The Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival celebrated by ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese people. The festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese Han calendar and Vietnamese calendar (within 15 days of the autumnal equinox), on the night of the full moon between early September to early October of the Gregorian calendar.
Mainland China listed the festival as an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006 and a 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 or Harvest 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. · Zhōngqiū Festival, the official name in pinyin.
The festival celebrates three fundamental concepts which are closely tied to one another:
· Gathering, such as family and friends coming together, or harvesting crops for the festival.
· 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 concepts, although traditions have changed over time due to changes in technology, science, economy, culture, and religion.
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’sHandbook of Chinese Mythology:
In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. 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 Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng 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 very much her husband 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.
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.