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Mid-Autumn Festival

By Edited Jul 21, 2015 1 0

Moon appreciation

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. As many people also commemorate that day with the tradition of eating mooncakes and carrying lit lanterns, it is also known as the Mooncake or Lantern Festival. (The 8th month of the lunar calendar is considered an auspicious period, thus many Chinese marriages also take place then.) To the Chinese, the festival is the second most important of the year, after the Spring Festival. Every year, people will make the effort to go home from all parts of the China (or even the world) and have dinner with their family. 

Lantern Festival

Origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The festival originated as a harvest festival. In the past, for many farmers in China, the harvest season is a period for celebration and rejoicing. It was only later that the festival was imbued with a mythological flavour with the legends of Chang-E, the lady in the moon.

According to Chinese mythology, the earth once had ten suns revolving around it, with each taking its turn to illuminate and bring warmth to the world. However, there was one day when all ten suns appeared at the same time, scorching the earth with their heat. The earth became so hot that many people died. Angered by the suffering of the people caused by the suns, the Chinese God of Archery Hou Yi  shot down the ten suns down one by one. Upon Hou Yi's killing of nine suns, the Chinese Emperor quickly stopped him from killing the last one as this would leave the world in total darkness. Because of his actions, Hou Yi was hailed as a hero for mankind. 

Unfortunately, Hou Yi's actions also angered the gods, who banished him from Heaven. After he became a mortal, Hou Yi continued to search for a way to regain his immortality. Through much efforts, he managed to obtain an elixir of life. However, as fate would have it, his wife, Chang E, drank the elixir out of curiousity. She found herself floating to the moon. Hou Yi heard his wife's cry for help, tried to hold her back but she was already beyond his reach. Chang E would eventually gain immortality and forever live alone on the moon. This started the legend of the lady in the moon, to whom young Chinese girls would pray during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

According to an ancient Chinese book recording customs and ceremonies, the Chinese Emperor would offer sacrifices to the sun in spring and the moon in autumn. During the Song Dynasty in 420 A.D., the 15th day of the 8th lunar month was officially declared for Mid-Autumn Festival.

Chang E

The tradition of eating mooncakes

During the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century, the Chinese rebels were planning to overthrow the Mongol-led government. To facilitate the transmission of messages among themselves, the rebel chief Zhu Yuanzhang came up with an idea to hide their messages in the mid-Autumn mooncakes. Zhu's military advisor, Liu Bowen, asked his  soldiers to spread the rumour that there would be a serious disease in winter and eating mooncakes was the only way to cure the disease. Liu instructed his soldiers to write the message "Uprising, at the night of Mid-Autumn Festival" on paper and put them into mooncakes, before selling the mooncakes to the common people. Finally, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, with the rebels' efforts well-coordinated, their attempt to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty and return control of the country to the Han people paid off.  Because of their central role in this significant event during the Mid-Autumn festival, mooncakes have remained popular to this day. As they now form a main part of the Mid-Autumn Festival experience, it is also commonly known as the Mooncake Festival.

Mooncakes

The Mid-Autumn Festival is now celebrated quite extensively in Chinese societies and communities. As early as a month before the festival itself, mooncakes and lanterns are already offered for sale. Mooncakes are bought not only for personal consumption, but also as gifts to relatives and friends. 

As for the tradition of carrying lanterns during the festival, there are many different beliefs about its origin. It is commonly believed to do with celebrating and cultivating positive relationships between people, families, nature and the deities. Children particularly liked to carry their lanterns around at night, showing off to their friends the fanciful designs of the lanterns. For those who do not carry lanterns, they can enjoy watching the informal lantern parades. 

During the Tang Dynasty, the practice of writing riddles on the lanterns was started. People are encouraged to guess the answer to the riddle from a word , a poem or a phrase. As these riddles are often difficult, trying to solve them has been likened to as hard as fighting with a tiger, which is why the lantern riddles are also called "lantern tigers" . The themes of these riddles are usually related to good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity and love. Some examples are as follows.

(Riddle) When it's young, its hair is white. When it's old, its hair is black.  When it's idle, it wears a hat. When it's busy, it takes it off.
(Answer) A calligraphy brush

(Riddle) It is red through and through. It has no mouth, but eats many things. It fears water but not wind.
(Answer) Fire

Lantern Riddles

The festival is also linked to "moon appreciation" parties as the full moon is particularly bright then. This practice has been a custom since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Not only did the upper class, but also the common people, like to gather to appreciate the beauty of the full moon at that time. People would drink, dance or listen to music under the light of the full moon. 

In China's literary history, many poets have penned praise to the pure moon of mid-autumn night and poems to express their delicate feelings. One famous example is the Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai's "Thoughts in the Silent Night" to express his homesickness during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The moonlight is shining through the window (床 前 明 月 光 )
And it makes me wonder if it is the frost on the ground (ç–‘ 是 地 上 霜), 
Looking up to see the moon ... (举 头 望 明 月)
Looking down I miss so much about my hometown (低 头 思 故 乡).

Li Bai
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