Since time immemorial civilizations the world over have celebrated the harvest season that arrives with the autumn equinox and it's no less true in China, though, here, unlike in most western countries, the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiū Jié, 中秋节) is a national holiday affair, which means a much-appreciated long weekend for anyone working in the PRC.
Back at school in England, I remember Harvest Festival as the time when each class would put together a hamper of food to be given to the elderly at a local old folks home. It was a time of giving and a time to be thankful for all that we had, but for me that hamper was pretty much where it ended; a few tins of Campbell's condensed soup and maybe a packet of biscuits. The Mid-Autumn Festival in China, however, is no such small-fry affair.
Harvest, health and happiness
Mid-Autumn Festival is all about harvest, health and happiness and is a time to celebrate being with family. Sons and daughters will do their best to make it back to their homes to celebrate with their parents and if they cannot, you can be sure they'll be gazing wistfully at the moon content in the knowledge that the same orb shines down on both them and their kin.
[pullquote]The Mid-Autumn Festival corresponds with the full moon on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which in 2012 falls on September 30th of the solar calendar[/pullquote]The Mid-Autumn Festival in China (and across Asia) falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Its history goes back 3,000 years, to the long ago days of the Shang Dynasty when peasants and farmers across the land would celebrate the arrival of the full moon and the coming harvest season it heralded. Villagers would get together and feast on mooncakes and watermelon and other fresh fruits, look up at the moon and pray for a good harvest. Come the Tang and Song Dynasty, these traditions had permeated up through society to the rich and the wealthy, whose banquet tables would creak under the weight of myriad delicacies and fine wines to be enjoyed while listening to traditional Chinese music and gazing at the beauty of the moon. By the time the Song Dynasty arrived, autumn moon watching was in full swing with families flocking to night markets together to enjoy the lunar magic and poets pumping out poetry and verse like their lives depended on it.
The woman in the moon
Like any great festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival has a number of myths and legends surrounding it and those legends, of course, often range into the world of the gods and immortals. In this case, Houyi the Archer (Hòu Yì, 后羿) and beautiful Chang'e (Cháng'é, 嫦娥), the moon goddess. There are many variations on the story but the basic gist is that the immortals Houyi and Chang'e were banished from Heaven to eke out a living on Earth.
Here they stayed until one day, Houyi was called upon by the the ruler of Heaven, the Jade Emperor (Yù Dì, 玉帝). The 10 sunbirds who usually took it in turns to circle the globe with the flaming sun carriage in tow, had, for reasons unknown, taken to the skies together. The intense heat of 10 suns was burning the Earth and Houyi was ordered to shoot down all but one of the birds. As reward for his efforts he was given a pill of immortality which he locked away and told Chang'e never to touch. But like other infamously curiously females poor Chang'e couldn't resist a peek inside the box and, after swallowing the pill, she discovered she could fly. To escape Houyi's anger she flew all the way to the moon where she now resides with the Jade Rabbit in a great cosmic apothecary making the elixir of life for the gods.
You are probably wondering what the heck rabbits have got to do with anything, this is not Easter after all, but like our Man in the Moon, the mythical Chinese Moon Rabbit or Jade Rabbit is part of ancient folklore and can be seen (with a keen eye and little imagination) in the shadows of the the full moon, pounding away at a pestle and mortar.
Mooncakes and more...
Though there are as many regional variations on Mid-Autumn traditions as their are regions in China, eating mooncakes (yuè bĭng, 月饼) and offering them to family, friends and colleagues is one custom that is shared by all. Symbolizing reunion, mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries which, though traditionally filled with a thick lotus seed paste and salted duck egg, today come in all kinds of sweet and savory varieties. They are labor intensive to make so people generally buy them in bulk, fueling a massive mooncake industry with prices ranging from USD 10 to USD 50 for a box of four and depending on the filling, mooncakes can rock up to 800-1200 calories per piece, so think twice before you reach for that extra one!
In addition to symbolizing the moon and being adorned with characters like longevity (chángshòu, 长寿) or harmony (héxié, 和谐) and pictures of the Jade Rabbit or Chang'e, mooncakes also have a place in history as the vessel for communicating the secret messages that coordinated the overthrow of the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty and paved the way for the Ming.
Other common ways to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in China include eating pomelos which come into season in September, fire dragon dances, burning incense and hanging lanterns from bamboo poles and releasing sky lanterns or floating lanterns, all in the silvery glow of the moon.
Wherever you are in China this weekend you are bound to witness some of these things and eat a mooncake or three but but one of the most famous destinations you could choose would be a West Lake plays host to numerous moon viewing pavilions and has inspired some of China's most celebrated lunar literature.
Hangzhou is also home to the Qiantang River tidal bore that surges up the river once a month. With the tides controlled by the moon, this awesome wave reaches a peak during the Mid-Autumn Festival period and is an awesome sight surging up the muddy banks of the downtown river. It's a sight made even more surreal if you catch the group of international pro-surfer flown in each year to surf the "Silver Dragon" as the wave is known locally.