Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival
The concept of holiday penetrates into the structure of modern culture deeper and deeper. The expansion of festive culture towards its increasing inclusion into everyday life leads to the enrichment of this sector with new elements, characteristics, features, and attributes. One should not forget the traditional norms that can also be traced to the culture of people. Festive culture is a kind of reflection of diverse social and spiritual processes. One should note that changes take place in the cultural and social life of China, which entails updating the entire system of holidays and culture itself. Some of the Chinese holidays are huge celebrations that involve crowds of people, while others are spent in contemplation in the closed family circle. The second group of holidays is more interesting because they are less popular and they bring more sincere and authentic experiences. This paper overviews one of the family holidays of China – the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Mid-Autumn Festival has many alternative names: Moon Festival, Mooncake Festival (as there is a custom of eating mooncakes on the day), Lantern Festival, or even Children’s Festival (but this is a Vietnamese name of the holiday). Mid-Autumn Festival is the third of the major Chinese holidays, in addition to the New Year and Summer Holiday. This festival has been known in China since ancient times, and it signifies the end of the season of fieldwork, harvesting, and threshing crops. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (Latsch). On the festival’s eve, there is a full moon in the sky and the Chinese say that the full moon on the Mid-Autumn Festival is the most complete and the most beautiful moon during the year.
There are quite a few sources on the Chinese holidays, although the Mid-Autumn Festival is not the most common holiday studied by researchers. Many of the sources on this holiday (same as other Chinese holidays) are written by Western scholars, which leaves its mark on the information provided and the point of view, from which the holiday is seen. At the same time, many oriental scholars provide an overview of the subject from their perspective. The ultimate mixture of two viewpoints is for example seen in the Wells and Chen article, where the Mid-Autumn Festival is compared to Thanksgiving. Authors come to a conclusion that “Moon Festival placed relatively more emphasis on values and responses that constitute the persona” while Thanksgiving “placed relatively more emphasis on values and responses that lurk in the shadow” (Wells and Chen 559).
Some scholars such as Latsch, or Zhiyuan, or Bredon and Mitrophanow do not focus on one separate holiday but provide an overall description of Chinese traditional celebrations. Although such books do not give an in-depth understanding of a particular holiday and do not prepare one to the experiences of the Mid-Autumn Festival, they serve as a good introduction to Chinese culture and traditions. Chinese Traditional Festivals, written by Latsch, tries to provide the first insight into Chinese culture, which is a good way to start exploring the Chinese festivals.
At the same time, there are scholars exploring the Mid-Autumn Festival in modern context. For example, Cai studies how traditional holidays in China are used in the propaganda of nationalism in the country and uses the Moon Festival as an example. Not only does the author provide an overview of the event but also very distinctly describes the feelings people usually experience at this time of the year, such as “poetic nostalgia, poignant romance and abstract philosophical pursuit” (250). Although the primary topic of Cai’s study is not related to this research, the author still provides a well-written overview of the holiday as well as a description of the way in which the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in modern China.
Lastly, a very interesting point of view is presented by Kuo, Coakley, and Wood, who look at the Moon Festival from a completely new perspective – an economic one. Although this article is only partly related to the issue of culture, it is truly interesting to see how the celebration experiences impact economic situation. Even though focusing on economy, Kuo, Coakley, and Wood base their study primarily on the emotions experienced during the festival and on how they influence people’s financial decisions. It is truly interesting that this holiday, which brings about mostly nostalgic feelings and negative sentiments, leads to “reducing share turnover, return volatility and stock returns” (1565).
