Mooncakes and Rabbits: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival

Today, Tuesday 21st September, is the Mid-Autumn Festival in China which, along with Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, and Qing Ming Festival, is one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar. In this post, Bryan Sitch and Fang Zong describe some of the stories associated with this festival, also known as the Moon Festival, explaining the significance of mooncakes and rabbits, amongst other things.

There are many legends associated with the Mid-Autumn (or Moon / Mooncake) Festival. We don’t propose to retell all of the stories here but will focus on one with close connections to a document in Manchester Museum’s collection, featuring Chang’e the moon goddess.

Moon goddess, Chang'e, holding a rabbit in front of a tree and the moon with an inscription to her left
The moon goddess Chang’e holding a rabbit and floating amongst the branches of a tree, with the moon behind her and an inscription to her left. Hare Collection, Manchester Museum

The story goes that one day, some 4,000 years ago, ten suns appeared in the sky, ravaging earth with terrible heat and drought. Determined to relieve the suffering, a great archer, Hou Yi, shot down nine of the suns, saving life on Earth. As a reward the Queen Mother gave him the elixir of eternal life. Hou Yi married the beautiful Chang’e, a servant to the King of Heaven. When one of Hou Yi’s followers tried to steal the elixir, Chang’e swallowed it, turning her into a goddess and making her immortal. She found herself floating up to the moon. Hou Yi was powerless to help and because he couldn’t join Chang’e, he put out food offerings which were round, like the moon. This became a custom at the time of the full-moon in the autumn, and the tradition became part of the Mid-Autumn Festival or Mooncake Festival, when it is customary to give friends, colleagues and relatives gifts of mooncakes to celebrate.

Commemorative stamp featuring Chang'e
Commemorative Stamp “Full Moon Mid-Autumn Festival” issued by China Post 2016. The upper part of the stamp shows the mythical Chang’e flying to the moon; the lower part shows the scene of moon worship, praying for a good harvest, good health, good fortune and longevity, and family reunion. Note 56 holes punched around the moon, symbolizing the 56 ethnic groups who will celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival together.

According to another story, the Chinese people were unhappy at having to submit to foreign rule by the Mongols during the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368 AD) and used secret messages baked into the mooncakes to help organise a rebellion against them. The rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). This coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival, providing another reason to eat mooncakes at this time of year.

China moulds for mooncakes on a background showing corn, nuts and traditional autumn harest foods
Traditional moulds used to make mooncakes.

Mooncakes are made with sweet bean paste in a rich pastry cover, but they also contain the yolk of an egg which gives them an unexpectedly savoury taste too! They are made in special moulds which leave intricate patterns on the outside of the mooncake. It is estimated that more than 1.48 billion moon cakes are eaten by Chinese communities in mainland China and throughout the world during the Moon Festival each year. In this health-conscious age, we should also point out that mooncakes have lots of calories in them and eating too many can be bad for the waistline! I suppose they are equivalent to British mince pies at Christmas.

Half a mooncake
A mooncake, cut in half

The tree in our picture of Chang’e is not just any old tree. In fact, both Cassia (Chinese cassia or Chinese Cinnamon) and Osmanthus (Sweet Olive) are commonly associated with the myth of Chang’e and the moon more generally.

Drawing of a Cassia plant showing leaves and blossom
Cassia. Botanical illustration from Manchester Museum Herbarium

Cassia is a plant with cultural significance in China and strong connections with the moon, featuring in one of the four legends about the Moon Festival. In this story a man called Wu Gang could not settle in any of the apprenticeships he took up and eventually decided he wanted to be immortal instead. He begged an immortal living in the next valley to teach him, but once again, Wu Gang failed; showing no patience to work on any of the tasks assigned to him. As a punishment, the immortal banished Wu Gang to the moon and told him that he could only return to earth once he had chopped down a large Cassia tree. This being a magical tree, the Cassia regenerated overnight and, try as he might, Wu Gang could never completely cut it down, so remains on the moon to this day. The magical Cassia may well be a reference to the regenerative properties of the Chinese Cinnamon tree. The bark of this tree is an important source of the spice cinnamon and, thanks to the continual regrowth of the bark, it can be cut and harvested year on year.

Drawing of Osmanthus showing leaves and flowers
Osmanthus fragrans. Botanical illustration from Manchester Museum Herbarium

Osmanthus flowers also have a strong association with the moon in Chinese folklore. As well the blossoming of Osmanthus coinciding with the Moon Festival in mid-autumn when the sweet scent of the flowers is released into the air, it also served as a companion for Chang’e when she floated up to the moon. According to another Chinese legend, Osmanthus originally grew on the moon but the seeds were scattered on Earth by a goddess at a time when many people were dying of a plague. The flowers of Osmanthus were used to make a wine that cured the people. The Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet, Yang Wanli, wrote that the scent of Osmanthus was so rich, it’s “hard to believe it comes from nature and not the moon in heaven”.

