Contemplating the Moon on a Chinese Holiday

Perhaps most of you know that the Chinese New Year is the biggest traditional holiday in China, but can you name the second biggest traditional holiday? If you are having trouble identifying it, you are not alone – it is not very well known in the West. The name of this holiday is Zhong Qiu (中秋), directly translated as Mid-Autumn Festival. The holiday falls on August 15th in the Chinese lunar calendar, which is September 27th this year. Even if you have not have heard of the Mid-Autumn Festival, you may have heard of the tasty treats that usually go along with it – mooncakes. As reflected in the name mooncake, this festival is traditionally marked by celebrations of the moon. Besides eating mooncakes, Chinese children also take to the streets with beautiful lanterns and celebrate with their friends. Similar to the American Thanksgiving, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest celebration. But similar to other Chinese holidays, there are also many different legends and myths that explain the origins of this holiday. This is the most traditional one:

Once upon a time, there were ten suns in the sky. They each used to take turns rising in the sky, regulating the earth’s climate and seasons. But after a while, the ten suns got bored of the routine, so they decided to all rise simultaneously every day. As you can imagine, the presence of ten suns in the sky scorched the earth and caused great suffering for the people. A famous archer named Houyi saw the suffering of the people and decided to take it upon himself to save the earth from the ten suns. He climbed over ninety nine mountains (in the heat of ten suns!) and crossed ninety nine rivers to travel to the eastern end of the land. When he arrived, he took out his bow and mounted arrows that weighed thousands of pounds and shot them into the sky. He shot down nine of the ten suns and made the last sun promise to follow a regular routine. Houyi was celebrated as a hero by the people, and news of his bravery reached the heavens.

An angel in the heavens named Chang’e fell in love with Houyi. She came down from the heavens and became a regular human being. The two of them were happily married, but that soon attracted the jealousy of Houyi’s archery student named Peng Meng and the hatred of the Queen of the Western Heavens. One day, the Queen of the Western Heavens, who was the mother of the ten suns, sought to revenge her nine sons’ death. So she summoned Houyi to the heavens and pretended to award him with a capsule of eternal life. Although this may seem like a blessing, it was actually the Queen’s scheme to cause strife between Houyi and Chang’e. Since there was only one capsule, only one of them could have eternal life, while the other one would be left to die on earth. But the love between Houyi and Chang’e was so strong, that they decided neither of them would take the capsule. Houyi charged Chang’e to put away the capsule, and the two of them remained as normal mortals on earth.

One year, on August 15th, when Houyi was out hunting, his archery student Peng Meng snuck into the house. He had heard about the capsule and wanted to steal it for himself. After a futile search of the house, he finally found Chang’e and forced her to give up the capsule. In a moment of duress, Chang’e took the capsule and swallowed it herself. Suddenly, her body grew lighter and she began to float upward toward the sky. By the time Houyi realized what had happen, it was already too late. Chang’e had disappeared from the earth and floated high into the sky. Not wanting to be too far from her husband, Chang’e took up residence on the moon, but tragically the two of them were forever separated from each other.

Therefore on August 15th every year, the day of his wife’s separation, Houyi made offerings to the moon and prayed that his wife would return to him. Many people learned of Houyi’s misfortune, and every year on August 15th, they also joined in Houyi’s prayer that Chang’e might return to reunite with her husband. It is said that if you look at the moon very carefully on August 15th in the Chinese calendar, you can see the shadow of Chang’e dancing on the moon.

In the Chinese lunar calendar, the moon on August 15th is the year’s fullest and brightest. A full moon in Chinese culture always represents wholeness and reunion; therefore, many families gather on this holiday to sit under the moon and eat mooncakes. Yet while this day is typically associated with intimate family gatherings and joyous lantern celebrations, at the heart of this holiday is a story of separation and loss. A famous poet named Su Shi once wrote on this holiday,

“People may experience sorrow, joy, separation and reunion, the moon may grow dim, bright, full and incomplete, these two things have never been perfect since ancient times. May we all be blessed with long life, though thousands of miles apart, we can still share the beauty of the moon together.”

This has become my favorite poem. The poem and this holiday perfectly capture the sadness and yearning that characterize so much of our human experiences. Separation is never far from reunion; full moons are only a few days from waning. Even on joyous holidays such as these, an inevitable sense of sadness and loss always lingers. At times we may be too quick to turn away from these sorrow, perhaps believing that they are unworthy of our victory in Christ. But it is precisely such helplessness in our separations that connect us as human beings and drive us to the Cross, for we do not have a God who is disconnected from our separations. On the Cross, God the Son was separated from God the Father, so that we may have eternal reunion with Him. Unlike all the sad stories we tell, this is not a story that ends in eternal separation. In Christ, our separation is temporary, but reunion is forever.


Ryan immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and currently lives in the Boston metro area. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Georgetown University, and he currently serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church.

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