Mid-Autumn Festival by Zhao Zhenxing

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Mid-Autumn festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the heat of the summer has given way to cool autumn weather, marked by blue skies and gentle breezes. Because of its association with mooncakes and lanterns, this festival is also referred to as Mooncake Festival and Lantern Festival. Mid-Autumn Festival is a joyous celebration and the eighth month is a traditionally popular month for marriages. Like Chinese New Year, it is a time for family gatherings, usually moon appreciation parties for family members to get together over mooncakes and fruit.

Moon Appreciation in the night of Mid-Autumn Festival, Dream of the Red Chamber, via sohu

Legends and Myths:

Mid-Autumn Festival is rich in poetic significance. According to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, the seventh, eighth, and ninth months constitute the autumn season. On Mid-Autumn day, the moon is at its greatest distance from the earth; at no other time is it so luminous. Hence the ancient axiom: “When Mid-autumn comes, the moon is extraordinarily brilliant (月到中秋分外明).” It was this unusual brightness that inspired famous Chinese poets such as Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Ju-yi, Han Yu, Liu Zong-yuan, and Su Dong-po to vie with one another to extol the magnificence of the silver disc. Li Bai, a famous poet of the Tang period, composed this verse titled Quiet Night Thoughts (靜夜思):

Before my bed the moonlight glitters 床前明月光

Like frost upon the ground 疑是地上霜

I look up to the mountain moon 举头望明月

Look down and think of home 低头思故乡

Unfortunately, the seductive beauty of the moon was said to have lured Li Bai to a tragic end. According to legend, on one moonlit night, Li Bai, who had had several drinks with his friends, boarded a boat for a cruise on the Yang-Tze River. Fascinated by the moon’s brightness, he leaned out too far to embrace its reflection in the water, lost his balance, and fell into the water to meet an untimely death.

Ma Yuan(1160-1225 A.D), Li Bai raised a toast to the Moon. 205cm x 104cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei, via chinakongzi

Mid-Autumn Festival is also associated with mythological tales about the grandeur of the Moon Palace where the beautiful fairy Chang-E (嫦娥) and other angels reside. Chang-E was the wife of Hou Yi (后羿), a skilful archer. One day, the archer secured an elixir of immortality from Xi Wang Mu, Queen-mother of Western Paradise; and Chang-E stole and ate it. To evade the pursuit of her husband, she fled to the moon, where she remains to this day. This enchanting story captivated the minds of the ancient Chinese emperors and was even mentioned during a conversation between NASA’s mission control in Houston and the Apollo 11 crew just before the first moon landing in 1969:

Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

Michael Collins: Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

Another legend has it that on the Mid-Autumn day in 678A.D, a magician threw his walking-stick into vacant space and a silver bridge immediately took shape. Ming Huang, an emperor of the Tang period, mounted the bridge and, after walking several miles, arrived at the Moon Palace. There Ming Huang feasted his eyes on hundreds of fairies dancing elegantly in flowing robes in the courtyard. The music that accompanied the dance was so melodious that Ming Huang committed it to memory. The next morning, Ming Huang repeated the tune and composed the famous “Rainbow-Dress and Feather-Skirt(霓裳羽衣舞)” song.

Tang Yin (1470-1524 A.D.) Chang E. 153cm x 58cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Via 91ddcc

The Harvesting Season, Mooncakes and sacrifices to the Moon:

It was in the reign of Emperor Tai Zong (976-995A.D.) of the Song Dynasty that the 15th day of the 8th Month became the Mid-Autumn Festival  – harvesting season. Its celebration was confined principally to the officials below the third grade. During the festival, these officials were obliged to make gifts of mirrors (representing the moon) and dew-collecting basins (to forestall wet weather) to senior officials. In addition to this, they celebrated the event by consuming so called, “flirting-with-the-moon porridge (玩月羹)”. Over time, this celebration was embraced by the people, who would feast and rejoice heartily over their harvests.

A seasonal fare, the mooncake was once used to hide secret messages in the past. Via thefoodjournal

In the Yuan period (1280-1366 A.D.), when China was under Mongol rule, the Chinese became unhappy, furtively resenting this alien domination. It is said that when a Mongol soldier was assigned to every family in China, the Chinese used secret messages hidden in mooncakes to overthrow their Mongol rulers. This “mooncake” legend is of doubtful veracity since historians observe that it was not until the Qing dynasty (1662-1909 A.D.) that mooncakes were first mentioned in connection with the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Shaped like the surface of the moon, mooncakes are seasonal fare and only baked and sold during the festive season.

Thousands of lanterns adorn the streets of Chinatown during the Mid-Autumn Festival, Singapore. Via ifeng

Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated quite extensively in Singapore. As early as a month before the festival, mooncakes and lanterns are on sale in many stores. Mooncakes are bought not only for personal consumption but also as gifts for friends and relatives. To attract customers, Chinese restaurants which make mooncakes and sell fanciful lanterns will exhibit novel dioramas and pictures that portray notable legends of the festival. Mooncakes are made in numerous flavours with some classic ones being : dou sha (black-bean paste), lian rong (brownish-lotus paste), and bing pi (snow skin mooncake with fruit paste such as durian). During the festive season, Chinese families make gifts of mooncakes to “foster kinship and closeness with each other  (取团圆之意)”. Mooncakes are offered as a sacrifice to the silver disc on Mid-autumn night, to “promote harmony with the moon (取人月双圆意)”. This is then followed by feasting and rejoicing!

In my hometown, Ning Xia, the senior members of the family, in particular the females, make sacrificial offerings in the open air, usually on a terrace, by displaying a plate of mooncakes. Fruits like water melon, pomelo, ground-nuts and tea are also offered. At this ceremony, the cakes, fruits and nuts acquire a special significance, symbolising the fullness of family life, vigour and youth, longevity, and numerous progeny! The moon is invoked to bless female devotees with attractive, robust and intelligent children. Hence, the month of the Mid-Autumn Festival is considered one of the seasons for propitious marriages!

Du Jin (1465-1509 A.D), Sacrifices to the Moon. Section of Hanging scroll. National Arts Museum, Beijing, via 8mhh

About The Author

Zhenxing Zhao is a Lecturer at HASS. His research areas are classical Chinese literature, Chinese intellectual history and Chinese gardens. He teaches the Humanities Core and HASS electives, History of Traditional Chinese Short Fiction, The Chinese Lyrical Tradition and Sages through the Ages. He is a fan of gardens and is currently working on a special research project on establishing the relationship between the Chinese literature and the theory of gardening.