In an attempt to identify the tree in our picture, we stumbled upon something of a mystery because, based on the leaf shape, the tree does not appear to be Cassia. However, the blossom of Osmanthus is most often greenish-white or yellow, not red, as show in the picture. Peter Valder, author of ‘The Garden Plants of China’ (1999), confirms this, having found no evidence of red Osmanthus in China. He did, however, come across a historical reference to a rare ‘Red Osmanthus’ growing in the garden of a scholar in the coastal province Zhejiang during the Ming dynasty. One explanation comes from the Fujian Province in China, where the practice of grafting Osmanthus onto the red pomegranate tree can create red flowers.

4 commemorative stamps with blossom
Chinese stamps showing Osmanthus in various colours, including Dan Gui (meaning red Osmanthus). On the left (circled) is the moon rabbit

The rabbit is also very important in the myths and legends about the moon and also features in our picture of Chang’e. In one of the stories about the Moon Festival, three wise men or sages disguised themselves as old men and begged a fox, a monkey and a rabbit for something to eat because they were hungry. The fox and the monkey gave the old men something to eat but the rabbit didn’t have anything for them, so jumped into the pot to be cooked so that they could eat its flesh. The sages were so moved by the rabbit’s self-sacrifice that they let him live in the Moon Palace. The rabbit became known as the jade rabbit – jade is a very auspicious material in Chinese culture, and in some pictures of the myths and legends surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival the rabbit is also shown preparing medicines using a mortar and pestle.

Stamp showing chinese family and a rabbit with pestle and mortar
Chinese family enjoying the mid-autumn moon. Above, the moon rabbit (circled in red) can be seen preparing medicines.

The inscription on the left side of our picture of Chang’e, written in traditional Chinese characters, says: 兔魄流輝 or ‘the moon is bright and shining’. The characters 兔魄, or ‘rabbit soul’ are another name for the moon because of the legend of the white rabbit on the moon. In ancient times this was one of many ways how people referred to the moon. 兔魄流輝 or ‘the moon is bright and shining’ derives from 嫦娥奔月 or ‘Chang’e flying to the moon’ and is an example of Chengyu – short sayings or ‘fossilized expressions’ usually comprising four characters based on an ancient story. We have many examples of Chengyu in the collection and will be sharing some of these in future blog posts.

The collection of Chengyu at Manchester Museum was presented by Prof William Hare Newell (1922-2013) who studied Mandarin at West China Union University in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in 1947-51. From 1955, he travelled to North Malaya where he spent 18 months studying rural Chinese culture (later published in a monograph called Treacherous River, 1962), and went on to study for a PhD, from 1958, at the University of Manchester under Max Gluckman. In 1963 he took up the position of Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the International Christian University (Tokyo) and six years later, moved on to the University of Sydney where he was Associate Professor of Anthropology until 1989. Given that Prof Newall deposited the documents in 1959, we suspect that the beautiful illustrations of Chengyu in the collection at Manchester Museum may well have been collected by Prof Newell when he first studied Mandarin in Chengdu. We would love to hear from any members of Prof Newell’s family or colleagues who can tell us more about his career, the Chengyu and his time in Manchester.

Silver disc with small black piece of moon rock in the middle
Meteorite from the Moon, Manchester Museum

More recently, all of these stories about the Moon Festival are commemorated and celebrated in the naming of the Chinese lunar missions. The Chinese rover that landed on the far side of the moon recently was called Yutu-2 after the rabbit that lives on the moon in Chinese folklore. The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, also known as the Chang’e Project, is named after the Chinese moon goddess and the ongoing series of robotic Moon missions by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) are all named Chang’e or Yutu. The Museum has a piece of moon rock from a meteorite in its collection but another connection to Manchester is through Prof Xiangqun Cui who originally trained at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank, and is now one of the leading Chinese women in astronomy, currently working on a huge telescope project in China.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival from the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery team!

Special thanks are due to Prof Richard Werbner for sharing details of Prof Newell’s career, and to Prof Yichao Yi for kindly translating the Chengyu inscription on the image of Chang’e in the Manchester Museum collection.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Purvi Sen says:

    The Mid Autumn Festival is a harvest festival celebrated by ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese people.


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