We called it the Lantern Festival when I was growing up. I never heard the term mid-autumn Festival until I was older and had moved to Kuala Lumpur, but that is probably because I hadn’t paid much attention before.
The festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, which is around the time of the autumn equinox and harvest time in China. Thus, it is a thanksgiving festival, a celebration for a bountiful harvest, and even in non-agricultural communities thanks can and is given for other forms of plenty. On this day, for example, prayers centre on requests for prosperity, offspring and longevity, which can all be seen as forms of bounty. Lantern Festival is what the Chinese in China call the celebration on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. However, Malaysians call it ‘chap goh meh’ (‘fifteenth night’ in the Hokkien language) and so there is no confusion for us when we call the fifteenth of the eighth lunar month Lantern Festival.
The festival is called Zhōngqiū Jié in Mandarin (中秋節), Jūng-chāu Jit in Cantonese, and Tiong-chhiu-cheh in Hokkien. The Chinese believe that the moon is at its fullest and shines brightest on this date, and mooncakes are sold and eaten during the weeks and days approaching the fifteenth and on the day itself. I like the white lotus with salted egg yolk and will greedily get the variety with four yolks in each cake so that when the cake is quartered, each fourth has a whole yolk in it.
Apparently the festival is also about moon worship, but that has never come up in my experience of celebrating here in Malaysia. Of the names of deities/immortals associated with the moon that I have come across in my research, I only recognise Chang’e, the beautiful woman who took more than her fair share of the elixir of immortality meant for her husband and her, and thus achieved not just immortality, but such extreme buoyancy that she flew up to the moon (see picture [left] taken from Myths & Legends of China by E.T.C. Werner, 1922) where she remains to this day, with no company except for a rabbit who offered its own life to whom he thought was a beggar. The beggar turned out to be a deity who rewarded the rabbit’s sacrifice by making it immortal. It’s not said why the poor beast had to spend eternity on the moon, but perhaps the powers that be decided that Chang’e needed some company.
I have also learnt of Wu Gang who was punished (different versions of the story describe different misdemeanours) by being banished to the moon. Interesting that living on the moon is a reward for the rabbit, but a punishment for Wu Gang! Of course, the rabbit is said to spend its time making either more potions for immortality or rice cakes, a less difficult existence than Wu Gang’s: He is doomed to perpetual labour, cutting down an orchard of osmanthus trees which spring up again as soon as they’re felled. But perhaps Chang’e brings him tea and rice cakes, and poor Wu Gang is allowed breaks to sit with the beautiful Moon Goddess while her companion the Moon Rabbit sits nearby, nibbling on osmanthus petals and rolling its eyes at human weakness. (Why is Chang’e a goddess when she greedily and impatiently drank her husband’s share of the elixir of immortality? This is just one of many myths that do not makes sense. Maybe something crucial has been left out!)
There is another Moon goddess named Changxi who mothered twelve moon princesses who are the twelve months of the year. Perhaps Chang’e was her thirteenth daughter. There is another story in which Chang’e lived in heaven and was an immortal handmaiden at the Jade Emperor’s palace until she
carelessly accidentally broke a beautiful porcelain pot and, as punishment, was sent to Earth to live as a mortal. On Earth, she met and married Hou Yi, an archer who shot down nine of the ten suns that were in the sky and making the Earth too hot for comfort. Hou Yi was rewarded with the elixir of immortality and you know the rest. Changxi may have pleaded her daughter’s case for her and then handed over the reins of Moon Goddess to Chang’e. I’m just speculating, don’t take me too seriously.
What I find interesting is that Changxi’s husband is Di Jun, an ancient supreme deity, and that he had another wife (Xihe) who bore him ten sons who were suns. That’s right, the same sons/suns who Hou Yi shot his arrows at. Were they really his half-brothers-in-law? Perhaps Chang’e drinking the whole potion and leaving Hou Yi was a plan hatched by her, Changxing and Xihe as revenge for the murder of nine of Xihe’s sons.
The picture on the right (found here) shows Wu Gang and Chang’e on the moon. I suppose they look resigned. The toad in the foreground is another incarnation of Chang’e for in some stories, she is indeed punished for her hastiness and greed, transformed into a three-legged toad. If petitions were/are made to the beautiful Moon Goddess for luck and safety, I wonder if anyone prays to the toad begging to be blessed with patience and contentment.