Mid-autumn Festival /Zhōng Qiu Jié (中秋節)
By Elaine Dunn, staff writer
When is Mid-autumn Festival?
Man may have landed on the moon in July 1969; but according to Chinese legends, others may have landed and lived on the moon thousands of years already. And, we’re not talking little green men either! So who are these moon occupants of Chinese folklore? There are many stories associated with the Moon Festival, which is known officially as Mid-Autumn Festival. Depending on which story you choose, the resident on the moon may be a woman, a woodcutter or a rabbit.
Mid-Autumn Festival is the second-most important festival after Chinese New Year. This year, Chinese families in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as those in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam will spend the evening of Sept. 19 gazing at the beautiful full moon.
In Mandarin, Mid-Autumn Festival is Zhōng Qiu Jié. “Zhōng” literally means middle, “qiu” is autumn and “jié” is festival. For thousands of years, the Chinese had been celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which usually falls around the autumn equinox. The festival probably began as a harvest festival as there is an abundance of agricultural products harvested this time of the year. The custom of worshipping the moon by Han and minority nationalities can be traced back to the ancient Xia and Shang Dynasties (2000 B.C.-1066 B.C.) when people held ceremonies to celebrate the bountiful harvests with loved ones and greet the arrival of winter. By the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), folks had taken to celebrating the festival with outings to nearby lakes to observe the bright, full moon in the dark.
The legend of the moon lady
It was believed that around 2170 B.C. there were 10 suns circling the earth. One day, all 10 rose at the same time. The heat they generated was so intense that crops wilted away and people died of thirst. Hou Yi, an expert archer with a red bow and white arrows, shot down nine of the suns and the weather immediately cooled. Rains fell, rivers flowed and crops grew once again. China was saved!
The Goddess of the Western Heaven was impressed by Hou Yi’s good deed and rewarded him with an elixir of eternal life. He and his wife, Chang’e (嫦娥), decided they would drink the elixir on the 15th day of the eighth moon when the moon is at its brightest. Unfortunately, a wicked man heard about the elixir and tried to steal it for himself while Hou Yi was out hunting. To prevent the wicked man from getting the elixir, Chang’e swallowed it and immediately started to float away. She eventually landed on the moon where she lives to this day.
When Hou Yi returned from the hunt and learned what had happened, he decided to honour Chang’e with fruits and cakes that she had enjoyed on earth. As word about Chang’e spread, folks also displayed fruits and cakes in her honour on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, gazing at the moon to catch a glimpse of Chang’e’s shadow.
The legend of the woodcutter
Wu Gang (吳剛) was a lazy woodcutter with a bad attitude. He offended the gods in his perpetual attempt to achieve immortality. The gods banished him to the moon and told him he could achieve immortality only when he finished chopping down a 5,000-ft tall cassia tree. Not only was the tree’s size a giant obstacle to Wu Gang’s mission, the tree turned out to be a self-healing tree! What Wu Gang managed to chopped away would instantly grow back.
However, determined to achieve immortality, Wu Gang kept chopping away to this day!
The legend of the moon rabbit
One day, Buddha disguised himself as a hungry old man and visited the earth. He asked three animals for food: a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. The fox caught a fish and brought it to the old man. The monkey presented the hungry old man some fruits. When it was the rabbit’s turn, the rabbit told the old man that it had “grown up in the woods. Herbs and grasses are my food. I have nothing else to offer you but my body. Eat me, please!” and threw itself into the fire.
Moved with gratitude, Buddha resurrected the rabbit and sent it to live on the moon forever. Some versions of the story have it that Buddha sent the rabbit to the moon to keep Chang’e company, where it pounds the ingredients for the elixir of life for her. In Korean and Japanese stories, the rabbit pounds away on rice to make rice cakes.
As the Burger King slogan goes, have it your way!
What happens on this day?
The Chinese regard the full moon a symbol of family unity. Therefore, Mid-Autumn Festival is also a time for family reunions. It is one of the seven legal holidays in China. This year, the legal holiday in the People’s Republic of China is from Sept. 19-21, giving many a chance to travel home to celebrate the festival with family. For those unable to get home, they will probably look up at the moon and think of their relatives.
Mooncakes and carp cakes
One of the most common foods associated with Mid-Autumn Festival is the mooncake (月 餅 ). Often likened to the western fruitcake, it’s a must-have item for traditional reasons, but not many will ever touch the lips of its owners! It’s one of those either-you-love-it-or-you-don’t items. Even many little kids learn at an early age to give it a wide berth! Pig-shaped mooncakes were given to this writer’s kids in the mid-1990s. The relics’ only purpose since is to make an appearance at the table each Mid-Autumn Festival as a “conversation starter” or for a trip down memory lane!
