Nearly every culture in the world has a traditional celebration falling on or near the spring and fall solstices. China is no different, and this year will officially observe its annual harvest season holiday — known as Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) — on Monday, September 24. The holiday culminates with festivities held under a full moon.
Traditionally, Mid-Autumn Festival was held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. That changed slightly in 2008, when the Chinese government first recognized it nationally. The festival is no longer a one-day affair, and this year covers the weekend before the actual date.
A bit of history
There is no hard and fast evidence of when people in China began celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival. Some scholars believe the tradition dates back to the Shang Dynasty three millennia ago. The term 'mid-autumn' made its first appearance in the Chinese literary canon during the Western Zhou Dynasty, finding its way into a compendium of then-current court rituals 3,000 years ago.
Regardless of its provenance, the festival is associated with the end of summer, the beginning of fall, and the final harvest of the year. Because ancient China's calendar was a lunar one, many of the customs surrounding Mid-Autumn Festival revolve around the moon.
The influence of Daoism
In Daoism, the Goddess of the Moon is named Chang'e (嫦娥), an immortal who lives on the moon accompanied by her companion, the potion-brewing Jade Rabbit (玉兔). Traditionally during Mid-Autumn Festival, people would make offerings of food and drink to Chang'e, often from outdoor alters open to the night sky. Such sacrifices were equal parts thanks for a bountiful harvest and a request for a plentiful growing season during the next year.
The full moon plays a major part in all aspects of Mid-Autumn Festival. Its roundness represents the cyclical nature of both life and agricultural growing seasons, as well as concepts of family unity, togetherness and inclusion. Unlike many other Chinese holidays — where people go to great lengths to venerate and even placate the dead — Mid-Autumn Festival is primarily concerned with the living.
A family affair
In the past, as Mid-Autumn Festival approached, separated family members would, if at all possible, make their way home to be with their relatives. Once there, they would enjoy communal meals and spend time together gazing at the moon. Those who could not return to their ancestral villages sought solace in the fact that if they looked to the moon, they at least knew their distant loved ones were doing the same.
Down through the generations, because so many people invariably did not have chances to visit their relatives, Mid-Autumn Festival became tinged with feelings of nostalgia and longing. This is perhaps best epitomized by the verse A Sentimental Night (静夜思), written 1,300 years ago by one of China's greatest poets and noted drinker, Li Bai (李白):
Translating ancient Chinese poetry into another language is a difficult endeavor even for scholars. Cadence, rhyme, implied movement and emotion can all easily be lost. We will spare you our efforts. However, the general outline of A Sentimental Night is that of a man, far from his family, who looks down at the moonlight shining on the foot of his bed and imagines it to be frost. He then looks up at the moon before resting his head in his hands and thinking of home.
Modern day traditions
In many senses, Mid-Autumn Festival is much less formal than other holidays. Observance does not necessitate a ritual trip to a temple or a graveyard — although some families do incorporate one or both of these activities. More commonly, relatives gather, as on all Chinese festival days, and eat. In fact, the most important act a family can perform during Mid-Autumn Festival might be dining together.
Common snacks include roasted chestnuts, boiled peanuts and dishes made with corn — all of which signify a bountiful harvest season. Typically, family favorites are served, with the only universally consumed fare being mooncakes — called yuebing (月饼) in Chinese. These stuffed delicacies, usually only eaten on or near Mid-Autumn Festival, are round like a full moon and carry with them the same related ideas of completeness and unity.
Today, mooncakes come in nearly every variety and flavor one could imagine, from sweet to savory and all combinations in between. Prices also now range from affordable to downright extortionate, depending on what is baked inside. However, in the past, flavors were a bit more limited, although they varied greatly from province to province. In Yunnan, a more traditional mooncake would contain sugary ham, while a Cantonese speciality would consist of lotus seed paste baked with duck egg yolk.
The importance of lanterns
Another important practice from Mid-Autumn Festival is hanging paper lanterns. While not as widely practiced as eating mooncakes, this activity has also become heavily commodified. Despite being used as a ploy in advertising, it too has its roots in more prosaic customs.
Characteristically, families would congregate in parks or other public places after dinner and hang lanterns from trees. A hand-written riddle would be placed inside the light or be attached dangling from the bottom. Children who could properly answer the query from their selected lantern would receive small prizes.
That tradition continues today, but releasing lanterns has become another common custom. Such activities usually involve placing lit vessels into bodies of water or flying airborne lights that resemble balloons floating into the evening sky. Letting these lanterns go is often accompanied by a wish involving family health or prosperity.
Getting out into an open space at night serves another purpose, that of simply gazing at the moon. This undemanding act is a time-honored part of Mid-Autumn Festival. Families will sit together and contemplate the moon, savoring the company of those around them and thinking of relatives or loved ones in far away places.
Mid-Autumn Festival in Yunnan
People from the 25 different minority groups in Yunnan vary widely in their observations of Mid-Autumn Festival. Some follow Han customs fairly closely, while others have incorporated parts of their own traditional harvest celebrations to coincide with China's national observance of the holiday.
For example, for the Miao of southwestern Yunnan, releasing lanterns is an important part of their autumnal customs. Elaborately colored paper boats with candlelit lamps as a centerpiece are gently floated into rivers and streams as an offering of thanks for a bountiful agricultural season.
This tradition is accompanied by music and dancing, the melody normally kept by musicians playing the lusheng, a many-tubed woodwind instrument made of bamboo. Minority groups scattered south of the Red River in Yunnan hold similar riverside ceremonies as those of the Miao.
In the province's mountainous northwest, the Naxi people traditionally made sacrificial offerings to give thanks for a good crop. Ceremonies are presided over by local priests, called dongba. Grains are scattered over a sacred point and — more often in the past than today — livestock are slaughtered and collectively prepared and eaten by neighboring farm families. The above are only two of the myriad traditions held each fall in Yunnan under a full moon. But they do show at least some of the vast cultural variety that exists in China's most diverse province.
Editor's note: GoKunming would like to extend special thanks to long-time friend Fanfan for her invaluable help in writing this article. Enjoy the moon, and happy Mid-Autumn Festival!
Top image: Reader's Digest
Chang'e image: ZhiDIY
Daoism image: The Greater Course
Li Bai painting: Penn State University
Mooncake image: Legacy of Taste
Lantern string image: Kickstarter
Lahu women image: Global Times
River lantern image: Xinhua
Shen Zhou painting: Alain R Truong