According to the Chinese lunar calendar, tomorrow will be the fifteenth day of the eight month, signifying the mid-point of autumn under a full moon.
Along with the Spring Festival, the rite of mid-autumn has been a sacred date on the calendar since ancient times in China. To this day, the traditions of ‘Zhong-qiu-jie中秋节’ continue as strongly as ever.
There are a few age old legends associated with Mid-Autumn, like that of Chang-e嫦娥 and Hou Yi后羿, or the Jade Rabbit玉兔. Like many English children’s tales, there are variations on the same story, but I would like to quote Travelchinaguide.com (Link to page only) for their good renditions at the bottom of this post.
I’d also love to share the Song Dynasty poem ‘When will the bright moon shine明月几时有’ later in this post. The lyrics evoke the legend of Chang-e, and gracefully compare the human desire to unite with loved ones with the moon phases. Not only is the work deeply touching, but many familiar with Chinese music might now the popular rendition by Faye Wong, which I will also prepare for you.
Ask anyone in China about Mid-Autumn, and mooncakes will be the word that most comes to mind.
In the month leading up to the festival, supermarkets will have set out huge piles of extravagant looking boxes full of mass produced mooncakes, and which customers buy as gifts for family, friends and business relations.
However, mooncakes are not so difficult to bake at home, as long as you have the right equipment. Since my wife tried her hand at the Thermomix machine early last year, we have done exactly that.
Advantages of doing this include health benefits, as you can make them from fresher ingredients without any artificial preservatives.
Also, it’s a way of involving family more closely with the festival, and home baked mooncakes are perceived as a more genuinely heartfelt gift due to the personal time, care and effort needed to make them well.
Traditionally, mooncakes have a salted egg yolk at the centre, and a thick filling of lotus or black bean paste covered by a thin layer of pastry.
There are some modern alternatives to the traditional recipe. For example, many of the well known coffee shop brands sell jellied versions with a variety of sweet coloured fillings, while some Chinese street bakeries also stock their freezers with ice-cream mooncakes.
At the end of the day, once the eve of Mid-Autumn arrives, families do their best reunite for the three day long weekend holiday, in the spirit of Chang-e and Hou Yi.
This year, we are perhaps a little guilty of breaking the Mid-Autumn spirit by staying in Chongqing, rather than driving up north to Hechuan, where many of the Chinese side of the family live. Interestingly, there are advantages to staying behind.
For millions who live in Chongqing, the city is not actually their ancestral home, so whenever the opportunity to return home or go on a driving holiday comes around, masses of people cram the roads and surrounding motorways. Usually, the busiest times you want to avoid are both the first day and previous evening, when everybody leaves the city, and then the final day, when the same mass of people get to experience the madness coming back in.
The advantages of staying behind are obvious. Not only can you spare yourself the ordeal of motorway gridlock, you have virtually free reign of the city, in the sense you can do whatever you like with barely any traffic or crowding.
In fact, while numerous acquaintances on Wechat posted photographs at a standstill on the roads, we relaxed over a quiet pedicure close to home.
The Legend of Chang-e and Hou Yi
‘Chang-e Flying to the Moon’ is the most widely told Mid-Autumn Festival legend. It is said that in ancient times, ten suns existed in the sky and the extreme heat made people’s lives very difficult. It was the hero Hou Yi, who, owing to his great strength, shot down nine of the ten suns. Later, Hou Yi married a beautiful and kind-hearted woman named Chang-e and lived a happy life.
One day, the Queen of Heaven presented Hou Yi an elixir which, if took, would help him to ascend immediately to heaven and become a god. Hou Yi took it home and asked Chang E to keep it. Unfortunately, a villain named Pengmeng彭梦 learnt about it, broke into their home, and demanded Chang-e hand over the elixir while Hou Yi was out hunting. In a moment of desperation, Chang E swallowed the elixir herself. Reluctant to leave her husband, Chang-e flew to the nearest place in the heavens, the moon. Houyi missed Chang-e greatly, so he prepared Chang-e’s favourite foods on each full moon. This custom was later followed by folk people praying for good luck from the Goddess Chang-e, and gradually formed the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The Jade Rabbit
The Mid-Autumn Festival rabbit story goes about that three immortals reincarnated themselves into three poor old people and begged food from a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. The fox and monkey both gave food to the immortals. However, the rabbit did not have any. Instead, it told the immortals: “you can eat me” and jumped into the fire. The immortals were so moved they sent it to the moon to become the immortal Jade Rabbit. Since that day, the Chinese Jade Rabbit stayed in the Moon Palace月宫 to accompany Chang-e, and pounded medicines of immortality for those living in the heavens.
The Mooncake Uprising
This is a Mid-Autumn Festival legend that really happened. In the late Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD), people in many parts of the country could not bear the cruel rule of the government and rose up in revolt. Zhu Yuanzhang朱元璋, founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), united various resistance forces in order to organize an uprising. However, due to strict searches by the government, it was very difficult to pass messages. The counselor Liu Bowen刘伯温 later had the great idea of hiding notes with the message “Rise up on the night of Mid-Autumn” in moon cakes. The uprising turned out to be very successful, and Zhu was so happy that he awarded his subjects with moon cakes on the following Mid-Autumn Festival. Since then, eating moon cakes has been a custom on Mid-Autumn Festival.
Song Dynasty Mid-Autumn Poetry
When will the bright moon shine? 明月几时有
The immortal Song Dynasty poet Su Shi苏轼 lived in the eleventh century AD, and it is he who composed this incredibly elegant poem dedicated to Mid-Autumn.
Much later, the famous Chinese singer Faye Wong王菲 released a touching and catching song that features only the poem lyrics. I will record the song and post the video for you to enjoy shortly.
For you Mandarin learners out there, don’t worry if you find the Chinese lyrics almost impossible to understand. The poem is almost a millenium old, so the way the language is expressed today is much different. Like the way we need modern day explanationss to understand the original works of Shakespeare, Chinese students often need modern day language to decipher the meanings of these ancient passages.
Try reading this good translation of the poem, then enjoy the song based on it. I have also included some artistic drawings that feature the poem lyrics, in both shorthand and more regular characters. There is also a portrait of the peot Su Shi himself originating from his lifetime.
How rare the moon, so round and clear!
With cup in hand, I ask of the blue sky,
“I do not know in the celestial sphere
What name this festive night goes by?”
I want to fly home, riding the air,
But fear the ethereal cold up there,
The jade and crystal mansions are so high!
Dancing to my shadow,
I feel no longer the mortal tie.
She rounds the vermilion tower,
Stoops to silk-pad doors,
Shines on those who sleepless lie.
Why does she, bearing us no grudge,
Shine upon our parting, reunion deny?
But rare is perfect happiness
The moon does wax, the moon does wane,
And so men meet and say goodbye.
I only pray our life be long,
And our souls together
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