Monday, September 12, 2011

Mid-Autumn Festival


Happy Mid-Autumn Festival Banner
(Image: Nipic.com)

The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節 Zhongqiu Jie) is celebrated on the 15th day (full moon day) of the 8th Chinese lunar month. It is a harvest festival that dates back to almost the beginning of China’s history. At this time of the year, all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in agrarian China have already been harvested, so food is aplenty and people can relax and celebrate the autumn harvest. The festival coincides with the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar when during the autumn season, there is a point on the earth’s equator where it is possible to observe the center of the sun to be vertically overhead. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the moon is visually at its fullest and brightest out of the entire year. Thus, the festival is also commonly known as the Moon Festival in Western parlance.

There are several generic and regional traditions and customs connected with the Mid-Autumn Festival: 

Moon Gazing

The full harvest moon
(Image: Mnn.com)

Because the moon is visually at its fullest, roundest, and brightest during the Mid-Autumn Festival, nobody misses the chance to observe and gaze at the moon if it is a clear night. Families, friends, and couples would go outdoors after dinner and take leisurely walks to parks, hilltops, or other public and/or high places to gaze at the moon. This particular night time tradition is called Admiring the Moon (賞月 shangyue).

A couple gazes at the full moon
(Image: Source unknown)

Family Reunion

The festival is also a time for family reunions. The fullness and roundness of the moon symbolizes reunion and togetherness, because yuan ( round) reminds us of tuan-yuan (團圓 reunion). Families get together to eat traditional foods, perform lunar veneration rites, and observe the full moon. In Taiwan, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the Reunion Festival (團圓節 Tuanyuan Jie). It is common for families to chat and enjoy their time together while children run and play under the full moon.

A family enjoys mooncakes with tea while children play with lanterns
(Image: Cartoon illustration by Mulan Tay at Ahbock.sg)

Traditional Food

The traditional food of the Mid-Autumn Festival is the mooncake (月餅 yuebing) which is a round or rectangular pastry with an outer skin crust and a dense inner filling. Some common traditional fillings include lotus seed paste (蓮蓉 lianrong), sweet bean paste (豆沙 dousha), jujube paste (棗泥 zaoni), and five kernel paste (五仁 wuren). Some traditional mooncakes also contain one or more salted duck eggs in the center. There are also many regional varieties that use very different ingredients for the filling.

Different types of outer pastry crust for traditional style mooncakes also vary by region. These include the reddish-brown starchy skin crust (漿皮 jiangpi) that’s especially popular with Cantonese style mooncakes; flaky skin crust (酥皮 supi) popular with Suzhou, Chaozhou (Teochew), and Taiwanese style mooncakes; and shortcrust style skin (混糖皮 huntang pi) popular with mooncakes made in certain other provinces of China. Mooncakes are usually eaten in small cut up wedges accompanied by Chinese tea and fruits that resemble the moon (e.g. pomelos, persimmons).

Traditional style mooncakes with starchy skin (left); shortcrust skin (center); flaky skin (right)
(Image: Source unknown)

The commonly seen traditional Cantonese style mooncake with starchy skin crust
(Image: Tplm123.com)

Contemporary style mooncakes use non-conventional fillings such as fruit paste (e.g. pineapple, melon, etc.), vegetable paste (e.g. sweet potato, taro, etc.), coffee flavored paste, tea flavored paste, jelly, yogurt, cream cheese, and ice cream.

Contemporary style mooncakes made with ice cream filling
(Image: Source unknown)

Some modern style mooncakes use “ice skin crust” (冰皮 bingpi) (also known as “snow skin crust”) that’s made from glutinous rice flour and powdered sugar instead of traditional style pastry crust.

Contemporary style ice skin, or snow skin mooncakes
(Image: Source unknown)

Another type of modern style mooncake with non-traditional pastry crust is the jelly mooncake (水晶月餅 shuijing yuebing; 燕菜月餅 yancai yuebing) that’s made from agar, gelatin, or konjac (a vegan jelly made from a particular type of tuberous plant).

Contemporary style jelly mooncakes
(Image: Yiqiyou.com)

There are also contemporary style mooncakes that are made to appeal to health-conscious consumers (made popular in Taiwan) such as those that are vegan/vegetarian, low-fat, low-sugar, and/or high-fiber.

The top of mooncakes are usually imprinted with auspicious Chinese characters and symbols (e.g. harmony, longevity, etc.) and/or designs and icons connected with the Mid-Autumn Festival (e.g. the full moon, the jade rabbit on the moon, the moon goddess, flower and vine patterns, etc.). Mooncakes are an essential and indispensable part of the celebration and they are always given as gifts between family and friends.

