Middle Autumn Festival

Last Update: 2008-8-27 1:21:00; By chinatravelservice

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Mid-autumn Festival
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The 15th of the eighth month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, is the date for the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. The reason for celebrating the festival during that time is that it is the time when the moon is at its fullest and brightest.

The Mid-autumn festival is one of the two most important occasions in Chinese calendar (the other being the Spring Festival or the Chinese New Year) and it is an official holiday. It is a time for families to be together, so people far from home will gaze longingly at the moon and think about their families.

The traditional food for mid-autumn festival is the moon cake which is round and symbolizes reunion.

TOPHistory and Origin of Mid-autumn Festival

Celebration of Mid-autumn festival has a long history. In ancient times, the emperors had the tradition of worshiping the Sun in spring, and the Moon in autumn. The word "Mid-Autumn" first appeared in the famous ancient book "Zhou Li" (The Zhou Rituals, a book telling the rituals in the Zhou Dynasty). However, it was not until the early Tang Dynasty that the day was officially celebrated as a traditional festival. It became a established festival during the Song Dynasty, and has become as popular as the Spring Festival since the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Celebrations has continued ever since and more customs for marking this occasion have been formed.

There are several explanations on when and where the festival began and some of the most convincing versions are as follows:

Version One: Nanjing and Mid-autumn Festival

A much-told story about the beginning of the Mid-autumn Festival celebration comes from Niuzhu (a place in ancient Nanjing). As early as 1,600 years ago, Nanjing which was called Jianye served as capital of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. On a Mid-autumn night when Xie Shangyue, the governor of Niuzhu, was boating on a river he met Yuan Hong, a poor, frustrated but gifted scholar who had to earn his living by renting boats. Admiring his ability, Xie made friend with him and Yuan had a rise to fame with the help of Xie. Later on, having heard of the story, many refined scholars from all over the country followed suit to boat in the river, climb up the towers, and watch the moon. Famous poets like Li Bai and Ou Yangzhan were all touched by the story, and then wrote numbers of poems about it. Because of this, the tradition of watching the moon on Mid-Autumn Festival gradually came into being.

Version Two: Season and Climate

The Mid-Autumn day is the very moment of rice maturity. And at that day farmers will worship the local God of land, whose birthday is exactly on that day. Mid-Autumn day is possibly an old tradition of telling the coming of autumn. In terms of the seasons in a year, the Mid-Autumn day can be named as "Harvest Day", when the crops sowed in the spring can be reaped. Since ancient times, people would drink, dance, and sing on that day, celebrating the harvest. This scene can be found in the Books of Odes (the earliest collection of poems in ancient China).

According to the previous descriptions, the ancient emperors had the tradition of worshiping the moon, yet the day was initially on the day of Autumn Equinox, and not on the Mid-Autumn day. However, the Autumn Equinox is not a fixed day and there may or may not be a full moon on that day. Therefore, the day for worshipping the moon was accepted as a convention on the Mid-Autumn day, when the moon is in its fullest.

Meanwhile, it's proven by scientific research that the inclination of the earth and the sun will gradually increase in autumn, thus the cool air up in the sky will fade away while the northwest wind is still very weak. In this way, the moisture is removed and the air in the sky would become pure and clean. So the moon would appear to be relatively fuller and bigger. And this would be the best time to appreciate the beauty of the moon.

Version Three: Moon Cake

The tradition of eating moon-cakes on this festival has a long history in China, yet there are different versions of statements about its origin.

The most common version is that during the reign of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, Taizong ordered his ablest general Li Jing to go for a battle against the Turkic clan in north ancient China to suppress their frequent invasions. The 15th day of the 8th month was exactly the day for the general's triumphant return. In order to celebrate his victory, fireworks were set off and music was played in and out of Chang'an City (the capital of the Tang dynasty), and citizens were happily enjoying a riotous night together with warriors. At that time, a business man, coming from the Tubo Kingdom (the ancient name for Tibet), presented Taizong with a kind of round cakes to celebrate Tang's victory. Taizong gladly received the magnificently-decorated boxes and took the multi-colored round cakes out of the boxes and handed them out to his officials and generals. From then on, the tradition of eating round moon-cakes on the Mid-Autumn Festival was formed.

Versions Four:  Wuyan

One of the legends behind this festival tells the story of a plain girl named Wuyan, who was from Qi; an ancient nation in China. Wuyan was chosen for the Emperor's palace because of her outstanding morality but she never attracted the attention of the Emperor due to her appearance.

