Mid-Autumn Festival decorations in Beijing
|Official name||Zhōngqiū Jié (中秋節, 中秋节)|
|Also called||Moon Festival
Peh Goeh Cheh (八月節)
|Observed by||Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese|
|Significance||Celebrates the end of the fall harvest|
|Date||15th day of the 8th lunar month|
|2012 date||September 30|
|2013 date||September 19|
|2014 date||September 8|
|Observances||Consumption of mooncakes
Worship of deities (Chang'e)
|Related to||Tết Trung Thu, Chuseok|
|Vietnamese||Tết Trung Thu|
The Mid-Autumn Festival (traditional Chinese: 中秋節; simplified Chinese: 中秋节; pinyin: zhōngqiū jié; Vietnamese: Tết Trung Thu) is a popular harvest festival celebrated by Chinese and Vietnamese people. The festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, during a full moon, which is in September or early October in the Gregorian calendar, close to the autumnal equinox. The Government of the People's Republic of China listed the festival as an "intangible cultural heritage" in 2006, and it was made a Chinese public holiday in 2008. It is also a public holiday in Taiwan. Among the Vietnamese, it is considered the second most important holiday tradition.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is also known by other names, such as:
- Moon Festival, because of the celebration's association with the full moon on this night, as well as the traditions of moon worship and moon gazing.
- Mooncake Festival, because of the popular tradition of eating mooncakes on this occasion.
- Zhongqiu Festival
- Lantern Festival, a term sometimes used in Singapore and Malaysia, which is not to be confused with the Lantern Festival in China that occurs on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese calendar.
- Reunion Festival, because in olden times, women in China would take the occasion to visit her parents before returning to celebrate with her husband and his parents.
- Children's Festival, in Vietnam, because of the emphasis on the celebration of children.
Meanings of the festival
The festival consists of three fundamental meanings which are closely tied to one another:
- gathering, such as family and friends coming together, or harvesting crops
- thanksgiving, to give thanks for the harvest, or for harmonious unions
- praying (asking for conceptual or material satisfaction), such as for babies, a spouse, beauty, longevity, or for a good future
Traditions and myths surrounding the festival are formed around these three meanings, although traditions have changed over time due to changes in technology, science, economy, culture, and religion.
Origins and development
The Chinese have celebrated the harvest during the autumn full moon since the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th to 10th century BCE). Morris Berkowitz, who studied the Hakka people during the 1960s, theorizes that the harvest celebration originally began with worshiping Mountain Gods after the harvest was completed. The celebration as a festival only started to gain popularity during 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. The term mid-autumn (中秋) first appeared in Rites of Zhou, a written collection of rituals of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE).
Empress Dowager Cixi (late 19th century) enjoyed celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival so much that she would spend the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth day of the eighth month staging elaborate rituals.
For the Vietnamese, in its most ancient form, the evening commemorated the dragon who brought rain for the crops. Celebrants would observe the moon to divine the future of the people and harvests. Eventually the celebration came to symbolize a reverence for fertility, with prayers given for bountiful harvests, increase in livestock, and human babies. Over time, the prayers for children evolved into a celebration of children. Confucian scholars continued the tradition of gazing at the moon, but to sip wine and improvise poetry and song. By the early twentieth century in Hanoi, the festival had begun to assume its identity as a children's festival.
An important part of the festival celebration is moon worship. The ancient Chinese believed in rejuvenation being associated with the moon and water, and connected this concept to the menses of women, calling it "monthly water". The Zhuang people, for example, have an ancient fable saying the sun and moon are a couple and the stars are their children, and when the moon is pregnant, it becomes round, and then becomes crescent after giving birth to a child. These beliefs made it popular among women to worship and give offerings to the moon on this evening. In some areas of China, there are still customs in which "men don't worship the moon and the women don't offer sacrifices to the kitchen gods."
Offerings are also made to a more well-known lunar deity, Chang'e, known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality. The myths associated with Chang'e explain the origin of moon worship during this day. One version of the story is as follows, as described in Lihui Yang's Handbook of Chinese Mythology:
In the ancient past, there was a hero named [Hou] Yi who was excellent at shooting. His wife was Chang'e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang'e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang'e keep the elixir. But Feng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Feng Meng broke into Yi's house and forced Chang'e to give the elixir to him. Chang'e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband very much and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang'e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang'e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.
Yang describes another version of the tale which provides a different reason for Chang'e ascending to the moon:
After the hero Houyi shot down nine of the ten suns, he was pronounced king by the thankful people. However, he soon became a conceited and tyrannical ruler. In order to live long without death, he asked for the elixir from Xiwangmu. But his wife, Chang'e, stole it on the fifteenth of August because she did not want the cruel king to live long and hurt more people. She took the magic potion to prevent her husband from becoming immortal. Houyi was so angry when discovered that Chang'e took the elixir, he shot at his wife as she flew toward the moon, though he missed. Chang'e fled to the moon and became the spirit of the moon. Houyi died soon because he was overcome with great anger. Thereafter, people offer a sacrifice to Chang'e on every lunar fifteenth of August to commemorate Chang'e's action.
