The joyous Mid-Autumn Festival, the third and last festival for the living, was celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, around the time of the autumn equinox. Many referred to it simply as the "Fifteenth of the Eighth Moon". In the Western calendar, the day of the festival usually occurred sometime between the second week of September and the second week ofOctober.
This day was also considered a harvest festival since fruits, vegetables and grain had been harvested by this time and food was abundant. With delinquent accounts settled prior to the festival , it was a time for relaxation and celebration. Food offerings were placed on an altar set up in the courtyard. Apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates , melons, oranges and pomelos might be seen. Special foods for the festival included moon cakes, cooked taro, edible snails from the taro patches or rice paddies cooked with sweet basil, and water caltrope, a type of water chestnut resembling black buffalo horns. Some people insisted that cooked taro be included because at the time of creation, taro was the first food discovered at night in the moonlight. Of all these foods, it could not be omitted from the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The round moon cakes, measuring about three inches in diameter and one and a half inches in thickness, resembled Western fruitcakes in taste and consistency. These cakes were made with melon seeds, lotus seeds, almonds, minced meats, bean paste, orange peels and lard. A golden yolk from a salted duck egg was placed at the center of each cake, and the golden brown crust was decorated with symbols of the festival. Traditionally, thirteen moon cakes were piled in a pyramid to symbolize the thirteen moons of a "complete year," that is, twelve moons plus one intercalary moon.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional festivity for both the Han and minority nationalities. The custom of worshipping the moon (called xi yue in Chinese) can be traced back as far as the ancient Xia and Shang Dynasties (2000 B.C.-1066 B.C.). In the Zhou Dynasty(1066 B.C.-221 B.C.), people hold ceremonies to greet winter and worship the moon whenever the Mid-Autumn Festival sets in. It becomes very prevalent in the Tang Dynasty(618-907 A.D.) that people enjoy and worship the full moon. In the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.), however, people send round moon cakes to their relatives as gifts in expression of their best wishes of family reunion. When it becomes dark, they look up at the full silver moon or go sightseeing on lakes to celebrate the festival. Since the Ming (1368-1644 A.D. ) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911A.D.), the custom of Mid-Autumn Festival celebration becomes unprecedented popular. Together with the celebration there appear some special customs in different parts of the country, such as burning incense, planting Mid-Autumn trees, lighting lanterns on towers and fire dragon dances. However, the custom of playing under the moon is not so popular as it used to be nowadays, but it is not less popular to enjoy the bright silver moon. Whenever the festival sets in, people will look up at the full silver moon, drinking wine to celebrate their happy life or thinking of their relatives and friends far from home, and extending all of their best wishes to them.
There is this story about the moon-cake. during the Yuan dynasty (A.D. 1280-1368) China was ruled by the Mongolian people. Leaders from the preceding Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1280) were unhappy at submitting to the foreign rule, and set how to coordinate the rebellion without being discovered. The leaders of the rebellion, knowing that the Moon Festival was drawing near, ordered the making of special cakes. Backed into each moon caked was a message with the outline of the attack. On the night of the Moon Festival, the rebels successfully attached and overthrew the government. Today, moon cakes are eaten to commemorate this legend and was called the Moon Cake.
For generations, moon cakes have been made with sweet fillings of nuts, mashed red beans, lotus-seed paste or Chinese dates, wrapped in a pastry. Sometimes a cooked egg yolk can be found in the middle of the rich tasting dessert. People compare moon cakes to the plum pudding and fruit cakes which are served in the English holiday seasons.
Nowadays, there are hundreds varieties of moon cakes on sale a month before the arrival of Moon Festival.
Different Celebrated Forms
For thousands of years, the Chinese people have related the vicissitudes of life to changes of the moon as it waxes and wanes; joy and sorrow, parting and reunion. Because the full moon is round and symbolizes reunion, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the festival of reunion. All family members try to get together on this special day. Those who can not return home watch the bright moonlight and feel deep longing for their loved ones.
