Mid-Autumn Festival is the second-biggest festival in countries with Chinese culture. The 2014 Mid-Autumn Festival celebration falls on 8th September.
Mid-Autumn Festival known as Zhōngqiū Jié, or, mainly in the countries of Western culture Moon Festival, is a celebration of agricultural origin, held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. This year (2014) celebration falls on 8th September. People in mainland China enjoy one day off during the festival which is usually an extended weekend. Usually, it also coincides with the celebration of National Day, making the holiday period even longer. That encourages mass internal migration in order to meet with family from distant parts of the country. In addition to the Chinese New Year, it’s a time of greatest congestion on the highways, train stations, and airports, which means that tickets need to be bought in advance. On 20th May 2006, the feast of Zhōngqiū Jié was incorporated into the list of national intangible cultural heritage.
The genesis of the festival and related legends
According to oral sources, this festival dates back to the Shang Dynasty, when the moon’s influence on the change of the seasons and agricultural production was observed by the ancient Chinese. To express their gratitude for the abundant crops, with the completion of the harvest for the moon were prepared special gifts. The form of celebration which looks more similar to the present one is the festival Tang Dynasty celebrations when Emperor Xuanzong discovered the myth of the Moon Palace. The first written source which mentions the festival is “The Rites of Zhou“, a book from the Western Zhou Dynasty. Widely celebrated as a folk festival, Zhōngqiū Jié became in the time of the Northern Song Dynasty.
The Legend of Chang’e
This feast is inherently associated with legends. During the holiday, the moon goddess Chang’e is worshipped. She, to protect lieges against the tyranny of her husband, stole his elixir of immortality. After drinking it, she has been living on the moon in the Lunar Palace.
Another version of the same myth is that the goddess Chang’e lived in the headquarters of the immortals. One day, she bowled a precious porcelain pitcher for what she has been sent down to the ground. The great hunter Hou Yi came across a girl and fell in love with her, but he was too poor to be able to marry her. Soon nine suns have shown up in the sky, threatening to destroy the earth because of the heat. The archer shot down eight suns, leaving only one. Hou Yi became a king and he could finally marry Chang’e. As an additional reward for saving the earth, the Queen of Heaven gave him the elixir of immortality. Hou Yi said he would keep it until he became old and wise enough to drink it. One morning, Chang’e, wandering the palace of her husband, noticed a strange brightness radiating from the vessel. Seeing that it is filled with the potion, she drank it to the bottom. That caused that goddess flew out through the window straight to heaven. Hou Yi tried to shoot her down, but he missed. Chang’e was rising higher and higher, until the moon, which was covered with stones and cinnamon trees. While in she was already on the moon, she coughed out, because of the cold portion of the potion, which turned into the rarest rabbit. The rabbit stood on its hind legs and began to smash cinnamon trees in a mortar to make a potion that allows Chang’e to return to her husband.
Another legend says that the rabbit was sent to the moon as a reward for his heroic stunt. He wanted to feed himself to encounter the three wise men because, in opposition to the monkey and the fox, he was poor, so he had no food to share with wanderers. At the time when he wanted to throw himself into the fire, he was stopped by the sages and sent to the Moon Palace where he became friends with Chang’e.
Nowadays, young Chinese women pray to the goddess during the festival to ask for help to fulfill their wishes of romantic love and happy marriage.
The contemporary celebrations – meals during Mid-Autumn Festival
This feast is an opportunity for joint meetings and meal which is eaten in the evening with a family in traditional costumes to make offerings to the moon. On this occasion, the traditional mooncakes symbolize the full moon. Also with this rite is associated folktale, according to which at the end of the reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, one of the leaders of the Red Turbans and his advisor Liu Bowen decided that the best way to coordinate an attack against the hated dynasty would be sending out the order of the insurrection by the lunar cookies in connection with the forthcoming festival. Thanks to that the Mongols weren’t able to notice the conspiracy. This message was cleverly hidden in the traditional cookies, in which were concealed pieces of paper with the date of the attack. The attack was effective, the Mongolian dynasty was overthrown, and Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Chinese Ming Dynasty and ruled as Hongwu Emperor.