Legend behind the Festival
This holiday is closely related to a legend. It goes as follows: in ancient times in the sky, there were 10 suns (Simonds, Swartz, and Meilo). They had heated the earth so much that all the water evaporated, and the land was shrunk and cracked; the people lived in extremely harsh conditions. Once, this circumstance greatly bothered the mighty archer Houyi. He rose to the top of the Mount Kunlun, drew his bow and shot down with one shot nine of the suns. As for the remaining sun, he ordered it to rise and set over certain periods of time. Thus, the temperature in the world returned to normal and people had a favorable environment for their existence. After that, Houyi had the reputation of a great hero of China for he had saved people from suffering. Shortly thereafter, Houyi took a beautiful woman Chang'e as his wife, and they lived in peace and harmony. Once, Houyi met an elderly Taoist while hunting in the woods. Houyi’s kindness and generosity impressed the Taoist, and the man gave the archer a pill of immortality, saying that if he ingested it, he would become the holy man and ascend to the heaven and would never die. Houyi returned home and gave the pill to his wife who hid it in a safe place. After a while, his disciple Feng Meng learned about the pill. He took advantage of the moment when the owner was on the hunt and made his way into the room of Chang'e. Threatening her with violence, Feng Meng demanded to give him the pill. Realizing that she could not resist the power of Feng and that he eventually will take the pill, Chang'e swallowed it herself. Once she did, she immediately felt that she was as light as a cloud. She then took off and flew out the window, looking at the sky. She did not want to part with her husband, so Chang'e chose the place closest to the human world - the moon, and became the goddess of the moon. When Houyi returned from hunting, their housemaid tearfully told him what had happened. It was the 15th day of the 8th month. Houyi fell into a strong despair and went to the balcony. In the sky, he saw the full moon; he lifted up his hands to the moon and, sobbing loudly he began to call on the name of his beloved woman. At that moment, he saw the lunar disk - nice and bright as ever, and on it, the man noticed the moving shadow-like image of his wife. Then, Houyi ordered his servants to put a special table and burn some incense, and to put fresh fruits that Chang'e was so fond of on the table. Once people had learned that Chang'e was the goddess of the moon, they began burning incense under the moon, making offerings of fruits and praying to Chang'e so that she sent down happiness and prosperity to them (Leong).
Each year, the Mid-Autumn Festival coincides with the full moon, and the moon, as the main carrier of one of two types of energy in the Chinese worldview, is symbolically associated with the life-guarding vector, phase-change and cycles (Cai). It is also associated with the completion of a cycle, and, at the same time, with the beginning of a new segment of time (Cai). Certain fullness of time is achieved; the connection of fragmented and scattered elements takes place; parts are reunited into a whole. That is why the full moon is a symbol of reunited family.
There is another belief. Legend has it that a lunar hare lives on the moon. He crushes a large mortar powder of life. He sits under a huge tree of Cassia, the leaves and bark of which are valuable ingredients of the medication, ensuring longevity (Simonds, Swartz, and Meilo).
Mid-Autumn Festival Rituals
With regard to the Mid-Autumn festival rituals, they are as follows. At the night, an altar is constructed usually in the yard.. Women do this work. The figure of lunar hare with long ears can be placed in the center of the altar (Zhiyuan). One should never forget to put a dish of moon cakes (Siu). The yue bing (traditional name) cakes are baked from wheat flour with a variety of flavors: sugar, beans, dried meat, and ham. They can be decorated with colored glaze and embossed. They are sold everywhere in China in confectionery stores, but a good housewife, of course, prefers the homemade cakes (Chan, Denton, and Tsang). Often, people send these cakes as a gift, as moon cakes are not only a favorite delicacy but also a common traditional gift to relatives and friends during the autumn holiday.
On the altar itself, people also light candles, incense sticks, and put five more full plates with melons, pomegranates, grapes, apples, and peaches. On the night of the Moon Festival, fruits have a special meaning. Melons and pomegranates have many seeds, which is reminiscent of the many children of a person who would like to have a family. Apples and grapes symbolize fertility, and peaches - longevity. Thus, the best hopes of Chinese families are represented on the altar during this holiday of fertility and longevity.
When night falls and the bright moonlight fills the yard, turning the gray tiles and autumn leaves in the silver landscape, the family gathers in front of the altar. The hostess approaches the altar and bows to the moon. Behind her, all the women and girls of the family do the same thing. This is a rite performed at night. Any girl can quietly escape to the side, taking incense, whisper her wish and then, hidden behind a thick door, listen to the words of the first passer-by, according to which she will understand whether her wish will be fulfilled. These wishes are usually related to marriage issues.