There are hundreds of varieties of mooncakes. Typically, they are approximately the size of a hockey puck and have a dense filling of red bean paste (豆 沙 ) or lotus seed paste (蓮 蓉 ) embedded with nuts, melon seeds, orange peel and, sometimes, the yolk(s) of salted duck eggs. Nowadays, the combination and ingredients are limited only by the bakers’ imagination! All the ingredients are baked inside a golden-brown pastry crust made out of flour, syrup, lye and vegetable oil. The crust on top is imprinted with the Chinese character for longevity or harmony, or characters identifying the main ingredient of the filling. The characters are surrounded by decorative images and patterns. Needless to say, the more ingredients, the more expensive! Most mooncakes are purchased for gifts and not eaten by the purchaser.
Mooncakes also played an important role in Chinese history. In the 13th century, the Yuan Dynasty was ruled by Mongols. Officials from the previous Song Dynasty were not happy about being ruled by the uncivilized Mongols. Secret messages instigating a rebellion on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival were baked into mooncakes, which were only eaten by the Han Chinese. This mid-autumn uprising successfully ended the Mongols’ rule. From then on, people ate mooncakes to commemorate the mid-autumn rebellion. See “Mooncakes: A Mid-Autumn Festival tradition” p. 7, for additional details about the mooncake.
Besides mooncakes, the Imperial Court used to serve nine-jointed lotus roots, which symbolize peace, and watermelons (a symbol of fertility with its many seeds) cut in the shape of lotus petals, which symbolize reunion. Nowadays, regional specialties eaten at Mid-Autumn Festival are cooked taro, water caltrop (língjiǎo, 菱角, a special type of water chestnut that looks like a miniature black buffalo horn) and river snails stir fried with sweet opal basil. Duck is also popular as it is rich and tasty. Depending on the region of the country, the duck may be prepared with taro, osmanthus flowers, steamed in soy sauce or smoked with brine and spices. Traditional fruits include star fruits, pomelos and persimmons.
One unusual item that may strike a chord with Minnesotans is the carp cake! In Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, there is an old tradition of gifting carp cakes (鲤鱼饼) to kids by the maternal grandparents. The carp cakes are made entirely of flour - no fish! - with fillings similar to that in mooncakes. However, instead of being round, carp cakes are in the shape of (what else?) two carps facing each other. The old saying of "carp jumping over the dragon gate" refers to the fish swimming against the current. The cakes, therefore, encourages the recipients to strive for high achievement.
There are usually many outdoor activities arranged for this family festival. The eating always took place outdoors, be it in the courtyard of old homes, on the rooftop of modern apartments, by the lake or on beaches. The types of celebrations vary from region to region.
Hong Kong takes a thoroughly modern approach: the metropolis’ neon glow gives way to glowing lanterns; fiery dragons dance through the busy streets. In 2012, a Hong Kong business sponsored a “Golden Moon” built over an artificial pond decorated with floating lanterns. Inside the 60-ft diameter “moon,” visitors were treated to a light show from more illuminated paper lanterns.
In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, the local government puts on a huge lantern show with thousands of differently shaped lanterns all brightly lit - a fantastic contrast with the bright moonlight.
In East China's Zhejiang Province, watching the flood tide of the Qiantang River on the river’s bank is popular with locals and tourists alike. The ebb and flow of tides coincide with the waning and waxing of the moon. The sight of the rising tides at the narrow mouth of the Qiantang River can top out at an impressive 10 feet.
In Taiwan, outdoor barbecues have become a popular affair for family and friends. As of 2011, the densely populated city of Taipei designated 11 riverside parks to accommodate barbecues for the public. A stroll in the city parks is not a good idea for the hungry!
Mid-Autumn Festival is also a perfect night for romance! There’s usually a light, mild breeze blowing under a clear night sky, ideal for hugging couples to “keep each other warm!” Girls are known to pray to Chang’e to have their romantic wishes fulfilled. In some parts of China, young men and women attend specially organized dances to find partners. A number of traditional games from the 1920s and 1930s such as “Ascend to Heaven,” “Descend to the Flower Garden” and “Descent of the Eight Immortals” are played to help the process along.
Where there’s romance, there’s poetry! And much poetry has been devoted to this romantic festival. Following is one of the most famous poems by an equally famous poet that every Chinese elementary school student has committed to memory:
Thoughts in the Silent Night (静夜思)
By Li Bai (李白)
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 (疑 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).
On the night of Sept. 19, look hard at the bright, full moon. Maybe you, too, will see Chang’e in her flowing gown, the woodcutter chopping away at the cassia tree, or the rabbit pounding away … And for the gastronomically adventurous, perhaps you will be savouring a piece of mooncake as well!
However you choose to celebrate the night, may the bright moon bring you merriment, peace and romance!
Read more about mooncakes.