Under the Graceful Full Moonlight
Mid-Autumn Festival is considered China's second largest festival, only next to the Spring Festival. The concepts family and reunion have been highly valued in China and the festival closely connects with them.
On the day, the bright full moon as its symbol, people enjoy family reunion and also give thanks for the harvest in the honor of the moon, as well as give offerings to pray for a good future.
Origins and Development
China is an ancient agricultural country. By long-term observation, ancient Chinese found the great relationship between lunar cycle and the agricultural production, therefore the moon worship was nationally accepted as a convention.
The Chinese have held the ceremony during the autumn full moon since the Zhou dynasty (C. 1046 - 256 BCE). The term mid-autumn first appeared in Rites of Zhou, a written collection of rituals of the Western Zhou dynasty. It is recorded the emperor Zhou had performed ceremonies in autumn every year to greet winter.
In order to pray for the Moon to benefit agriculture, or to celebrate the harvest and thank for the blessing of the moon, ancient Chinese payed more attention to the worship etiquettes. Years passed, the pleasure of watching full moon remains.
The custom celebrated as a festival in the early Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). One legend explains that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang started to hold formal celebrations in his palace after having explored the Moon-Palace. Empress Dowager Cixi (late 19th century) enjoyed celebrating the Festival so much that she would spend 5 days of the eighth lunar month staging the rituals.
An important part of the festival celebration is moon worship. The ancient Chinese believed that rejuvenation was associated with the moon and water, and connected to the menstruation of women, naming it monthly water. For example, an ancient fable among the Zhuang people says the sun and the moon are a couple and the stars are their children. When the moon is pregnant, it turns round, and then crescent after giving birth. These beliefs made it popular among women to worship and give offerings to the moon on this evening.
People also made offerings to Chang’e, a more well-known lunar deity known as the Moon Goddess. The myths associated with Chang'e explain the origin of moon worship on this day. Here is one version of the stories presented in a Handbook of Chinese Mythology.
In the ancient past, there was a couple, Hou Yi who was excellent at archery and his wife Chang'e. One day, the ten suns rose in the sky together, bringing great disaster to people. Yi shot nine of the suns down and left only one to provide light and heat. People admired and appreciated him and an immortal sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave his wife, so he didn’t take the elixir and let Chang'e keep it. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret and the thought to become an immortal occurred. On a fifteenth of the eighth lunar month, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi's house and forced Chang'e to give the elixir to him but she refused. Instead, she swallowed it and soon afterwards flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband very much and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon as her residence. When Yi came back and learnt what had happened, he felt so grieved that he displayed fruits and cakes Chang'e liked in the yard as sacrifices to his wife. People around also felt sympathetic to Chang’e, so they also participated in the sacrifices.
The festival was a time to celebrate the harvest of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Today, it is still an occasion for outdoor reunions among friends and relatives to eat mooncakes and watch the moon, presenting a symbol of harmony and unity. The festival is celebrated with many cultural or regional customs, such as burning incense in reverence to deities or holding performances of dragon and lion dances.
An enjoyable part on the holiday is the carrying of brightly lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers or floating sky lanterns. Another tradition relevant to lanterns is to write riddles on them and have other people guess the answers.
The origin of this custom is difficult to be discerned, but it is certain that lanterns were not used in such occasion until the Tang dynasty. Traditionally, the lantern, symbolizing fertility functioned mainly as decoration. But today the lantern has become a symbol of the festival itself. In the old days, lanterns were made in the image of local cultures, but over times the influence from neighbors gradually showed on them.
With the evolution from an agrarian society to a mixed agrarian-commercial one, traditions from other festivals had transmitted into the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as in the Ghost Festival, which is a month before, people put lanterns on rivers to guide the spirits of the drowned. Fishermen in Hong Kong during the Qing dynasty would put up lanterns on the boats in the Ghost Festival and keep the lanterns lit up for a whole month.
Making mooncakes and sharing with others is above all other traditions of this festival. Chinese connected a round shape with completeness and reunion and the sharing and eating of round mooncakes signifies the unity of families. The senior person would cut the mooncakes into pieces and distribute to each family member, signifying family harmony.
Although typical mooncakes are made a few inches in diameter, imperial chefs have made some as large as several feet in radius, with designs of Chang'e, cassia trees, or the Moon-Palace on the surface. One tradition is to pile 13 mooncakes on top of each other to mimic a pagoda, the number 13 being chosen to represent the 13 months in a full lunar year.
Other Foods and Food Displays
Cassia wine is the traditional choice to drink during the festival, as well as cassia cakes and candy. Food offerings made to deities are placed on an altar set up in the courtyard, including various fruits. One of the decorations purchased for the celebration table is a statue of the Jade Rabbit, an animal that lived on the moon and accompanied Chang’e in Chinese folktale. Offerings of soy beans and cockscomb flowers were made to it.
The Mid-Autumn moon has traditionally been an occasion to celebrate marriages. Dances are held for young men and women to find partners. For example, a girl throws her handkerchief to the crowd and a young man who catches and returns the handkerchief has a chance to date with her. In Guizhou Province, the young Dong people would make an appointment at a certain place. The girls would arrive early to overhear remarks made about them by the boys. The boys would praise their lovers in front of their fellows, in which finally the listening women would walk out of the thicket. Afterwards pairs of lovers would go off to a quiet place to enjoy a romance.
Different Ways of Celebrating
A unique tradition in Xiamen is that on the festival, families and friends would together play a game like gambling involving 6 dice, named BoBing. People take turns in rolling the dice in a bowl with the results determining what they win. The number 4 mainly determines how big the prize is.
Hong Kong and Macau
In Hong Kong and Macau, there are numerous festive activities such as lighting lanterns, but mooncakes are still the core feature. People buy mooncakes not for themselves but to give their relatives as presents, thus mooncakes are usually sold in elegant boxes. Of course the price are not considered cheap. Recently, as environmental protection has become a concern of the public, many mooncake manufacturers in Hong Kong have adopted practices to reduce packaging materials. And new types of mooncakes, such as ice-cream mooncake, are gradually explored and created.
Ethnic Minorities in China
Korean minorities have a custom of welcoming the moon. They put up a large conical house frame made of dry branches, naming Moon House. The moonlight would shine inside for gazers to appreciate.
The Bouyei people call the occasion Worshiping Moon Festival. After praying to ancestors and dining together, they bring rice cakes to the doorway to worship the Moon Grandmother.
The Tu people practice a ceremony called Beating the Moon, where they place a basin of clear water in the courtyard to reflect an image of the moon, and then beat the water surface with branches.
The Maonan people tie a bamboo near the table, on which a grapefruit is hung, with three lit incense sticks on it. This is called Shooting the Moon.