Barely a month into living in China and I’ve already experienced my first festival – Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节)! Second only to Spring Festival (春节), or Chinese New Year as it is more commonly known in the West, Mid-Autumn Festival is a big deal. It actually ended up being quite a quiet day for me but I want to tell you a little bit about the legend and history of the holiday and the traditions and celebrations that go along with it.
Mid-Autumn Festival can also be known as moon festival as it happens around the time when the moon is roundest and brightest. It is known as a harvest festival too. Ancient Chinese people recognised the link between the moon and the seasons and agricultural output so followed the moon’s progress closely.
This year Mid-Autumn Festival took place on Friday 13th (!!!) September because that was the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In mainland China, Mid-Autumn Festival means you get that Friday off work or school though it can differ in other places – in Taiwan you get the day of the festival off, and in Hong Kong and Macau it is the day after the festival, whatever day that may be.
Celebrating the moon at this time of year can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty (周代, 1046-256 BC) but with a few differences – it was observed on the Autumnal equinox among people of royal class and not in the context of a festival. A closer iteration of today’s festival can be seen in the Sui (隋朝, 581-618 AD) and Tang (唐朝, 618-907 AD) dynasties when common people adopted the date that is now used as it was closer to the full moon than the autumnal equinox. By the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋, 960-1127 AD) the celebration of the moon had transformed into a universally celebrated festival.
The main legend behind Mid-Autumn Festival is the story of Chang’e (嫦娥). In Chang’e’s time, there were 10 suns in the sky. She was married to Hou Yi (后羿), a great archer, who shot down nine of the ten suns to save the people from torturous heat. As a reward Hou Yi was given an elixir of immortality by Wangmu (王母), the Queen of Heaven. However there was not enough for Hou Yi to share with Chang’e and so he did not drink it, preferring to live out his life with her.
But then one of Hou Yi’s students broke in to try and steal the elixir. To save it from thieves, Chang’e drank it and flew to the moon where she became the moon goddess while her husband remained on Earth. In honour of Chang’e, Hou Yi and others made offerings to the moon and searched for her on its face.
Many of today’s customs still revolve around the moon, admiring and appreciating it, eating moon cakes as well as thinking about family and friends that live far away.
Moon cakes (月饼) are the iconic food associated with Mid-Autumn Festival. They are sacrificed to the moon and also eaten in celebration. They are like a sweet pie with a pastry crust and usually filled with sweet bean or lotus seed paste, decorated on top with an intricate lattice-like design. They come in many flavours and while I have only tried Wuren (mixed nuts) and black sesame, other popular choices include red bean or white lotus flavours. Their round shape symbolises family reunion so links to the practice of longing for faraway friends. Giving someone a moon cake expresses your wish for them to have a long and happy life.
As my first taste of Chinese cultural celebrations, I would say Mid Autumn Festival has eased me in gently. As I said before, I had a reasonably low key day. It was raining pretty heavily that day so I had to cancel plans I had with a Chinese friend to visit one of Dalian’s islands. Instead I spent the day in 1949, the campus coffee shop, doing work, writing a previous blog, and eating mooncakes and then video chatted with my flatmates back in Edinburgh so I think I still hit a good few of the traditions!