What is Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋節 Mooncake Festival

by Chris Public, Lion Dance Toronto team member

For centuries people have gazed up at the moon in awe and, feeling its intangible pull, find that unspoken hopes and dreams are given voice. While the Sun expresses the desires of those in great cities and empires, the Moon belongs to those who live off the land and sea. The rhythms of season and tide are wholly dependent on her meter.

Many cultures who traditionally used the lunar calendar now use it in conjunction with the solar calendar. The lunar calendar is used mainly to determine the date of religious and cultural events.

Mid-Autumn-Festival-in-Asia

In Asia, namely China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines,  they traditionally celebrate the Mid-autumn Festival 中秋節 on the fifteenth day of the 8th lunar month, close to the autumn equinox. This year it lands on September 19, 2013. Also known as the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, or simply the Mooncake Festival, it has a long history and has incorporated many elements over the centuries .

Most importantly, it was always a holiday, a break from work and a chance to relax with family and friends.

Significance

It is traditionally a night festival, as the full moon plays an essential part. The Equinox represented the end of the harvest season, and chance to relax and socialize. The actual day off is the following one. Not surprisingly, the Night Festival has always been popular with young people, and it was common for matchmaking and other romantic pursuits to take place. It is still seen as a fairly romantic holiday, not unlike Valentines Day and a time for families to come together.

People like to gather together outside, preferably by the water, and enjoy each others company, usually in combination with good food and drink. A famous example of this is the Mooncake. Mooncakes are elaborately baked tarts, filled with dark honey-sweet ingredients and embossed with intricate designs. While enjoying this kind of home-made goodness, people would gather around a tea service, hoping to catch a glimpse of the moon in their cups.

When you gaze at the moon, what do you see? We’ve all heard of the Man-in-the-Moon, but did you know that many people, including the Mayans, saw a rabbit. In Asia it is also very common to refer to the Moon Rabbit ,  also known as the Jade Rabbit 玉兔,  who lives on the moon, and pounds herbs for the Immortals. How did he get there? No one is really sure, but his companion is much better known.

Mid Autumn Festival mythology

The festival is intimately linked to the legends of Chang’e 嫦娥, the Goddess of Immortality.

Moon-goddess-flying-to-moon

Chang’e was a beautiful young girl working in the Jade Emperor‘s palace in heaven, where the Immortals lived. One day, she accidentally broke a precious porcelain jar. Angered, the Jade Emperor banished her to live on earth. She could return to the Heaven, if she contributed a valuable service on earth.

Chang’e was transformed into a member of a rich farming family. When she was 18, a young hunter named Houyi from another village spotted her, now a beautiful young woman. They became friends.

One day, a strange phenomenon occurred—10 suns arose in the sky instead of one, blazing the earth. Houyi, an expert archer, stepped forward to try to save the earth. He successfully shot down nine of the suns, becoming an instant hero. He eventually became king and married Chang’e.

But Houyi grew to become greedy and selfish. He sought immortality by ordering an elixir be created to prolong his life. The elixir in the form of a single pill was almost ready when Chang’e came upon it. She either accidentally or purposely swallowed the pill , depending on which version of the tale was told. This angered King Houyi, who went after his wife. Trying to flee, she jumped out the window of a chamber at the top of the palace—and, instead of falling, she floated into the sky toward the Moon. King Houyi tried unsuccessfully to shoot her down with arrows.

She now lives on the Moon, her only companion the Jade Rabbit.

Chang’e has become synonymous with the Moon. She has been featured in many poems and stories, including Journey to The West and Mao Ze Dong’s most famous poetic composition.

The Moon was a common subject of Chinese poetry. The famous Tang poet Li Bai wrote:

“Seeing moonlight here at my bed,

 thinking it is frost on the ground,

Looking up,  I gaze at mountain moon,

and back, dreaming of my old home….”

I like Li Bai. He supposedly died drunk, trying to embrace the moon in a river.

On September 19, people will go out into the night together, and sit by the water, eating and drinking, hoping to catch a glimpse of the moon. These days the most noticeable tradition is the actual mooncakes themselves, surely a dim recollection of the delicious home-made goodies that accompanied the Moon Festival in the olden days.

A symbol of the family itself, the mooncake is most delicious when shared.

Myself, I imagine the bunny making mooncakes.

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