The festival was a time to enjoy the successful reaping 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, a symbol of harmony and unity. The festival is celebrated with many cultural or regional customs, among them:
- Burning incense in reverence to deities including Chang'e.
- Performance of dragon and lion dances, which is mainly practiced in southern China and Vietnam.
A notable part of celebrating the holiday is the carrying of brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, or floating sky lanterns. One tradition involving lanterns, dēng mí (simplified Chinese: 灯谜; traditional Chinese: 燈謎), is to write riddles on lanterns and have other people try to guess the answers.
It is difficult to discern the original purpose of lanterns in connection to the festival, but it is certain that lanterns were not used in conjunction with moon-worship prior to the Tang Dynasty. Traditionally, the lantern has been used to symbolize fertility, and functioned mainly as a toy and decoration. But today the lantern has come to symbolize the festival itself. In the old days, lanterns were made in the image of natural things, myths, and local cultures. Over time, a greater variety of lanterns could be found as local cultures became influenced by their neighbors.
As China gradually evolved from an agrarian society to a mixed agrarian-commercial one, traditions from other festivals began to be transmitted into the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as the putting of lanterns on rivers to guide the spirits of the drowned as practiced during the Ghost Festival, which is observed a month before. Hong Kong fishermen during the Qing Dynasty, for example, would put up lanterns on their boats for the Ghost Festival and keep the lanterns up until Mid-Autumn Festival.
In Vietnam, children participate in parades with lanterns of various forms and colors. Traditionally, lanterns signified the wish for the sun's light and warmth to return after winter. In addition to carrying lanterns, the children also don masks. Elaborate masks were made of papier-mâché, though it is more common to find masks made of plastic nowadays. Handcrafted shadow lanterns were an important part of Mid-Autumn displays since the 12th-century Ly dynasty, often of historical figures from Vietnamese history. Handcrafted lantern-making declined in modern times due to the availability of mass-produced plastic lanterns, which often depict internationally recognized figures such as Pokemon's Pikachu and Hello Kitty.
Making and sharing mooncakes is one of the hallmark traditions of this festival. In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and unity. Thus, the sharing of round mooncakes among family members signify the completeness and unity of families. In some areas of China, there is a tradition of making mooncakes during the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The senior person in that household would cut the mooncakes into pieces and distribute them to each family member, signifying family reunion. In contemporary times, however, making mooncakes at home has given way to the more popular custom of giving mooncakes to family members, although the meaning of maintaining familial unity remains.
Although typical mooncakes can be around a few inches in diameter, imperial chefs have made some as large as several feet in diameter, with its surface impressed with designs of Chang'e, cassia trees, or the Moon-Palace. 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.
According to Chinese folklore, a Turpan businessman offered cakes to Emperor Taizong of Tang in his victory against the Xiongnu on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. Taizong took the round cakes and pointed to the moon with a smile, saying, "I'd like to invite the toad to enjoy the hú (胡) cake." After sharing the cakes with his ministers, the custom of eating these hú cakes spread throughout the country. Eventually these became known as mooncakes. Although the legend explains the beginnings of mooncake-giving, its popularity and ties to the festival began during the Song Dynasty (906–1279 CE).
Another popular legend concerns the Han Chinese's uprising against the ruling Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty (1280–1368 CE), in which the Han Chinese used traditional mooncakes to conceal the message that they were to rebel on Mid-Autumn Day.
Other foods and food displays
Imperial dishes served on this occasion included nine-jointed lotus roots which symbolize peace, and watermelons cut in the shape of lotus petals which symbolize reunion. Teacups were placed on stone tables in the garden, where the family would pour tea and chat waiting for the moment when the full moon's reflection appeared in the center of their cups.
Food offerings made to deities are placed on an altar set up in the courtyard, including apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, melons, oranges, and pomelos. One of the first decorations purchased for the celebration table is a clay statue of the Jade Rabbit. Offerings of yellow beans and cockscomb flowers were made to the Jade Rabbit.
In Vietnam, cakes and fruits are not only consumed, but elaborately prepared as food displays. For example, glutinous rice flour and rice paste are molded into familiar animals. Pomelo sections can be fashioned into unicorns, rabbits, or dogs. Villagers of Xuân La, just south of Hanoi, produce tò he, figurines made from rice paste and colored with natural food dyes. Into the early decades of the twentieth century of Vietnam, daughters of wealthy families would prepare elaborate centerpieces filled with treats for their younger siblings. Well-dressed visitors could visit to observe the daughter's handiwork as an indication of her capabilities as a wife in the future. Eventually the practice of arranging centerpieces became a tradition not just limited to wealthy families.