In some families on the night of the festival, people study the moon, figuring out if it is brighter or darker than normal in order to determine the most favorable time to go fishing. Others sit in their yards long after midnight eating, drinking, and composing poems about the beauty of the moon and the night. Some beautiful poems about nature in the Chinese literature were presented by various songs about the moon composed on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon (Bredon and Mitrophanow).
Mid-Autumn Festival is a women's holiday because the moon, the main attribute of this holiday, is a feminine symbol of the feminine yin: water, darkness, and night, so this holiday is celebrated at night (Simonds, Swartz, and Meilo). At the same time, it is a harvest festival because for example, in North China, all work in the fields is completed by the end of September.
As mentioned above, the full moon has become a symbol for the Chinese family unity and solidarity, so people try to celebrate this holiday with the entire family. Those who are on earnings or on a business trip in other cities will certainly try to come home to their family. Unlike some more spectacular events and celebrations, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a calmer and more family-centered one.
Autumn is the time for the upcoming separation from the beautiful flourishing nature time to decay, but the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival aims to overcome separation and reunite relatives. It is always interesting to become a part of such an interesting and unusual (especially for the Western culture) event. One can fully experience the Mid-Autumn Festival only when s/he has a Chinese family or close friends of the Chinese origin, as it is not a popular holiday if one comes from a different culture. Without loud celebrations in the street, the festival becomes an even of contemplation, family unity, and appreciation of one’s closest relatives. Moreover, as the festival is more about women than men, it has some kind of mysterious and spiritual element in it. This feeling is also supported by the fact that moon plays a significant role in the whole celebration.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a truly complex holiday. It is comprised of several elements that can be appreciated independently or altogether on this day. Firstly, it is a holiday when the whole family comes together and it is celebrated in a closed circle. This unity is one of the primary characteristics of the celebration. This happens across classes and family members lose their social stratification for the time of this holiday. Food, which is served during the event, is another way to unite all the family members, as same meals are served in all Chinese families throughout the world. Secondly, the celebration is about the role of women and their importance for the family. Woman is one of the primary symbols of the event. As it was already stated, female family members lead the festival family ceremonies. Here, one can witness the family stratification, when superiority is defined with age, and the oldest woman in the family is the first one to approach the altar and conduct all the rituals. Lastly, celebrated in autumn, it is obviously a harvest festival and during the event, one can see many signs and symbols of this. Food during the festival plays a great role: it is placed on the altar; people cook and consume very specific types of products – those that represent the harvest that has been recently collected.
Overall, Wells and Chen are quire right comparing the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival to Thanksgiving. This celebration is also about expressing gratitude to the things people have (among others). However, on the contrary to Thanksgiving, it lacks a happy disposition, as there is a strong nostalgic feeling that one can experience while attending the festival in a Chinese family. This event is not as much about communication, even though the family comes together, because an element of contemplation and silent observation is always present at the festival.
Holidays in China have played and still play a very important role, as they keep the inextricable link with the traditions and customs of the Chinese people. China is one of the civilizations that have multi-millennial history, during which a special outlook and mentality had evolved. They, in turn, are reflected in traditions, customs, and festivals, including those that are revered and protected by the Chinese and handed down from generation to generation. At first, they developed their roots from mythological beliefs, and then, they emerged from the later philosophy. The Chinese tradition is also influenced by the passage of time, and to celebrate various events, Chinese began introduce new holidays and new customs. Over time, holidays in the lives of people began to take second place. If in ancient and medieval China they held one of the most important places in the life of the Chinese people, in today's China, they do not play such a role as before. In addition, ceremonies have become less lush than in earlier periods of Chinese history. Nevertheless, they are not completely gone from the life of the Chinese people. Chinese culture remains a stronghold of the ethnic group.