Article by XIANEASE
The Mid-Autumn Festival holiday this year will fall on October 1st this year, giving everyone in the country an eight-day holiday, as the National Holiday starts on the same day. This means that, in addition to the usual Golden Week holiday escapade, you will also have people munching down on mooncakes and celebrating a festival that goes back to some of the earliest times of Chinese history.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, most traditional Chinese holidays are based around the cycle of the moon, with major events occurring with the waning and waxing of Earth’s largest satellite. This also means that, due to differences between the solar and lunar cycles, that holidays tend to jump around on the Gregorian calendar quite a bit. In either case, this would place the holiday roughly at the time of the end of the harvest season, traditionally a cause for celebration in agrarian societies.
In ancient China, moon worship was common, as the moon was seen as a source of rejuvenation, as it would constantly disappear and then reappear in the sky. Though the term ‘mid-autumn’ first appeared in the Rites of Zhou, a collection of works from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-776BCE), the practice of celebrating mid-autumn is likely much older. The holiday began to gain wider-spread popularity in the Tang Dynasty, during the rule of Emperor Xuanzong, who supposedly began hosting festivities in his palace to celebrate the occasion. The festival has continued to gain in popularity, and is often ranked second in terms of importance for traditional Chinese holidays.
As with most traditional holidays, Mid-Autumn comes with its own legend. The legend has different variations, but the common thread is the archer Houyi and the moon goddess Chang’e. The story goes that one year, ten suns rose in the sky and cause a great deal of suffering for the people, scorching the earth and destroying crops. In order to save his people, the great archer Houyi took up his bow and shot down nine of the ten suns, leaving one to keep the Earth warm. As a reward, one of the immortals gave Houyi an elixir of immortality. Houyi, however, did not drink it, as that would mean that he would be immortal while his wife, Chang’e, would be mortal. Instead he asked Chang’e to hide the elixir away. One day, while Houyi was out hunting, Peng Meng, one of his apprentices that had found out about the elixir, broke into their home to steal the elixir. Chang’e, not wanting Peng Meng to take it away, drank the elixir herself. Now immortal, she would need to leave Earth, but did not want to be too far from her husband, so she flew to the moon. Her husband, upon returning and finding out what happened, set out his wife’s favorite fruits in the garden and made sacrifices to her and the moon. Others, hearing of the suffering of the hero that had saved them, likewise began making sacrifices to Chang’e and the moon in sympathy. This eventually would make Chang’e the goddess of the moon, where she continues to live.
Modern celebrations of Mid-Autumn festival center around family reunions, and it is typically for families to gather together for a meal and eat fruits and mooncakes while staring at the moon. Mooncakes, if you haven’t had one before, are small dense pastries filled with lotus paste and typically contains a single, hard-boiled salted egg yolk, meant to represent the moon. It’s not known exactly when mooncakes came on the scene, but they have become so closely associate with the festival, that the holiday is sometimes referred to as ‘Mooncake Festival’. Recent years have seen the creation of ever more intricate designs and unusual flavor combinations, not to mention increasingly ostentatious boxes to house them in. Mooncakes have become a big business as well, with practically everyone trying to get in on this lucrative business.
In addition to mooncakes, paper lanterns are often hung for decoration and to light the outdoor evening activities, though this should not be confused with the actually Lantern Festival, which occurs on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year. Different types of lanterns may also be deployed at this time, such as floating lanterns or flying lanterns, depending on where you are.
What do I need to do?
Typically, companies will give a gift of mooncakes to their employees around this time, in addition to the nationally mandated vacation day. You don’t typically need to give a reciprocal gift back to your boss, just say thank you.
If you are married to a Chinese person, you will probably be expected to attend a family dinner on the holiday in question. Check with your spouse first, but generally a gift of mooncakes for the grandparents is acceptable, and they will be shared amongst the family at the dinner. Don’t buy the cheapest box that you can find, but you don’t necessarily have to buy an expensive box either. This is also a perfect opportunity to slip in a few flavors that you might want to eat yourself, so pick your box wisely. Moon cakes, by the way, are typically cut into segments before being picked up with toothpicks, so don’t go gnawing on an entire one all by yourself.
We hope that this little primer on Mid-Autumn festival has been helpful. Obviously, traditional Chinese culture is a big topic and there are many more nuances and stories to the whole picture, but we hope that you have a better idea about it than before. Enjoy the holiday, everyone!