However, as a youngster Wuyan had worshipped the Moon and this gave her special powers so that on the night of the 15th of August, when she met the emperor in the moonlight, he saw her as beautiful and fell in love with her immediately. Wuyan later married the Emperor and became the queen of Qi, and from this moment on the tradition of worshipping the Moon on the 15th of August began.

However, young Chinese ladies to also worship the Moon for another reason - in the hope that they can become as beautiful as Chang'e, a girl who, according to Chinese legend, lives in the moon.

TOPLegends of Mid-autumn Festival

Almost every traditional Chinese festival has a connection with legends. The most well-known stories of the Mid-Autumn Festival is Chang'e flying to the moon, Jade Rabbit making heavenly medicine, and Wu Gang chopping the cherry bay. Those stories have been passed down from generations to generations alongside the celebrations of the festival itself. Today for young children, listening to the stories is still an important part of their way to celebrate the Moon Festival.

I. Chang'e Flying to the Moon

It is said that long ago there used to be 10 suns in the sky. Each day, one of the suns would travel around the sky on a carriage driven by Xihe, the mother of the suns. One day, unexpectedly, all 10 suns simultaneously appeared in the sky, which instantly dried the crops and caused disaster to the people on earth.
Hou Yi, a local archer, had great sympathy for people's sufferings from the blistering weather and decided to help them out. Houyi climbed up to the summit of Kunlun Mountains and shot down the suns leaving only one to benefit people. After he shot down the sun, Hou Yi became a hero who was revered by local people.

Later, Hou Yi married a beautiful girl—Chang'e. The young couple lived a happy and sweet life.

Hou Yi was so famous for his perfect archery skills that he had a lot of apprentices, including the unrighteous Peng Meng. One day when Hou Yi was on the way to visit his friend, the Queen Mother of the West gave him an elixir of immortality as a reward for his heroic undertaking. Meanwhile, he warned Hou Yi "Do not swallow this pill before preparing yourself with prayer and fasting for a year".  Hou Yi gave the elixir to Chang'e for safekeeping and she took it as a treasure and hid it in her jewelry box. Unfortunately, Peng Meng found this secret and made a plan to steal it. Several days later, when Hou Yi and other apprentices went out for hunting, Peng pretended to fall ill and stayed at home. After they left, Peng forced Chang'e to give him the elixir. Chang'e, knowing that she could not defeat Peng, swallowed the elixir herself, and mmediately she felt herself floating up and flied to the sky. With deep love to her husband, Chang'e chose to be an immortal on the moon, closest to the earth; then she could see her husband every day.

In late afternoon, Hou Yi came back and was told what had happened. Heart-stricken, Hou Yi went to the back garden and called his wife's name ceaselessly. Surprisingly, he found that the moon was extremely clean and bright that night; and that there was a moving figure like Chang'e in the moon. Hou Yi desperately tried to catch up with the moon, but he could not do it. Hou Yi then asked servants to set a table in his back garden and with his wife's favorite snacks and fruits on it. In a short time, more and more people heard about the news that Chang'e had become an immortal, and they also put tables under the moon to pray to Chang'e for good fortune and safety. From then on, the custom of worshipping the moon on the Mid-Autumn Festival began to spread in China.

II. Jade Rabbit Making Heavenly Medicine

This legend is considered to be an extension of Chang'e Flying to the Moon. It tells about three sages who transformed themselves into pitiful old men. One day they met a fox, a monkey and a rabbit, and they begged for food. The fox and the monkey shared their food with the old men; but the rabbit, with nothing to share, jumped into a blazing fire to offer his own flesh instead. The sages were so touched by the rabbit's kindness that they sent it to live in the Moon Palace, where it became the Jade Rabbit. Chang'e, who lived alone after arriving in the moon, liked the Jade Rabbit at the first sight, and therefore kept it company. As the time went by, Chang'e and Jade Rabbit became inseparable friends. Hearing about the story of Chang'e and Hou Yi, the Jade Rabbit felt sympathetic to them and decided to make a special heavenly medicine, which could help Chang'e return to Earth. Unfortunately, the Jade Rabbit has still not been able to make it even though he has worked hard for thousands of years. Observing the moon on the Mid-Autumn Day carefully, we can still see the Jade Rabbit making his heavenly medicine.

III. Wu Gang Chopping the Cherry Bay

There is also another story about the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many years ago, Wu Gang, an immortal in Heaven, was punished to chop down the cherry bay in the moon for his serious mistakes. The cherry bay in the moon was extremely luxuriant and sturdy with a height of 5167 meters. It would also heal up as soon as it was chopped, which made Wu Gang's work last for thousands of years.

