The Story Behind It


The two main characters of the famous Mid-Autumn Festival legend.

As with many holidays that are celebrated and passed down through generations, there is a story that explains the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival (which is also sometimes called the Lantern Festival).  All of these stories are associated with a mythical character named Houyi and the Chinese Goddess of the Moon, Chang’e (CHäNG-uh) but almost every story tells a different sequence of events.  The stories are definitely rather outlandish, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to fantasize every now and then.  The most famous version of the story goes something like this:

Thousands of years ago, Chang’e was a young girl who worked in the Jade Emperor’s palace, which resided in the heavens.  Only a select group of individuals were allowed to reside in the heavens, and one day, when Chang’e accidentally broke a precious porcelain jar in the emperor’s palace, she was punished and sent to live on Earth for the remainder of her life.  On Earth, Chang’e was born into a poor, working family, and she worked as a farmer for most of her young life.  At the age of 18, she met a young hunter from another village named Hou Yi, and she caught his eye.  They became close friends.

Some random day, ten suns suddenly appeared in the sky instead of the usual one Sun, and threatened to burn the Earth down with their sweltering heat.  Hou Yi used his expert archery skills to shoot down nine of the suns, which drove him to become famous throughout China and from this fame, he eventually became king.  He and Chang’e married shortly after.

Despite Hou Yi’s modest upbringings, he developed into a despotic leader, seeking immortality.  He ordered his people to create an elixir of life (in some stories it was a pill, not an elixir), and they successfully made one.  However, Chang’e found out about her husband’s plans and drank the elixir herself.  Enraged, Hou Yi tried to shoot her down as she jumped out the window in an effort to escape her husband’s anger.  Instead of falling, Chang’e ascended to the moon and avoided Hou Yi’s attempts to stop her 1 On the moon, half of the effects of the elixir wore out, and so Chang’e was forced to reside on the moon, giving her the characteristic “Yin” nature (feminine, passive) of Chinese philosophy.  Meanwhile, Hou Yi built up his kingdom and ascended towards the sky, giving him the characteristic “Yang” nature (masculine, aggressive) of Chinese philosophy.  As the legend goes, there is a rabbit that resides on the moon who is trying to create another elixir so that Chang’e can return back to Earth.  Every year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the moon shines bright and signifies the one night when Hou Yi is able to visit his wife 2.

Colorful lanterns are lit and hung on trees and lines suspended over the water, celebrating Hou Yi's visit to the moon.

On that day, several celebrations take place.  Colorful lanterns are lit and hung all over the place.  Dragon dances are done in stunning fashion.  Dandelion leaves are collected and distributed throughout the family, and mooncakes are made for all to enjoy.  It’s truly a sight to behold.

  1. Moon Festival Overview.” San Fransisco Chinatown Merchants Association. Jun 2009. Web. 5 May 2011.
  2. Mid-Autumn Festival.” Wikipedia. Apr 2011. Web. 7 May 2011.

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