumn festivals really supposed to mean, instead of just allowing them to have fun with their lanterns.
I only know two folklore on mid-autumn festival, feel free to share yours with me. This is quite late, but I’d like to wish you guys anyway. Happy mid-autumn festival.
I dedicate this song(poem) to all of you lovers out there. And to my loved ones too. It’s 但愿人长久 (Wishing us to last forever)
Cleffairy: Immortality is not a gift, but a curse when you are damned to live it all alone, without the ones that you love.