Article by XIANEASE
Another festival is upon us, so we’re back to try to help you understand what in the world it’s all about. October 4th will see the return of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a celebration of the fall harvest, which is one of the oldest traditions in Chinese culture. Unfortunately we won’t be getting that sweet, sweet public holiday to go with it, as this year it’ll fall in the middle of the October National Golden Week holiday, but it’s an interesting festival with some unique traditions. Without further ado, here’s what’s up with the Mid-Autumn Festival.
A FESTIVAL AS OLD AS (RECORDED) TIME
When we say that this is one of the oldest Chinese traditions, we’re not kidding. Scholars say that autumnal harvest celebrations date back as far as the Shang Dynasty, which makes this tradition about 3000 years old. The same sources claim that the earliest celebrations would have largely involved paying tribute to various mountain gods, or to dragons that they believed brought rain to nourish their crops.
The first use of the name “Mid-Autumn” to describe this festival appears in the Rites of Zhou, a written collection of rituals, customs and theories of the Zhou Dynasty. The festival always occurs on a full moon, on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar.
ARCHERS AND ELIXIRS AND MOONS, OH MY
As seems to be the case with many Chinese festivals, Mid-Autumn has the requisite fantastical tale attached to it.
The most prominent version of this tale involves a romantic couple: the hero Houyi, an archer, and his wife, Chang’e. Houyi’s depiction can vary from telling to telling, often complicated by the fact that there was a real-life legendary figure of the same name from prehistoric China, which causes the two to be conflated. Sometimes he’s referred to as a god of archery, which makes the most sense to us, as he’s credited with using his bow to shoot nine of ten suns out of the sky. Let’s unpack that, because a statement like that begs many questions: there used to be ten suns, and thanks to Houyi’s crack shooting, we now have only one, instead of some kind of quintuple Tatooine-esque hell (although given the heat wave this past summer, we’re not sure we would notice the difference).
Impressed by his prowess, the Queen of Heaven (whom you might remember from the Qixi Festival), gave him an elixir of immortality. As any immortal will tell you, living forever means that you have to watch the people you love die; too in love with Chang’e to consign himself to that fate, he gave it to her for safekeeping. However, an apprentice of his (a man who all versions of this tale agree was kind of a dick) found out about the immortality elixir, broke into the couple’s house while Chang’e was there alone in an attempt to force her to give it to him. Given the choice between taking drastic measures and letting a total jackass live forever, Chang’e chose the former, quaffing the potion herself and floating off into the heavens. Since she so loved Houyi, she chose to live on the moon to be as close as possible to him.
There is a completely different version of this tale in which Houyi was made a king for his sun-killing abilities, but became a tyrant and demanded the elixir from the Queen of Heaven. He got his wish, but Chang’e, who hated the man he had become, stole it and drank it herself. Then while she floated off to heaven, he took a shot at her but missed, and then got so angry he died.
If it were up to us we would choose the first version of this to be considered canon in the Chinese Festival Cinematic Universe because it’s a happier story, but we thought that, in the interest of promoting cultural knowledge understanding, we should share both versions with you.
As you might have guessed from some of what we’ve already discussed, the moon is central to celebrations of this holiday. The most famous of these traditions (and the one you’re most likely to have forced upon you by well-meaning coworkers) is the eating of the “moon cake” (月饼 yue bing). This food became popular and connected to the festival during the Song Dynasty, though there are several other legends that explain its appearance (our favorite of these the one in which Han Chinese in the Yuan Dynasty hid messages in moon cakes for the purpose of organizing to rebel against their Mongol rulers). The most common variety today is rather savory and has an egg yolk in it, but in the modern era there has been an explosion of diversity in the flavors of a moon cake, encompassing flavors from the fruity and sweet, to the glorified ice cream sandwiches sold as moon cakes by international companies like Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs.
Other customs include making offerings for peace and luck to Chang’e (now the Goddess of the Moon) by setting up an altar and offering her various fruits. Traditionally, the day has also been one to celebrate marriages or for single young women and men to find a partner. If nothing else, most traditions involve taking a long gander at the bright, full harvest moon.
SO WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO FOR THIS?
Mid-Autumn is an easy one for laowai. Take the work holiday, try to graciously accept the moon cakes given to you and, if you’re going for the 2017 Laowai of the Year award, buy the beloved, traditional locals in your life a box of moon cakes (this will make them…over the moon).
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