The Autumn Equinox is the 16th solar term of the year, starting on the 23rd of September. It marks the second half of autumn in the Chinese calendar and the start of sunlight moving to the south and the shortening of days and lengthening of nights. The pentad for this period have lovely, poetic names. First 雷始收聲, ‘Thunder begins to soften’, then the second 蟄蟲培戶, ‘Insects make nests’ and finally as it gets even cooler, 水始涸, ‘Water begins to solidify’. No mysterious meanings for this season, it is magical enough on it’s own.
In The Detailed Records of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC), it reports, “It is on the Autumn Equinox day that the Yin and Yang are in a balance of power. Thus the day and night are of equal length, and so are the cold and hot weather.” I always like to use the equinoxes as a day to reflect on areas my life may have gotten out of balance and to think how I may correct this over the coming months.
After the point of Autumn Equinox, most of the areas in China have enter the cool autumn. When the cold air southward meets the declining warm and wet air, precipitation is the result. The temperature also drops frequently. The same is true for much of North America and Europe.
In China this is the season that crabs often become most delicious. Due to the cold nature of crabs, it is often consumed with ginger for balance. I once had a memorable dish of crab in a ginger cream sauce which used coconut cream as a base. Of course chef would no part with the recipe. But crab helps nourish the marrow and clear the heat inside the body so it’s very popular at this time of year. In South China, there is also a custom popularly known as “having Qiucai on the Autumn Equinox day”. Qiucai is a kind of wild amaranth. Every Autumn Equinox day, villagers go to pick Qiucai in the wild and then it is taken back and made into soup with fish, named “Qiutang” (autumn soup). There is a verse about the soup: “Drink the soup to clear the liver and intestines, thus the whole family will be safe and healthy”. Also at this time, olives, pears, papaya, chestnuts and beans, reach maturity and are harvested.
The Autumn Equinox is the time for smelling the fragrance of osmanthus. At this time, it is hot in the day and cool in the night in South China, so people have to change clothing in the evening. In the morning light clothes must be worn. This time of year is referred to as “Guihuazheng” in Chinese, which translates as s osmanthus mugginess. Chrysanthemums are in full blossom around Autumn Equinox and this more familiar flower is not only enjoyed in China but in the west as well.
On Autumn Equinox day, there is a popular custom of trying to make eggs stand on end. This Chinese custom has spread all over the world.
There is supposed to be science behind this, in that, on the Spring Equinox and Autumn Equinox, the day and night are of equal time both in the southern and northern hemispheres. The earth’s axis, on its 66.5 degree tilt, is in a relative balance of power with the earth’s orbit around the sun. This supposed moment of celestial balance makes it much easier for standing eggs on end.
Then there is the skeptical view which says standing the egg has nothing to do with the celestial balance. The most important thing is to shift the egg‘s center of gravity to the lowest part of the egg. In this way, the trick is holding the egg until the yolk sinks as much as possible. For this, you’re better off choosing an egg that’s about 4 or 5 days old, whose yolk is inclined to sink down.
In ancient times, the festival of sacrificing to the moon was set on the Autumnal Equinox day. According to historical records, as early as the Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-256BC), the ancient kings sacrificed to the sun on the Spring Equinox, and to the moon on the Autumn Equinox.
Since it is not a fixed day in lunar August, there might be no full moon on or near the Autumnal Equinox. During the festival, if there was no moon to make sacrifices to, it would just not seem right, so this ceremony was changed to the Mid-Autumn Day. Still, if the full moon falls close, moon viewing is a wonderful way to finish a day focused on celestial and personal balance.