Asians around the world are preparing to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival aka the Moon Festival. September 14 will be the date for the 2008 festivities. The festival is popular in China, Vietnam, Korea, and other east-Asia nations.
I’ve talked about other Chinese holidays (Seven-Seven and the Dragon Boat Festival). The Mid-Autumn Festival originates from a folktale about a rabbit, an archer and his beautiful wife, immortality, and celestial bodies.
This is no simple holiday, like Christmas. There’s no man in a red suit giving you presents. It’s complicated stuff; you need Cliff’s Notes to keep the characters straight. Luckily, dear reader, you have an intrepid journalist deep in the heart of (south) China, willing to go to any length to get the skinny on this fête.
…there was an immortal named Houyi, part of the court of the Jade Emperor, the King of Heaven. Before they wed, Houyi’s lovely wife Chang’e, had been an attendant to the Queen Mother of the West (the Emperor’s wife).
The immortals, probably because they had little else to do (and bowling had yet to be invented) liked to squabble. Houyi somehow aroused the other immortals’ jealousy. Being petty, they slandered Houyi before the Jade Emperor. He and Chang’e were banished from heaven. The couple lived upon the earth and hunted to survive. Houyi became a famous archer.
In the days of yor, 10 suns circled the earth, a different one each day. Then: Catastrophe. All 10 suns appeared in the sky the same day. The earth was a mess. Crops were scorched, people received nasty burns (SPF ratings, like bowling, had not been invented yet) and without the invention of electricity there wasn’t a cold Coke in sight.
China’s Emperor Yao commanded Houyi to shoot down nine of the 10 suns, lest The Middle Kingdom be destroyed. Houyi, skilled bow-and-arrow dude that he was, complied and shot the fiery balls of gas from the heavens. The Emperor was pleased and gave Houyi a pill that granted eternal life, but warned the archer to fast and reflect for one year before taking it.
At home, Houyi hid the pill in the rafters and started to prepare himself as instructed. Enter Chang’e. She noticed a beam of light from the rafters and discovered the pill. Houyi returned and she swallowed the pill to mask her discovery. He wasn’t pleased, and berated her for her transgression. The pill had given her the power to fly, and that she did, into the sky. Her husband chased her until a strong wind forced him to return to earth.
Chang’e ended up on the moon. her flying powers spent. She coughed and half the pill fell from her mouth. She lived with the Jade Rabbit, that according to Chinese mythology, resides on the moon. The rabbit, an apothecary to the immortals, was put to work trying to replicate the second half of the pill so she could return to earth.
Aside: There are many explanations for the rabbit on the moon. Some versions say Chang’e took the rabbit with her, another says the rabbit was already in residence, having been given a place in the moon palace after sacrificing himself for three hungry sages.
Somehow, Houyi built himself a palace on the sun. Once a year, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month – Mid-Autumn Festival – he visits his wife, thus explaining the moon’s brightness on this day. Houyi was the yang (male symbol) and Chang’e, the ying (female symbol).
Trying to decipher this tale is difficult. In one version Houyi is a tyrant that saves the world from the suns and then takes the throne. He has his court wizards prepare a elixir of immortality so he can be king forever. Chang’e doesn’t like her husband’s despotic rule and steals the elixir so he can’t lord over his subjects for eternity. Another tale is similar to the story of Pandora’s Box.
Mid-Autumn festival is the second most important Chinese Holiday (Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year being the first). It’s a time for family reunions and a celebration of the harvest.
The food of the festival is the Moon Cake: Lotus seed paste wrapped in a thin pastry. Egg yolks or salted eggs are often the center of the cakes. It is a heavy delicacy, often eaten in small portions with tea.
Traditional mooncakes have an imprint on top consisting of the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony” as well as the name of the bakery and filling in the moon cake. Imprints of a moon, a woman on the moon, flowers, vines, or a rabbit may surround the characters for additional decoration.
Mooncakes are expensive and considered a delicacy, and production is labor-intensive and few people make them at home. Most mooncakes are bought at Asian markets and bakeries. The price of mooncakes range from $10 to $50 (in US money).
The holiday can be traced back to 1060 BCE, to the Chinese Xia and Shang Dynasties. It was during the Tang Dynasty (5th to 8th centuries) that it became very popular. With the recent change in national holidays, Mid-Autumn festival is now a day off. Previously it was celebrated but not granted “day off” status.
What do people for Mid-Autumn festival? Simple: Go to a restaurant or someone’s home. Eat a big meal, drink, and consume moon cakes. A less-than-reliable website has a different idea, it lists the following as the activities engaged in:
- Eating moon cakes outside under the moon
- Putting pomelo rinds on one’s head
- Carrying brightly lit lanterns
- Burning incense in reverence to deities including Chang’e
- Planting Mid-Autumn trees
- Lighting lanterns on towers
- Fire Dragon Dances
I should be Wiki’s man on the ground. That list is not entirely correct.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival. I’ll be thinking of you while eating moon cakes.