The mid-autumn festival has many traditions and activities in which people express how much their families mean to them, and how much they miss absent members.

TOPCustoms of Mid-autumn Festival

Gazing at the Moon

Gazing at the Moon is an ancient tradition from the Zhou Dynasty (around 500 BC) when people held ceremonies to welcome the full moon, with huge outdoor feasts of moon cakes, watermelons, apricots, apples, grapes and other fresh fruits. The popularity of this ancient tradition began to grow during the Tang and Song Dynasties when people of high rank held banquets in their big courtyards. They drank fine wine, watched the moon and listened to music. Common people who could not afforded as big parties as the rich would lay some food such as moon cakes and fruits on a table in the courtyard and pray to the moon for a good harvest. This underwent a great rise during the Song Dynasty, and historical documents tells about mid-autumn night in the capital, where people would stream to the night markets and together with their families admire the beauty of the full moon. There are also many classic songs and well-known verses about this tradition.

Eating Moon Cake

Eating moon cakes while watching the full moon is a central part of the mid-autumn festival throughout China, and is a symbol of family unity. At the very beginning, the moon cakes were served as a sacrifice to the Moon. The words moon cake first appeared in the Southern Song Dynasty, even though, at that time, the moon cakes were not round. Nowadays, moon cakes are given as presents to loved ones and it represent people’s wishes to be together during the mid-autumn festival.

Apart from these two traditional customs, different regions have their own celebrations.

In Fujian Province

In Pu City, females must cross the Nanpu Bridge to pray for a long life. In Jianning, people light lanterns to pray to the moon for their babies. In Shanghang county, children have to get down on their knees when they worship the moon. In Long Yan, while eating moon cakes, parents will dig a small hole in the center of the cakes, which means that some secrets should be kept from children.

In Guangdong Province

In Chaoshan, women and children will worship the Moon. When the night comes, they will burn joss sticks in front of a table of fresh fruits as a sacrifice. At that night they will also eat taros. There are two reasons why people there eat this vegetable. One is that August is the best time to eat ripe taros, and the other comes from a story. In 1279 the Mongols defeated the Southern Song Dynasty and formed the Yuan Dynasty, and they carried out their cruel domination over the Han Chinese. At that time, a well-known general called Ma Fa held out in Chaozhou to fight with Mongols. When he failed, most citizens were killed. Because the Chinese word for taros and Mongols were similar, from then on people eat taros to prove that they will always remember the pain. To eat the taro means to eat the heads of the Mongols.

In the south of Yangtze River valley

In Nanjing people will not just eat moon cakes, they will also eat another famous dish called Guihua Dark. This dish could only be cooked during the Mid-Autumn Day, because it is cooked with osmanthus flowers, which blossoms in August.

In Wuxi of Jiangsu province, people like to burn joss sticks to celebrate this special festival. The burned joss sticks are wrapped in tulle with beautiful paintings of Moon Palace or Chang'e.

In Ji'an County of Jiangxi province, peasants burn pottery jars with straws and vinegar so that the smell of the vinegar can spread all over the villages. In Xincheng County, people celebrate this festival by lighting oil lamps from the 11th day of the 8th lunar month to the 17th day.

In Sichuan province

People will prepare a lot of food like moon cakes, ducks, glutinous rice cakes, and rice dumplings. In some places, people light orange lamps, or ask children run in the streets with pomeloes decorated with burning incense in their hands. In Jiading, they worship the God of the Land and play some local dramas to celebrate this special day.

In the North

People of Qingyun County in Shangdong province worship the God of Land as well as their ancestors on that day. In Lu’an of Shanxi province, parents will invite their son-in-laws to have dinner with them. In Xixiang county of Shanxi province, men usually go boating or climb mountains together, while women will stay at home and prepare for the dinner. In Luochuan County, parents send gifts to their children's teachers to show their gratitude.

Though different places have different customs to celebrate this special day, people all have common wishes of reunion, happiness, safety, health and harvest.

TOPChinese Ancient Poems and Mid-Autumn Festival

At the very beginning, the Mid-Autumn Festival was not so popular. It was the ancient Chinese poets who made the Festival popularity. They wrote many poems which are related to the moon and the festival, and when reading these poems people became more and more interested in it. Missing Home in the Silent Night by Li Bai is one of the most famous ancient poems related to the moon and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

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