Celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with Reuters Connect
As people across East Asia prepare to celebrate the popular harvest festival, let us take a look back at its origin.
REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
This autumn, citizens of China and Vietnam will once again gather to celebrate the magical Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival, on September 13th 2019. Hailed as one of the most significant festivals of the year, the celebration marks the end of the harvest and simultaneously, the fullest and brightest moon of the year.
The annual event celebrates three fundamental concepts that are intrinsically linked, with both myths and traditions being formed around these three concepts today: Gathering, thanksgiving and praying.
Celebrating harvest during the autumn full moon is an ancient Chinese tradition dating back to the Shang dynasty (circa 1600–1046 BCE). For the country’s Baiyue peoples, a group of indigenous non-Chinese people who inhabited East China between the first millennium BC and the first millennium AD, harvest time meant honoring the dragon who gifted the area with rain for its crops.
However, it wasn’t until the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) that the celebration gained popularity in a festival format, with Emperor Xuanzong of Tang being the first individual to hold formal celebrations dedicated to the harvest time in his palace.
The choice of the festival’s name, Moon Festival, is no coincidence but rather carries significant meaning for the Chinese and Vietnamese people. In ancient Asian mythology, there is a strong link between the moon and water, going back to the Chinese people’s belief in rejuvenation. The moon is said to enhance fertility, cater to crops and even dictate the Earth’s water supply.
As with many modern traditions, numerous legends preceded the Mid-Autumn Festival, however, to this day, one central legend remains. The festival’s most popular legend tells the story of the lunar deity Chang’e, who, long ago, was married to the great archer Hou Yi. At the time, the Earth had 10 suns, the effects of which caused a terrible drought on Earth.
As a result, the Emperor of Heaven equipped Chang’e’s husband Hou Yi with the task of shooting down 9 of the 10 suns, with only our Sun remaining and hence, preserving life on Earth. After accomplishing the task, the archer was given an elixir of immortality, which he then hid in his home in hopes of sharing it with his wife and acquiring eternal life together.
However, while out hunting, his apprentice Feng Meng, having heard of the elixir’s existence, broke into his home in an attempt to steal the potion for himself. To stop the theft, Chang’e drank the elixir herself and ascended to the Moon, where she still resides and is worshipped by many.
Today, one of the festival’s main activates centers around moon cakes, or the consumption thereof. Chinese mooncakes are round, palm sized cakes consumed, swapped and gifted – often in luxuriously decorated boxes – to family members, friends and clients a week prior to, as well as during the crop harvest festival.
Moon cakes are made with egg yolks and are available with a variety of fillings; the most common being bean paste, lotus seeds, fruits, and at times even meat. The majority of the cakes are round to symbolize the full moon; however, square cakes can also be found. Many feature writing or patterns on top telling their consumer of good fortunes to come.
Though most moon cakes are sweet, savory cakes are also available across East Asia. Modern day fillings such as durian, salted duck eggs, gold flakes and sambal are used to intrigue the seasoned visitor and also up the sale price of the moon box.
The traditions of celebrating the Moon Festival vary from region to region, given China’s large population. In Fujian, for example, local women will cross the Nanpu bridge in order to seek longevity, while in Jiannin, lanterns are hung in an aim to bring about fertility. In Longyan, consumers of moon cakes often dig a hole in the center of the pastry for the elderly, signifying the many secrets that are withheld from the younger generations.
In Vietnam, the Moon Festival is also known as the Children’s Festival and places children at the center of the festivities. Unlike in China, where the emphasis of the celebration still lies on fertility, an abundant harvest and a boost in livestock, in Vietnam, children are regarded as being closest to nature – and it shows, From animal face paintings to traditional, handcrafted toys and decorations, Hanoi’s celebrations are geared towards the younger generation.