Today,festivities centered about the Mid-Autumn Festival are more varied. After a family reunion dinner, many people like to go out to attend special perfomances in parks or on public squares.
People in different parts of China have different ways to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. In Guangzhou in South China, a huge lantern show is a big attraction for local citizens. Thousands of differently shaped lanterns are lit, forming a fantastic contrast with the bright moonlight.
In East Chia's Zhejiang Province, watching the flood tide of the Qian-tang River during the Mid-Autumn Festival is not only a must for local peple, but also an attraction for those from other parts of the country. The ebb and flow of tides coincide with the waxing and waning of the moon as it exerts a strong gravitational pull. In mid autumn, the sun, earth and moon send out strong gravitational forces upon the seas. The outh of the Qiantang River is shaped lik a bugle. So the flood tide which forms at the narrow mouth is particularly impressive. Spectators crowd on the river bank,watching the roaring waves. At its peak, the tide rises as high as three and a half meters.
There are many beautiful legends about the moon in China. the most popular one tells how a goddess named Chang'e ascended to the moon.
A long, long time ago, a terrible drought plagued the earth. Ten suns burned fiercely in the sky like smoldering volcanoes. The trees and grass were scorched. The land was cracked and parched, and rivers ran dry. Many people died of hunger and thirst.
The King of Heaven sent Hou Yi down to the earth to help. When Hou Yi arrived, he took out his red bow and white arrows and shot down nine suns one after another. The weather immediately turned cooler. Heavy rains filled the rivers with fresh water and the grass and trees turned green. Life had been restored and humanity was saved.
One day, a charming young woman, Chang'e makes her way home from a stream, holding a bamboo contaiver, A young man comes forward, asking for a drink. When she sees the red bow and white arrows hanging from his belt, Chang'e tealizes that he is their savior, Hou Yi. Inviting him to drink, Chang'e plucks a beautiful flower and gives it to him as a token of respect. Hou Yi, in turn, selects a beautiful silver fox fur as his gift for her. This meeting kindles the spark of their love. And soon after that, they get married.
A mortal's life is limited, of course. So in order to enjoy his happy life with Chang'e forever, Hou Yi decides to look for an elixir of life.He goes to the Kunlun Mountains where the Western Queen Mother lives.
Out of respect for the good deeds the has done, the Western Queen Mother rewards Hou Yi with elixir, a fine powder made from kerndls of fruit which grows on the tree of eternity. At the same time, she tells him:If you and your wife share the elixir, you will both enjoy eternal life. But if only one of you takes it,that one will ascend to Heaven and become immortal.
Hou Yi returns home and tells his wife all that has happened and they decide to drink the elixir together on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month when the moon is full and bright.
A wicked and merciless man named Feng Meng secretly hears about their plan.He wishes Hou Yi an early death so that he can drink the elixir himeslf and become immortal.His opportunity finally arrives. One day,when the full moon is rising, Hou Yi is on his way home from hunting. Feng Meng kills him. The murderer then runs to Hou Yi's home and forces Chang'e to give him the elixir, Without hesitating, Chang'e picks up the elixir and drinks it all.
Overcome with grief, Chang'e rushes to her dead husband's sied, weeping bitterly.Soon the elixir begins to have its effect and Chang'e feels herself being lifted towards Heaven.
Chang'e decides to live on the moon because it is nearest to the earth. There she lives a simple and contented life. Even though she is in Heaven, her heart remains in the world of mortals. Never does she forget the deep love she has for Hou Yi and the love she feels for the people who have shared their sadness and happiness.
Another legend explained the role of the Old Man on the Moon, the Divine Match-maker. The Chinese believed that marriages were made in Heaven but prepared on the moon. The Old Man on the Moon tied the feet of young men and women with red cords for marriage. Thus a maiden made offerings and prayed to him during the Mid-Autumn Festival, hoping that some day she would ride in the red bridal sedan chair.