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The Mid-Autumn Festival is an important traditional festival in China, second only to the Lunar New Year. Also referred to as the Mooncake or Lantern Festival, It constitutes a major celebration in many parts of Asia especially Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also celebrated in many multicultural cities with large Chinese populations in the US, Canada and Australia. To help readers better appreciate and enjoy the associated cultural festivities, here's an easy guide to the Mid-Autumn Festival.
When exactly is the Mid-Autumn Festival?
The Festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar or Chinese calendar when the moon is at its brightest and fullest. This equates to September or early October in the Gregorian calendar. In 2013, the Festival was held on 19 September. It will take place on 8 September in 2014 and goes to 27 September in 2015.
The Festival actually dates back over 3,000 years to the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) in China, where Chinese emperors worshiped the moon. This practice in autumn was based on the belief of a plentiful harvest the next year. The word "mid-autumn" and practice of worshiping and offering sacrifices to the moon on the 15th day of the 8th month appeared in the Zhou Dynasty (1045–770 BC). The festival is also intertwined with the legend of Chang'e, a lady who is believed to live on the moon as a result of swallowing the elixir of eternal life, which transported her there.
Mid-Autumn Festival at Chinatown, Singapore / Photo from Sengkang of Wikimedia Commons
During the Zhou Dynasty, the emperor, top officials and rich families would place offerings such as fruits and snacks on a large table in the middle of their yard under the moon. They usually include watermelons, apples, plums, grapes, and incense. Pomelos replaced watermelons in the Southern part of China. There were no mooncakes then. As time went by the practice of worshiping the moon evolved into a celebration of the moon and mid-autumn.
Sacrifice ceremony at Temple of the Moon / Photo courtesy of China.org.cn
What was Mid-Autumn Festival like in the dynastic era?
The custom of appreciating the moon became prolific during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) where the festival was celebrated by all including the common folks. Rich and poor were able to appreciate the moon together but while the poor simply prayed for a good harvest, the rich merchants and officials celebrated with food, wine, music, dance and poetry. This traditional festival became an official one during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), and continued to hold importance since the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1368 - 1644) dynasties.
Mooncakes (月饼) are traditional Chinese pastries, made from wheat flour with sweet stuffing of lotus seed paste, red bean paste or nuts. They first appeared in the festival during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) when China was under Mongol rule. This Chinese pastry was actually the communication tool for an uprising to overthrow the rule of the Mongols. Liu Bowen, one of the military advisers to the Chinese people's army came up with the idea of using mooncakes by putting notes with the words "Uprising on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival" into the pastry. He then rallied his soldiers to sell the mooncakes to the public as the way of informing everyone without getting caught by the Mongols. This strategy facilitated a huge uprising on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Eating mooncakes every Mid-Autumn Festival actually commemorates that uprising.
Mid-Autumn Festival in BeijingMid-Autumn Festival in Beijing / Photo from Shizhao of Wikimedia Commons
What is the Festival's relevance to Chinese communities today?
Today, this important Chinese festival is a reminder for Chinese families around the world to gather with their loved ones and friends. It is a celebration of family togetherness and harmony. It is also an occasion to indulge in mooncakes, which are specially made for the Festival. In many parts of China, families continue to appreciate the moon after dinner and adjourn to parks where festivities may be organized. Some of the celebratory activities include children making lanterns and walking around with hang-held versions or letting them float on rivers and lakes. There are also versions that rise as the burning candles heat the air in the lantern. The prevalence of information technology has introduced e-greetings and text messages of well wishes during the Festival.
Photo courtesy of Marriott Singapore
Have the mooncakes changed over time?
Mooncakes remain the trademark snack or dessert of the Mid-Autumn Festival and is a symbol of family reunion. Eating them is an important and enjoyable way of celebrating the day. The traditional recipes are still available with the most classic flavor being the 'Five Kernel and Roast Pork' (五仁叉烧) filled with a variety of nuts and roast pork. There's also the thick and sweet 'Red Bean Paste' (红豆沙) and more expensive and most common 'Lotus Seed Paste' (莲蓉) of Cantonese origin. All these mooncakes are round baked pastry with golden brown crust encasing dense fillings. Their fillings can also include a salted egg yolk or more. To accommodate the changing palates, many modern varieties have appeared in the market over the years. A glutinous rice skin version has been introduced and fillings now range from sweet to savory and contain mousse, custard, ice cream, green tea powder, coconut, dates, minced meat and fruits like durians and apples.
Vietnamese children celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival in a traditional lantern procession / Photo from DHN of Wikimedia Commons
How can I join in the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations?
There are Mid-Autumn Festival activities in many locations with Chinese communities. They can range from small gatherings to large-scale street celebrations. If you're in Northeast and Southeast Asia, there are usually several country and city-wide celebrations supported by tourism authorities. Outside of Asia, the best way to join in a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration is to check with your local Chinatown as the Chinatown associations around the world tend to organise something. Alternatively, check with your local Chinese associations, Chinese Cultural Societies or even the China Embassy and Consulates. If all else fails, try to make some Chinese friends and get invited over for some mooncakes and tea.