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Goddess & Rebellion: Here Are The Legends Behind Mid-Autumn Festival & Why We Eat Mooncake

Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as Mooncake or Lantern Festival, falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar every year.

Cover image via Sou Yan & @HKGoldenforum (Twitter)

Unlike other celebrations in Chinese culture, the stories and origin behind the Mid-Autumn Festival can be a little bit more confusing because there are multiple versions of the folklore

Is the Jade Rabbit or Chang'e, the goddess of the moon, the main symbol of celebration?

Depending on who you ask, different people will tell you a different tale they know.

In most cases, they would not be wrong. There are up to six versions of the legends behind the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

However, there are four popular tales that have withstood the test of time and become the most well-known legends of the celebration. Among them is the love story of Chang'e and valiant archer Hou Yi.

1. Chang'e and Hou Yi - the legend of the 10 suns

Image via Sina

According to the most famous variation of the story, there used to be 10 suns blazing in the morning sky in ancient China.

The heat from the suns caused people and crops to be scorched to death.

It was the hero named Hou Yi - a strong and valiant archer - who shot down nine suns with a bow and arrows, leaving only one sun in the sky.

As a reward, he was given an elixir of life that would grant eternal youth. However, Hou Yi loved his wife Chang'e so much that he didn't want to be separated from her. So, he told Chang'e to keep it away.

On the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calender, an evil man named Peng Meng decided to steal the elixir. Peng Meng stormed into the couple's home while Hou Yi was out and tried to take the elixir.

Seeing that she couldn't stop Peng Meng, Chang'e grabbed the elixir before he did and drank it all by herself. She ascended to heaven upon drinking the magical potion.

Legend has it that she decided to live on the moon so that she could be nearer to her husband since the moon was the closest 'planet' to the earth.

Image via Mythopedia

Saddened by his wife's departure, Hou Yi set up an incense table in his garden and laid out Chang'e's favourite food to pay tribute to her.

Touched by the story, people started admiring the moon on this day.

2. A rabbit, a fox, and a monkey - the tale of the selfless rabbit

Image via YouTube

In this version of the legend, Buddha disguises himself as an old hungry man and approaches three animals - a rabbit, a fox, and a monkey.

The old man asks the animals for food. The fox brings him a fish, while the monkey brings him some fruit.

As for the rabbit, it says 'you can eat me' before throwing itself into the fire.

Touched by the rabbit's selfless act, Buddha resurrects the rabbit and sends it to the moon to be venerated.

In another tale, the Jade Rabbit is often portrayed as a companion of Chang'e in the Moon Palace.

The rabbit relentlessly pounds different herbs in order to make a pill that could send Chang'e back to earth and be reunited with her husband.

However, it never succeeds. Famous poet Li Bai wrote a poem on this under the collection The Old Dust, titled The Rabbit In The Moon Pounds The Medicine In Vain.

3. Wu Gang - the tale of a man forever chopping a self-healing tree

Image via Kuai Bao

Here is how the story goes for Wu Gang, an ordinary person who wanted to become immortal but never put in the work.

Displeased by his attitude, the Emperor of Heaven planted a huge osmanthus tree on the moon and ordered him to cut it down.

"If you succeed, you will be granted immortality," said the Emperor.

But what Wu Gang didn't know was that the tree had self-healing properties. No matter how hard he tried, the tree would never fall.

Not knowing that, Wu Gang continued to chop the tree endlessly.

Legend has it that on clear nights, we can see a shadow on the moon that is made by the same tree.

4. A hidden message in mooncakes - the tale of Zhu Yuanzhang's uprising

Image via China Daily

It is said that this legend really did happen during the late Yuan Dynasty, between 1271 and 1368.

At that time, people in the country were tortured by Mongol rulers. This prompted a nationwide rebellion led by Zhu Yuanzhang.

However, they were met with the challenge of spreading their messages to insurrectionary armies due to the strict rule against holding large gatherings.

To overcome this, Zhu's military counselor, Liu Bowen, came up with the idea of hiding notes containing the date of the revolt in mooncakes and distributing them to the people.

The ploy worked and the rebels successfully took over the palace and began the Ming Dynasty with Zhu as the first emperor.

The success of the uprising against the Mongols has since been commemorated by eating mooncakes.

The custom grew and it became the Mid-Autumn Festival as we know it today.

On the subject of mooncakes, did you know the total calories of a whole mooncake can be as much as four slices of pizza?

Read more about the history or superstitions behind these Chinese celebrations:

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