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Mid-Autumn Festival – Bitter-Sweet Love Story in China

Zachary OverlineTomorrow is the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which means that the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) has arrived here in China. It usually coincides with the autumnal equinox, one of only two occasions in the year when the length of night and day are nearly equal.

Like a fair amount of Chinese holidays, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also a posthumous celebration of bitter-sweet romance. (Check out our last entry on the Qixi Festival for another example of this.) There’s a lot of disagreement about the specifics behind the Mid-Autumn Festival, but most accounts agree that there once was a totally amazing, Chuck Norris-like archer named Houyi (hoe-ee) who, in typical awesome-hero fashion, had a beautiful wife named Chang’e (chong-uh).

Picture of Houyi the Archer trying to shoot his wife, Chang'e, from the sky -- the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival in China.

The following is the mythology behind the Mid-Autumn Festival recreated for you in 10 easy-to-digest bullet points.

  • In ancient times, there were ten three-legged Sun Crows who would take turns flying around the earth from their perch in a sacred mulberry tree. Their individual journeys around the earth were what created night and day.
  • One day, for no good reason whatsoever, all ten birds decided to fly around the earth at once. The presence of 10 suns burnt the land and boiled the sea, effectively desiccating all living things on the planet.
  • Before everyone melted like the bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Houyi the archer burst forth in all his awesomeness and shot down nine of the ten Sun Crows, leaving just one sun to circle the earth.
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  • The Queen Mother of Heaven was absolutely delighted that all of her earthly subjects didn’t burn to death, so she presented Houyi with an elixir that, if taken in whole, would turn Houyi into a god. If Houyi only took half of the elixir, however, it would grant him eternal life.


  • Houyi was totally stoked about becoming a god, but he also didn’t want to leave behind his beloved (and decidedly attractive) wife. So instead of splitting the elixir with her so that they could both attain eternal life, he decided to sit on it. Mull things over, if you will. He gave the elixir to Chang’e and told her to hide it.


  • At about this time, since Houyi was world-renowned (in ancient China, at least) for having killed nine of their former suns, a ton of well-meaning sycophants sought Houyi out for apprenticeship. Among these apprentices was the crafty and not-so-well-meaning Peng Meng.


  • Peng Meng knew about the god-making elixir and feigned illness one day as Houyi took his other apprentices out to go shoot things. Pure shenanigans ensued: Peng Meng sought out Chang’e and forced her to show him where the elixir was hidden.


  • Chang’e, to keep Peng Meng from stealing the elixir, downed it till the last drop. The elixir immediately took effect: Chang’e, now a goddess, started floating away from the earth toward the Heavens.


  • Houyi saw his wife floating up to the sky (this is totally my favorite part) and, to keep from losing his wife, actually pointed his bow and arrow at her, intending to shoot her down from the sky. He then decided that that wouldn’t be very nice and lowered his bow, allowing his wife to float to Heaven.
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  • Chang’e wanted to stay as close to her husband as possible, however, so instead of going to Heaven, she decided to alight on the moon, where she spends her time with the Jade Rabbit and some crazy dude that chops down trees all day. Houyi, naturally, was very sad.

So to celebrate Houyi’s eternal separation from his beloved wife, every year on the date of Chang’e’s ascent to the moon, Chinese people like to go out and gaze at the full moon, drinking, lighting incense, and passing out moon cakes to all of their loved ones, clients, and friends.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, folks. Here’s to love lost, shenanigans, and a good harvest.

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