The Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival, held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in Chinese lunar calendar during a full moon (which is in September or early October), is an evening celebration when families gather together (similar to Thanksgiving Day), to light lanterns, eat moon cakes, and appreciate the round moon. With a long history, the Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals, only second to the Spring Festival.
According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the seventh, eighth and ninth lunar months comprise autumn. The eighth lunar month is in the middle of autumn, and the 15th of the eighth month is in the middle of this month, so the festival is called “Mid-Autumn Festival”. In autumns it is usually clear and cool and there are seldom wandering clouds in the sky, so the moon is particularly bright and clear at night. It is on the night of the 15th day in the eighth lunar month that the moon appears to be at its roundest and brightest, so it is the golden time for people to enjoy the moon. The full moon is considered as a symbol of reunion. Therefore Mid-Autumn Festival is also called “the Reunion Festival”.
The Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations date back to more than 2,000 years ago. In feudal times, Chinese emperors prayed to Heaven for a prosperous year. They chose the morning of the 15th day of the second lunar month to worship the sun and the night of the 15th day of the eighth lunar month to hold a ceremony in praise of the moon. In the western district of Beijing is the Yuetan Park, which originally was the Temple of the Moon, and every year the emperor would go there to offer a sacrifice to the moon.
Nowadays the custom of offering sacrifices to the moon is replaced by the large-scale and colorful activities. People in different parts of China have different ways to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, with each way having its own strong local flavor. In Guangzhou in South China, a huge lantern show is a big attraction for local citizens. Thousands of differently shaped lanterns are lit, forming a fantastic contrast with the bright moonlight. In East China’s Zhejiang Province, around the Mid-Autumn Festival is the best time to watch the tide of the Qiantang River. At its peak, the tide rises as high as three and a half meters.
Mooncakes are the essentials of Mid-Autumn Festival. Like eating zongzi on Dragon Boat Festival and eating tangyuan on the Lantern Festival, eating mooncakes on Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional Chinese custom. Throughout the history the round mooncake has always been seen as a symbol of good luck and happy reunion. On the occasion of every Mid-Autumn Festival, the whole family will get together, eating mooncakes while enjoying the bright moon, and extending the best wishes to their relatives and friends. The exchange of gifts during the Mid-Autumn Festival is also one of the hospitable customs.
There are many types of moon cakes in China, and the recipes as well as flavors vary in different areas. It can mainly be divided into five types according to the producing areas: Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Suzhou and Chaozhou. For generations, moon cakes have been made with sweet fillings of nuts, mashed red beans, lotus-seed paste, Chinese dates, ham, or a cooked egg yolk, wrapped in a pastry. More exotic creations include green tea, chocolate, coffee and ice-cream mooncakes. There are also some flower patterns and characters on the moon cakes, making them not only tasteful but also beautiful. Moon cakes are compared to the plum pudding and fruit cakes which are served during the English holidays.
Since 2008, the Mid-Autumn Festival has become a public holiday in China, when people can enjoy a three-day break. The Mid-Autumn Festival falls on September 19 this year. Next year it will be on September 19, 2014.
Folklore about the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival:
In remote antiquity, there were ten suns rising in the sky, which scorched all crops and drove people into dire poverty. A hero named Hou Yi was much worried about this, he ascended to the top of the Kunlun Mountain and, directing his superhuman strength to full extent, drew his extraordinary bow and shot down the nine superfluous suns one after another. He also ordered the last sun to rise and set according to time. For this reason, he was respected and loved by the people and lots of people of ideals and integrity came to him to learn martial arts from him. A person named Peng Meng lurked in them.
Hou Yi had a beautiful and kindhearted wife named Chang E. One day on his way to the Kunlun Mountain to call on friends, he ran upon the Empress of Heaven Wangmu who was passing by. Empress Wangmu presented to him a parcel of elixir, by taking which, it was said, one would ascend immediately to heaven and become a celestial being. Hou Yi, however, hated to part with his wife. So he gave the elixir to Chang E to treasure for the time being. Chang E hid the parcel in a treasure box at her dressing table when, unexpectedly, it was seen by Peng Meng.
One day when Hou Yi led his disciples to go hunting, Peng Meng, sword in hand, rushed into the inner chamber and forced Chang E to hand over the elixir. Aware that she was unable to defeat Peng Meng, Chang E made a prompt decision at that critical moment. She turned round to open her treasure box, took up the elixir and swallowed it in one gulp. As soon as she swallowed the elixir her body floated off the ground, dashed out of the window and flew towards heaven. Peng Meng escaped.
When Hou Yi returned home at dark, he knew from the maidservants what had happened. Overcome with grief, Hou Yi looked up into the night sky and called out the name of his beloved wife when, to his surprise, he found that the moon was especially clear and bight and on it there was a swaying shadow that was exactly like his wife. He tried his best to chase after the moon. But as he ran, the moon retreated; as he withdrew, the moon came back. He could not get to the moon at all.
Thinking of his wife day and night, Hou Yi then had an incense table arranged in the back garden that Chang E loved. Putting on the table sweetmeats and fresh fruits Chang E enjoyed most, Hou Yi held at a distance a memorial ceremony for Chang E who was sentimentally attached to him in the palace of the moon.
When people heard of the story that Chang E had turned into a celestial being, they arranged the incense table in the moonlight one after another and prayed kindhearted Chang E for good fortune and peace. From then on the custom of worshiping the moon spread among the people.