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
’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. China
There are several generic and regional traditions and customs connected with the Mid-Autumn Festival:
The full harvest moon
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)
A family enjoys mooncakes with tea while children play with lanterns(Image: Cartoon illustration by Mulan Tay at Ahbock.sg)
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.
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
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.
(Image: Source unknown)
The flesh of the pomelo resembles grapefruit(Image: Source unknown)
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
A father and daughter shop for Mid-Autumn lanterns(Image: Chinatourguide.com)
A display of differently shaped lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival in(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
Lunar Deity Veneration
The Moon Goddess Chang’e(Image: Source unknown)
Other Customs and Regional Traditions
The leaves of the dandelion plant were traditionally collected and distributed to one’s family
(Image: Source unknown)
The Tai Hang Fire Dragon in(Image: Oriental Daily News 東方日報)
The tidal bore of the(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
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.
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 (吳剛伐桂 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