The pomelo fruit is also a traditional food during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Pomelos are similar to grapefruits but they are larger and have a green or yellow rind. They are the largest of all the citrus fruits, so they are symbolic of the large round moon. Pomelos are enjoyed on the night of the festival, and they taste like grapefruit, but sweeter with little or no bitterness.

Pomelos
(Image: Source unknown)

The flesh of the pomelo resembles grapefruit
(Image: Source unknown)

Lanterns

Another tradition that marks the festival is the hanging and/or carrying of candle-lit (and now battery-powered) lanterns, especially by children. Nowadays, lanterns in the shapes of animals, cartoon characters, and other trendy themes are popular. Lanterns are also hung on bamboo poles and installed on trees, towers, and other high places. This custom (popular in southern China like Guangdong and Hong Kong) is called Erecting the Mid-Autumn (中秋/樹中秋 shu zhongqiu). The Chinese characters for to erect ( shu) and tree ( shu) are both homonyms. Lantern parades and fairs are also commonly held for the display of beautifully designed lanterns in different shapes and forms. The release of floating sky lanterns into the night sky is also practiced in certain areas.

A father and daughter shop for Mid-Autumn lanterns
(Image: Chinatourguide.com)

A display of differently shaped lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong
(Image: Apple Daily 蘋果日報)


A beautiful evening display of glowing red lanterns is held during the Mid-Autumn Festival
(Image: Source unknown)
 
The Chinese communities in Southeast Asia also refer to the Mid-Autumn Festival as the Lantern Festival (not to be confused with the Yuanxiao Festival on lunar 1/15 which is also known as the Lantern Festival).

Lunar Deity Veneration

Some sources also say that the Mid-Autumn Festival has its roots in the ancient practice of moon worship or lunar deity veneration. And while the Lunar Stellar Lord (太陰星君 Taiyin Xingjun) is the deity that actually personifies the moon in traditional orthodox Taoism, it is the myth of the Moon Goddess Chang’e (嫦娥) that became popular in connection with the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is still customary for those who follow Chinese tradition to offer candles and incense, food, and libation to the goddess on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. This is traditionally done outdoors in the open air and in view of the full moon.

The Moon Goddess Chang’e
(Image: Source unknown)

Other Customs and Regional Traditions

Other customs practiced during the Mid-Autumn Festival include planting mid-autumn trees; collecting dandelion leaves and distributing them evenly among family members; and wearing the skin of the pomelo fruit (柚子 youzi) on one’s head.

The leaves of the dandelion plant were traditionally collected and distributed to one’s family
(Image: Source unknown)

In Hong Kong, the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance (大坑舞火龍 Dakeng [Cantonese: Tai Hang] Wu Huolong) is held for three days starting on the day preceding the Mid-Autumn Festival. A model of a giant dragon measuring about 67 meters (220 feet) long that is made of straw and outfitted with thousands of pieces of smoldering incense sticks is paraded in the evening through the streets of Tai Hang district in Causeway Bay amidst the sounds of drums and cymbals. This exciting event originates from a legend that says in 1880, Hakka villagers staged a fire dragon dance around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival to eradicate a plague based on divine advice. The method was successful and it became an annual tradition.

The Tai Hang Fire Dragon in Hong Kong is made of straw and thousands of burning incense sticks
(Image: Oriental Daily News 東方日報)

In Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, watching the magnificent surging tides of the Qiantang River Tidal Bore (錢塘江大潮 Qiantang Jiang Dachao) is a tradition for many people because the tidal bore, an annual natural phenomenon, is the largest tidal bore in the world. Each year during the time around the Mid-Autumn Festival, surging tides rush up the Qiantang River with the highest waves reaching a height of almost 30 feet.

The tidal bore of the Qiantang River in Hangzhou is the largest in the world
(Image: Chinanews.com)


There are also several myths and legends associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival:

The Legend of Using Mooncakes in the Rebellion Against Mongol Rule

Mongol warlords
(Image: cga.mn)

A popular legend explaining the custom of eating mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival says that the Han Chinese (the largest and main ethnic group in China) were discontent with the foreign rule of their Mongol leaders during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) (founded by Kublai Khan). Han Chinese rebels planned a rebellion and hid their messages in Chinese pastries that they knew the Mongols did not eat (now called mooncakes). Hidden in each piece of pastry was the message to attack on the night of the full moon of the Mid Autumn Festival. The rebellion was successful and the Mongol government was overthrown, leading to the establishment of the succeeding Ming dynasty government ruled by the Han Chinese. From then on, the eating of mooncakes on the Mid-Autumn Festival became a tradition to commemorate this story. It is important to note that this is just a popular legend, and does not necessarily agree with actual historical records.