Courtship and matchmaking
The Mid-Autumn moon has traditionally been a choice occasion to celebrate marriages. Girls would pray to Chang'e to help fulfill their romantic wishes.
In some parts of China, dances are held for young men and women to find partners. For example, young women are encouraged to throw their handkerchiefs to the crowd, and the young man who catches and returns the handkerchief has a chance at romance. In Daguang, in northeast Guizhou Province, young men and women of the Dong people would make an appointment at a certain place. The young women would arrive early to overhear remarks made about them by the young men. The young men would praise their lovers in front of their fellows, in which finally the listening women would walk out of the thicket. Pairs of lovers would go off to a quiet place to open their hearts to each other.
Into the early decades of the twentieth century Vietnam, young men and women used the festival as a chance to meet future life companions. Groups would assemble in a courtyard and exchange verses of song while gazing at the moon. Those who performed poorly were sidelined until one young man and one young woman remained, after which they would win prizes as well as entertain matrimonial prospects.
Games and activities
During the 1920s and 1930s, ethnographer Chao Wei-pang conducted research on traditional games among men, women and children on or around the 15th of the eighth month in the Guangdong Province. These games relate to flights of the soul, spirit possession, or fortunetelling.
- One type of activity, "Ascent to Heaven" (Chinese: 上天堂) involves a young lady selected from a circle of women to "ascend" into the celestial realm. While being enveloped in the smoke of burning incense, she describes the beautiful sights and sounds she encounters.
- Another activity, "Descent into the Garden" (lohuayuan), played among younger girls, detailed each girl's visit to the heavenly gardens. According to legend, a flower tree represented her, and the number and color of the flowers indicated the sex and number of children she would have in her lifetime.
- Men played a game called "Descent of the Eight Immortals" (jiangbaxian), where one of the Eight Immortals took possession of a player, who would then assume the role of a scholar or warrior.
- Children would play a game called "Encircling the Toad" (guanxiamo), where the group would form a circle around a child chosen to be a Toad King and chanted a song that transformed the child into a toad. He would jump around like a toad until water was sprinkled on his head, in which he would then stop.
Practices by region and cultures
In Taiwan, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a public holiday. Outdoor barbecues have become a popular affair for friends and family to gather and enjoy each other's company. As of 2011, Taipei City designated 11 riverside parks to accommodate outdoor barbecues for the public.
Ethnic minorities in China
- Korean minorities living in China near Changbai Mountain have a custom of welcoming the moon, where they put up a large conical house frame made of dry pine branches and call it a "moon house". The moonlight would shine inside for gazers to appreciate.
- The Bouyei people call the occasion "Worshiping Moon Festival", where 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".
The Mid-Autumn festival is named "Tết Trung Thu" in Vietnamese. It is also known as Children's Festival because of the event's emphasis on children. In olden times, the Vietnamese believed that children, being innocent and pure, had the closest connection to the sacred and natural world. Being close to children was seen as a way to connect with animist spirits and deities.
Aside from the story of Chang'e (Vietnamese: Hằng Nga), there are two other popular folktales associated with the festival. The first describes the legend of Cuội, whose wife accidentally urinated on a sacred banyan tree. The tree began to float towards the moon, and Cuội, trying to pull it back down to earth, floated to the moon with it, leaving him stranded there. Every year, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, children light lanterns and participate in a procession to show Cuội the way back to Earth. The other tale involves a carp who wanted to become a dragon, and as a result, worked year in and year out until he was able to transform himself into a dragon.
One important event before and during the festival are lion dances. Dances are performed by both non-professional children's groups and trained professional groups. Lion dance groups perform on the streets, going to houses asking for permission to perform for them. If the host consents, the "lion" will come in and start dancing as a blessing of luck and fortune for the home. In return, the host gives lucky money to show their gratitude.
In the Philippines, Filipino-Chinese celebrate the evening and exchange mooncakes with all Filipinos friends, families, and neighbors. A game of chance, known as the mooncake dice game, or simply mooncake game, is also played by both Filipino-Chinese and Filipinos alike.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar—essentially the night of a full moon—which is in September or early October in the Gregorian calendar. In 2012 the Mid-Autumn Festival fell on September 30. It will occur on these days in coming years:
- 2013: September 19
- 2014: September 8
- 2015: September 27
- 2016: September 15
- 2017: October 4
- 2018: September 24
- 2019: September 13
- 2020: October 1
- 2021: September 21
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Mid-Autumn Festival|
- Chinese holidays
- Vietnamese holidays
- List of harvest festivals
- Chuseok, the Korean autumn harvest festival
- Tsukimi, the Japanese autumn harvest festivals
- Agriculture in China
- Agriculture in Vietnam
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