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With autumn coming upon us, the enchanting celebration known as the Mid-Autumn Festival (or the Moon Festival) is right around the corner! It is a beautiful festival that brings together families, creating warm bonds and happy memories while watching the moon at its brightest time. Another reason to love or visit China for!
This year (2016), the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on September 15th, so in preparation for this charming event, we’d like to present you with all the information you need to truly enjoy the festivities!
The Beginnings and History
With deep roots into the culture and history of the ancient Chinese people, this observance was closely related to the time of the harvest. As the ancient Chinese watched the moon above them and how it grew brighter at the time when the harvest was full and ready, the saw the need to thank this beautiful luminary in view of the good harvest they had, and thus offered sacrifices to it in the autumn.
Beginning in the times of the Zhou Dynasty, these sacrifices were offered only by the royal class. Later, throughout the Tang Dynasty, the general public also started to worship the moon at its brightest time of the year, and the two celebrations were merged together to form the Moon Festival.
The people gathered under the moon at night to express their inner feelings and worship the moon as a family. As time went on, the celebration gained prominence. By the time of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the festival was a major celebration throughout the country.
Enchanting Legends and Myths
There are different fables and stories that are connected with the Moon Festival. These are generally tragic tales with moral implications. One, a beautiful love story between Hou Yi and his wife Chang’e, tells how a skilled archer shot down 9 of the earth’s 10 suns and saved mankind. As a gift of thanks, he was given an elixir which would allow him, and only him, to live forever. He refused to drink because he preferred to stay with his wife. However, one day when Hou Yi was out, one of his students came to steal the elixir from his home. When confronted by the intruder, Chang’e knew she must protect the elixir, and drank it herself. She was immediately transported, floating higher and higher, until she ended up on the moon.
When Hou Yi arrived home and saw what happened, he set a table of food for his wife to try and bring her back down. To this day, families in China prepare a table of food to offer to the moon. Some children believe that Chang’e (The Moon Lady) still resides there.
Another tale, tells the story of a companion of Chang’e on the moon: the rabbit. The Emperor of Heaven, as a test to the animals, appeared as a man to a fox, a monkey, and a rabbit, asking them to bring him food. They each went their separate ways, and the fox and the monkey each brought back food for the man. However, the rabbit found nothing. Feeling regret, the rabbit asked for help to collect some firewood, and when they put the fire together, the rabbit offered herself to be eaten. The Emperor of Heaven, pleased by her attitude, honored her by letting her bones go to the Moon Palace to be seen from the earth forever.
Why All the Mooncakes?
Mooncakes are a very typical food for this festival, shared between family members and usually washed down with tea.
Although the style of the pastry varies depending on where in China you are buying it. The delicate, round cakes are typically an outer shell of pastry with thick, rich filling that is at times made from lotus seed paste or azuki bean paste.
They are a symbol of the full moon, and are usually imprinted with Chinese characters on the outside, words such “harmony” or “longevity”. Sometimes you will also see pictures imprinted into the pastry of the moon or the Moon Lady.
The cakes will be served in small pieces in the family, and are also usually given as gifts to friends and acquaintances.
It is interesting to note that at any other time of the year, it is nearly impossible to find this tasty treat.
If you would like to know more about mooncakes, check out our Beginner’s Guide to traditional Chinese mooncake post.
How to Celebrate the Festival Traditionally
The Mid-Autumn Festival is also called the Moon Festival because of its close relation to the cycles of the moon. Thus, going outside at night to sit under the stars and gaze upwards at the beautiful luminary that shines even brighter in mid-autumn is the way that most Chinese will celebrate this festival.
Another big part of the Moon Festival is lighting lanterns and setting them adrift into the air. Alternatively, carrying them around. You can form and decorate your own lantern. This creates some beautiful views at night when the crowds gather to light them. They can then be hung in parks, in trees, on houses, or basically any other place. Some people write riddles in their lanterns and send them floating for someone else to find and decipher.
A tradition that is starting to wane in our modern society is that of putting a table outside with food sacrifices to venerate the moon. They would place fruit and mooncakes on the table, worshipping the moon and ascribing its honor. This, however, is now most commonly seen only in the old villages. Most importantly, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for families to be together and celebrate unity and love.
Top Places to Be For the Mid-Autumn Festival
Basically, find yourself a place to see the moon! Whether it be on top of a roof, or near a natural spot such as a lake, make sure you have an unobstructed view of this natural night-light. If you happen to be near Beijing, one of the best places to go is the Altar of the Moon in Yuetan Park. Here is where the royalty of ancient dynasties offered sacrifices to the moon, and you can appreciate the light from above while taking in the rich history surrounding the sight. You can also head to Hong Kong to feel the magic of Mid-Autumn Festival there.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a joyous occasion that encourages family togetherness and unity while appreciating the beauty that hangs above us in the sky every night. Taking in this wonderful tradition is a must-do when traveling to China in September. This year the event falls on September 15, so make sure you plan your trip accordingly!
Have you ever experienced the Mid-Autumn Festival?