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The Mid-Autumn Festival Marks Seasons Change and Ancient Fables

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The Mid-Autumn Festival Marks Seasons Change and Ancient Fables

An actress performs during a Mid-Autumn Festival in Chengdu, China.

(Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
The 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar is celebrated by Chinese around the world as the Mid-Autumn Festival or 中秋节 (Zhong Qiu Jie). The holiday always coincides with a bright full autumn moon.

Like many Chinese holidays, food plays a prominent role. On this day, Chinese will eat nian gao or glutenous rice cakes and mooncake, made up of bean paste or lotus-seed paste packed inside a pastry layer. There is sometimes even a salted duck egg inside.

Many Chinese will admit that they don't really like eating mooncake, but like the fruitcake at Christmas, giving the gift of mooncake seems to be a case of tradition beating out taste.

The Fable of the Woman in the Moon:

The holiday is all about tradition. And like so many festivals, it begins with a fable. The story has many, many versions, but the one I was taught as a child goes like this:

In ancient China, there wasn't just one sun in the sky. There were ten. The ten suns burned so bright that no crops would grow and the people began to starve. In this time of crisis one man, rose to the challenge. The archer Hou Yi was well known for his skill with a bow and arrow. With support from his wife Chang'e, he shot down the suns, one by one. Just as he was about to shoot down the last one, his wife stopped him. The people and plants still need light to prosper, she said.

People across the land were so happy that their suffering had ended and they crowned Ho Yi their king. At first, Ho Yi was a very good king, ruling fairly and with heart. But he soon became despotic, killing without cause and ruling tyrannically, to the dismay of Chang'e.

Hou Yi's ultimate fear was death and he became obsessed with immortality. So he sought out a witch doctor, who provided him with a pill that would allow him to live forever. When Hou Yi's wife, Chang'e found out about his plan, she knew she had to stop him.

At night, as Hou Yi slept, she crept to the place where the king had hidden the pill. Just then, her husband awoke and demanded to know what she was doing. Without a thought, Chang'e swallowed the pill and suddenly began to fly up into the twilight, until she reached the full moon. And that is where she remains today.

If you look closely at the autumn full moon, you will see her there, a pure and shining example of personal sacrifice for a greater purpose.

Some Truth Behind the Tale:

It's an old tale, depictions of Hou Yi shooting down the suns has been found on Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 9 CE) tomb murals. The story is both a parable about the dangers of gaining power and the heroism of sacrifice. But Dartmouth College professor Sarah Allan believes it may be based in some reality.

In her 1991 book The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art and Cosmos in Early China Allan posits that the myth of the ten suns was a strong beliefs of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE - 1046 BCE).

Allan hypothesizes that the Shang Kingdom's ruling group was organized in a totemic relationship with these ten suns. The myth became synonymous with their rule. When the Shang fell to the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BCE - 771 BCE), which believed in one single sun, the archer myth of Hou Yi was used to illustrate an end to Shang rule.

It's a fascinating hypothesis. And great food for thought as we watch the Mid-Autumn full moon fade away.

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