The Legend of Chang’e Flying to the Moon

The Moon Goddess Chang’e
(Image: Source unknown)

There are several different versions of the legend called Chang’e Flying to the Moon (嫦娥奔月 Chang’e Benyue). Some versions say that Chang’e (嫦娥) and her husband, Houyi (后羿), started out as immortals but were later banished from heaven to live as mortals on earth, while other versions say that they started out as mortal human beings. In either case, Houyi was a famous archer who shot down nine of the ten suns that scorched the earth. By sparing the remaining sun, the earth returned to balance and all life on earth was saved. 

The archer Houyi shoots down 9 of the 10 suns in the sky
(Image: Hillfox Art Series)

Some stories say that Houyi then received a pill of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West (西王母 Xiwang Mu), while other versions cite a different story about how he obtained it. It is said that the pill would be enough for both Houyi and Chang’e, because each person would only need to ingest half of it to achieve immortality. Houyi kept the pill in a box at home, and told his wife Chang’e to not open it just yet. He left home temporarily, and left Chang’e to watch over it. Some versions of the legend say that an evil man named Pengmeng (蓬蒙) broke into their home to try to steal the pill, while other versions say that Houyi suddenly returned home to catch Chang’e giving in to curiosity and opening the box. She then either intentionally or accidentally swallowed the pill. Her body suddenly became ethereal and she floated up into the sky towards the moon. She became immortal and thereafter lived in the lunar crystal palace as the Moon Goddess.

Chang’e flies to the moon after ingesting the pill of immortality
(Image: Nipic.com)

Thereafter, the myth gave rise to the tradition of venerating Chang’e with ritual offerings on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival when the moon is at its fullest and brightest. People venerated her and asked for fortune and blessings, and it is even believed that Chang’e, because she herself is a beautiful goddess, can also bestow beauty on females that pray to her.
Color ink painting depicting a maiden venerating Chang’e under the Mid-Autumn moon
(Image: Source unknown)

The Legend of the Jade Rabbit Pounding Herbs [on the Moon]

The Jade Rabbit on the moon pounding herbs
(Image: Source unknown)

In Chinese mythology, there is also a legend about a rabbit that lives on the moon pounding herbal elixirs. The legend is called The Jade Rabbit Pounding Herbs (玉兔搗藥 Yutu Daoyao). Again, there are several different versions of the legend, but the Chinese legends are all probably derived from the Indian Buddhist tale Sasa-jataka (i.e. Jataka Tale No. 316) which tells the story of a Brahmin priest that asked several animals for food. These animals included a monkey, a jackal, an otter, and a rabbit. All the animals were able to find food for the priest, except for the rabbit, who instead offered to throw its own body into a fire to feed him. But as soon as the rabbit jumped into a pile of burning coals, the flames turned ice-cold, and the rabbit was spared. The priest was actually a manifestation of the god Sakra (Indra) that came to put the virtue of the animals to the test, and the rabbit was one of the previous lives of the Buddha. The image of the rabbit was then impressed onto the moon by Sakra to honor its compassion and virtue.

In the Chinese version of the legend, the rabbit lives on the moon pounding herbal elixirs, and also keeps the company of the Moon Goddess Chang’e. Similar stories of a rabbit on the moon also exist in Korean, Japanese, Native American, and Mexican/Aztec legends. When looking at the moon in detail, the shape of a rabbit can actually be observed in the dark shadows of the moon.

The figure of the Jade Rabbit on the moon pounding herbs is delineated in red
(Image: Source unknown)

The Legend of Wugang Chopping the Cassia Tree [on the Moon]

Wugang chops the self-healing Cassia Tree on the moon for all eternity
(Image: Source unknown)

There are several different versions of the legend called Wugang Chopping the Cassia Tree (剛伐桂 Wugang Fagui). But they all agree in that Wugang was banished to the moon to chop down a magical self-healing tree that grows there. One version says that Wugang murdered the grandson of the Yan Emperor (炎帝 Yandi) because the grandson had an affair with his wife. The Yan Emperor then banished Wugang to the moon (the Yan Emperor, or the Flaming Emperor, is considered a pre-dynastic ancestor of the Chinese people). Another version says that the Jade Emperor banished Wugang to the moon because he was lazy and not diligent in studying the arts of immortality. And yet another version says that Wugang was banished to the moon by his own teacher who was a Taoist immortal because he was never focused and always quickly gave up on what his teacher was trying to teach him. Because the magical cassia tree on the moon is self-healing, Wugang is never able to successfully chop it down, so he has to stay on the moon to chop the tree for all eternity.




May this Mid-Autumn Festival be the start of all that is brightest for you!


Text © 2011 Harry Leong

3 comments:

  1. This has got to be the most informative post I have stumbled upon related to the Mid Autumn Festival..thanks for sharing ^_^

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  2. Dear Sara, thank you for visiting and for your kind comment!

    ReplyDelete