Mid Autumn Festival


Marie-Luise Latsch describes the traditional Chinese Festival in Mid Autumn. Reprinted from China Now magazine 1988

The Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival is one rich in poetic significance. It falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (usually October) when the heat of the summer has given way to cool autumn weather. On this day the moon is at its greatest distance from the earth. At no other time is it so luminous. Then, as the Chinese say 'The moon is perfectly round'. In the villages the heavy work involved in the summer harvest has already been completed but the autumn harvest has not yet arrived.

The origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival are very unclear. Earliest records are from the time of the Han dynasty emperor Wu Di (156-87 BC), who initiated celebrations lasting three days including banquets and 'viewing the moon'. During later dynasties people continued the custom. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), houses and gardens were decorated with numerous lanterns and the sound of gongs and drums filled the air.

The concept of a 'moon rabbit' was introduced to China with Indian Buddhist influence. Taoism adopted the rabbit in the moon along with many other concepts that originated in Buddhism: they called it the Jade Rabbit. It is said to stand under a magical cassia tree on the moon making pills of immortality.

Among the Chinese people, perhaps the most popular of all the tales connected with Mid-Autumn Festival is that of Chang Er, the Moon Lady, who turned into a three-legged toad when she ascended to the moon. Like the story of the rabbit, this one also originated in India.

Moon cakes came on sale shortly before festival time. In the past, one could get some cakes shaped like pagodas, others like a horse and rider, fish or other animals; still others were decorated with the images of rabbits, flowers, or goddesses. There was a myriad of fillings available: sugar, melon seeds, almonds, orange peel, sweetened cassia blossom, or bits of ham and preserved beef. There are cakes of northern and southern styles.

Before 1949 toy shops also offered a large variety of toys to mark the occasion. One could also buy pictures of the moon palace or the Moon Goddess or the rabbit sitting under the cassia tree. Well-to-do people exchanged presents, mostly pears, grapes, pomegranates and moon cakes. The roundness of these objects symbolized not only the moon but also the unity of the family.

On the evening of the day before Mid-Autumn Festival, friends would gather together for a sociable hour, eating cakes, drinking tea or sipping wine. The following evening, offerings to the moon would be placed in the open on an altar decorated with the picture of the Moon Palace or Moon Rabbit and perhaps a small clay figure of the rabbit. Because the moon is uniquely associated with yin, the feminine force, the whole ceremony was conducted by women.

The offerings, which were laid out on five platters, consisted of as many different kinds of fruit: apples, peaches, pomegranates (symbol of fertility), grapes and melons. Then would be brought forward the moon cakes, 13 in all - the number 13 symbolizing the number of months in a full lunar year. After that wine cups were filled, incense lit, and spirit money sent up in flames. Frequently there would also be offerings of beans or beanpods for the moon rabbit who was said to be particularly fond of these things. All the women in the family, one after another, stepped forward to kowtow. The sacrifices to the moon which often lasted as late as midnight concluded with the burning of the moon pictures.

Tales concerning the moon rabbit and the story of Chang Er are just as popular among people as ever, but now they are generally regarded merely as fairy tales; as far as I know, people no longer make offerings to the moon. One cannot buy moon pictures, but artistic scrolls depicting Chang Er with the rabbit in the Moon Palace can be bought all the year round. These tales have also been taken as themes for children's picture stories and dance dramas. The Moon Festival today is an ordinary workday, basically a welcome opportunity to sit outside, weather permitting, and enjoy some time with friends and relatives, to watch the full moon and eat moon cakes.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 127, Page 17, December 1988

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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