It is a custom to eat mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival, but more often they are purchased also as a gift than baked at home. Contrary to our assumptions, these cakes usually aren’t sweet. The traditional filling is made of red bean paste and egg yolk, which symbolizes the full moon. Today it’s possible to find moon cakes flavored with lotus seeds, raspberries, bananas, apples, tea, mango, sesame, coffee, vanilla, and even cheese. Preferred mooncake stuffing in many areas is also meat or fish. Cookies are so popular that in China are sold ice cream with the flavor of moon cakes.
Aside from mooncakes, during the celebrations, rice and vegetables should be shared with the moon and the spirits of ancestors. Cinnamon wine is the most popular drink. On the table with a traditional dinner on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival appears also dishes of duck, pumpkin, river snails, and taro. The decoration for served dishes are pieces of watermelon cut in the shape of lotus petals symbolizing the meeting and nine interconnected roots of a lotus symbolizing peace. Traditionally, it also sets up cups in the garden on tablets of stone where the family, after the point where the moon will be reflected in the center of the cups, drinks beverages and chat.
Following legends, in every house, an altar with a rabbit statue is prepared. Rabbit is a symbol of longevity, happiness, and satisfaction. The statue is usually surrounded by yellow flowers of beans and fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, melons, oranges, and pomelos. Nowadays some people choose to celebrate outdoors to be closer to the moon. Over time, more popular become places such as ancient man-made sites, natural scenic areas, countryside, and skyscrapers. It’s also a time to connect the thoughts with relatives who live abroad.
Mid-Autumn Festival games
Mid-Autumn Festival is an opportunity for games and activities.
- One type of activity, Ascent to Heaven (shàng tiāntáng) involves a young lady selected from a circle of women to “ascend” into the celestial realm. While being enveloped in the smoke of burning incense, she describes the beautiful sights and sounds she encounters.
- Another activity, Descent into the Garden (luò huāyuán), played among younger girls, detailed each girl’s visit to the heavenly gardens. According to legend, a flower tree represented her, and the number and color of the flowers indicated the sex and number of children she would have in her lifetime.
- Men played a game called Descent of the Eight Immortals (jiàng bāxiān), where one of the Eight Immortals took possession of a player, who would then assume the role of a scholar or warrior.
- Children would play a game called Encircling the Toad (guànxiámo), where the group would form a circle around a child chosen to be a Toad King and chant a song that transformed the child into a toad. He would jump around like a toad until the water was sprinkled on his head, which he would then stop. In some parts of China, held dances for young men and women to find a partner. For example, young women are encouraged to throw their handkerchiefs to the crowd of men, and the one who wins and returns the handkerchief to the owner has a chance with her.
In addition, there are some other customs like playing lanterns, and dragon and lion dances in some regions, which are more known as Chinese New Year’s traditions. According to dēng mí tradition, some lampposts have written puzzles, which later other people try to solve. The unique customs of ethnic minorities are interesting as well, such as the “chasing the moon” of Mongolians and the “stealing vegetables or fruits” of the Dong people.
Xiamen in southeast China’s Fujian Province has its own Mid-Autumn Festival traditions. It is known for a parade of illuminated mocks of boats and a game called bobing. It was created to help forget the soldiers fighting at the side of General Zheng Chenggong’a for the overthrow of Manchurians and the return of the Ming Dynasty, about the longing for family and home, which intensified with the advent of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The game consists of throwing the dice in a bowl and receiving the winning layout of mesh.
Originally played only to win the moon cookies. Currently, the prize pool has expanded. It’s possible to win household appliances, cleaning products, and money.
Want to know more about Mooncake gifts? Read our blog post!