Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! 中秋节快乐！
Mid-Autumn festival is the annual celebration of the autumn harvest held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese calendar (today in the Western calendar). The festival is always held under a full harvest moon and is traditionally a time for family gatherings, thanksgiving and prayer.
The Chinese have been celebrating the autumn harvest for thousands of years, but it only gained widespread popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). The celebration is a thanks for prosperity and was originally a form of moon worship. The ancient Chinese observed that the movement of the moon had a close relationship with changes of the seasons and agricultural production and so to express their thanks to the moon and celebrate the harvest, they offered a sacrifice to the moon on autumn days. The moon was also associated with rejuvenation.
Traditionally offerings of food in honour of the moon were the norm, but today the more common practices involve burning incense, dragon dances, the display of lanterns and the making and sharing of moon cakes. It is actually one of the most beautiful nocturnal celebrations I can think of as hundreds of people walk the beaches and streets with stunning lanterns and candles; it is very romantic.
The main food associated with mid-autumn festival is the Mooncake (月餅 yuèbĭng). Mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter that are about 4–5 cm thick. They consist of a thin, tender pastry skin enveloping a sweet, dense filling, and may contain one or more whole salted egg yolks in their center as the symbol of the full moon. Traditional fillings for moon cakes include: lotus seed paste (蓮蓉, lían róng), sweet bean paste (豆沙, dòu shā), date paste (棗泥, zǎo ní), or nuts and seeds that is known as “5 Kernel” (五仁, wǔ rén). The crusts of mooncakes depends on where they are made; the one thing they all have in common is their use of lard in their recipes (if you haven’t guessed it already, moon cakes are not light!). The three types of crust are Chewy (this is the most common type of crust used in Cantonese moon cakes), Flaky (popular in Taiwan this pastry is similar to puff pastry) and Tender (similar to western short crust).
As mooncakes are so hard to make, it is now very common for people to go and buy theirs instead of making them. Moon cakes are actually used by many Chinese businessmen as status symbols and will quite often give expensive cakes to their colleagues (luxury boxes of mooncakes can cost up to $1000). But, interestingly in August of this year, the Chinese Communist Party’s central discipline committee prohibited the use of public funds to purchase mooncakes during this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival expressing the belief that decadent styles have polluted the festival’s culture in recent years with the sending of increasingly extravagant gifts.
According to one popular oral tradition, mooncakes were used to restore Chinese rule in the 13th or 14th century— a time when China was in revolt against Mongolian rule. A rebel, General Chu Yuen Chang, and his Senior Deputy, Liu Po Wen, had devised a strategy to recapture a walled city held by the Mongols. Disguised as a Taoist priest, Liu entered the city distributing mooncakes to the populace. Then on mid-autumn festival the mooncakes were sliced and found to contain instructions to coordinate a civilian uprising with the attack of Chinese troops outside the walls. The successful dissemination of battle and the subsequent victory over the northern “barbarians” eventually established Chu as Emperor of China.
Another myth that is popularly associated with mooncake festival is that of the Lady of the Moon, Chang’e. Chang’e was a beautiful woman married to Hou Yi, a skilled archer and great general of the Imperial Guard. One day, at the behest of the Emperor, the general shot down nine of ten suns that had mysteriously appeared in the heavens that morning. He was richly rewarded for his marksmanship by the Emperor but, fearing that the suns would re-appear and dry up the earth, they prayed to Wang Mu, the Goddess of Heaven, asking that General Hou be made an immortal, so that he could continue to defend the nation for all eternity. The goddess granted them their wish, and General Hou was given an immortality elixir. The story then has two alternative endings. In the first, Chang’e, to protect the immortality elixir from a conniving underling of her husband who would use it for ill, takes the elixir and flees to the moon. In the alternative version, the people made Hou Yi king after shooting down the suns, but as time passed he became evil and tyrannical. To protect the people of China, Chang’e stole the immortality elixir and fled to the moon to keep it out of the reach of her husband.
Though this is not a happy story of two lovers, in either version, the mooncake festival was traditionally also a time for courtship and matchmaking. Under the full moon young men and women could meet, dance, and exchange mooncakes. Many girls pray to the spirit of Chang’e in hopes of finding their future husband.
I didn’t do anything particularly traditional for the festival, besides eating one obligatory mooncake. In the past three years, the school always gifted the foreign teachers mooncakes, but it seems is year the Foreign Affairs Office decided to be choosy. They only picked a handful of teachers to give mooncakes to. Nevertheless, Sara and Sandro aren’t fans, so they happily gave Jason and I their mooncakes.
Finally, here’s a very condensed Chinese lesson for all who may be interested or intrigued.
Mid Autumn Festival: 中秋节快乐
中 (middle/centre) zhōng/zhong1
秋 (autumn) qiū/giu1
节 (festival) jié/jie2
快乐 (happy) kuài lè/kuai4 le4