As one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals, Mid-Autumn Festival, falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, Sept 27 this year. This day is also considered as a harvest festival since fruits, vegetables and grain are harvested by this time.
Chang-e or The Goddess on/of/in the Moon is a central character of Chinese myths and legends. She is remembered during Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival, where she is the central character – even to this day. People give mooncakes in her honour, stare at the Moon in hopes of seeing her, and retell her sad tale of unrequited love. All Chinese peoples know her story…
In a very distant past, ten suns had risen together into the skies and scorched the earth, thus causing hardship for the people. The archer Houyi shot down nine of them, leaving just one sun. In one version he was given the elixir of immortality as a reward. In this case he did not consume it straight away, but hid it at home, as he did not want to gain immortality without his beloved wife Chang’e. However, while Houyi went out hunting, his apprentice Fengmeng broke into his house and tried to force Chang’e to give him the elixir; she refused and drank it herself. Chang’e then flew upwards towards the heavens, choosing the moon as residence. When Houyi discovered what had happened he was sad, and he began to make offerings of the fruits and cakes Chang’e had liked as sacrifices to her.
Another version says after shooting down the suns Houyi became a tyrant and stole the elixir from a goddess, but Chang’e, drank it to save the people from her husband’s forever tyrannical rule. After drinking it, she found herself floating, grabbed a rabbit to keep her company and then flew to the moon. When the local people heard this, they arranged incense tables to worship the goddess Chang’e, praying for happiness and safety. Either way since then, worshipping and appreciating the moon during Mid-Autumn festival has become popular.
The Moon Rabbit is the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e, constantly pounding the elixir of life for her. However, in Japanese and Korean versions of the story, it is just pounding mochi or tteok. An early mention that there is a rabbit on the moon appears in the Chu Ci, a Western Han anthology of Chinese poems from the Warring States period, which notes that along with a toad, there is a rabbit on the Moon who constantly pounds herbs for the immortals. This notion is supported by later texts, including the Song-era Taiping Imperial Reader. Han Dynasty poets call the rabbit on the Moon the “Jade Rabbit” (玉兔) or the “Gold Rabbit” (金兔), and these phrases were often used in place of the word for the Moon.
To traditionally celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival, the full Moon night of the eighth lunar month, an open-air altar is set up facing the Moon for the worship of Chang’e. New pastries are put on the altar for her to bless. She is said to endow her worshippers with beauty. In calendar terms this occurs on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is in September or early October in the Gregorian calendar. It is a date that parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and roundest.
Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the few most important holidays in the Chinese calendar, the others being Chinese New Year and Winter Solstice. The Festival can be traced back through literature to the Shang dynasty some 3, 500 years ago. In feudal times, Chinese emperors prayed to Heaven for a prosperous year. They chose the morning of the 15th day of the second lunar month to worship the sun and the night of the 15th day of the eighth lunar month to hold a ceremony in praise of the moon. It was not until the early Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the day was officially celebrated as a traditional festival. It became an established festival during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and has become as popular as the Spring Festival since the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Celebrations have continued ever since and more customs for marking this occasion have developed.
Eating mooncakes while watching the full moon is an important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival in China, and is more like a symbol of family unity. At the very beginning, moon cakes were served as a sacrifice to the Moon. The word “moon cake” first appeared in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Nowadays, moon cakes are given as presents to loved ones and it represents people’s wishes to be together during the mid-autumn festival. It’s also traditional to each the citrus pomelos which are larger than a grapefruit a a yellow color when ripe.
Mooncake gambling, Bo Bing, as it’s known in Chinese, is a Mid-Autumn Festival tradition unique to Fujian province. All the Bo Bing game requires are six dice and a china bowl. People throw the dice into the bowl and get different pips, which stand for different ranks of awards. The pleasant silvery sound of the dice brightens the festive mood.
In Taiwan outdoor barbecuing has become part of Mid-Autumn Festival. Wouldn’t it be nice to hang some lanterns, light some incense and fire up the grill under the full moon for a last outdoor party before the chill begins? This certainly could be adapted for westerners.
Known as Chuseok in South Korea, it is a major harvest festival and a three-day holiday in the country celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. As a celebration of the good harvest, Koreans visit their ancestral hometowns, share a feast of traditional food, such as songpyeon and rice wines, dance together or enjoy the moon. There is a lot of travel to get home for this celebration because it is a major cemetery tidying time. I remember going to the hill beyond the village for moon viewing when I lived in Korea and loved this festival. Even in North Korea this traditional festival is still a major event. almost every family cooks songpyeons and share with each other. Some families still also go to cemeteries to honor the deceased relatives.
Singapore has a large ethnic Chinese population and attaches great importance to the Mid-Autumn Festival. Festivities organized by commercial units are seen in many communities. Besides the celebrations of eating mooncake and lighting lanterns, there are garden tours and dragon dances.
Mid-Autumn Festival is called Tsukimi or Otsukimi (literally means moon-viewing) in Japan. The Tsukimi custom originated from the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival as the tradition of the Chinese festival was introduced to Japan 1,000 years ago. Unlike the Chinese, who eat mooncakes to celebrate the festival, the Japanese usually eat rice dumplings called Tsukimi dango. Besides, people dress in traditional costumes and go to temples to burn incense.