According to my students, Mid-Autumn festival is the second most important holiday of the year, behind Spring Festival, and just ahead of Qing Ming. Yet, each year I am surprised by their total lack of ability to explain just what exactly this festival is.
If I were to simply repeat their answers all we would know is that Mid-Autumn Festival involves something called a mooncake, watching the moon (weather permitting), and seeing family. Even after 4 years of asking classes of students, this is pretty much all I’ve managed to nail down from conversations with my Chinese friends.
Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is near the autumnal equinox (an equinox is a solar event, not a lunar one, which is why they do not coincide exactly).
The holiday only recently received “official” status; as of 2008 we now get a day off so that it can actually be celebrated with family, even though it has been celebrated for thousands of years. This day off is necessary for people to return to their hometowns to be with family, but for many who work outside of their home province, the trip is simply too far. About 2/3 of my students reported that they would not be going home this year.
Mooncakes are a “delicacy” that are essential for properly enjoying the holiday. They are a small dense pastry traditionally filled with a variety of things like red beans, nuts, egg yolk or meat floss, but there are several new flavors like strawberry, pineapple and even ice cream. I think these new flavors are necessary, because the traditional flavors are losing popularity. From informal surveys in my classes I would say that only 10% said they liked mooncake, 20% said they didn’t like it, and 70% said a small piece once a year was enough.
Many foreigners living here jokingly refer to it as “the fruitcake of China” since it is often re-gifted. I saw this first hand when a co-worker, upon receiving a box of six mooncakes, promptly gave her three office mates two each. I believe that the tradition of giving mooncakes remains partially as a way to extend China’s culture of gift giving. I often heard upon receiving a box, “This is a very expensive brand.” Some boxes cost well over $100.
Viewing the Moon
A story from the Han Dynasty gives some explanation of the origins of the holiday (there are many versions of this story).
During the reign of Emperor Yao (mythical time), there was a great archer named Houyi, and his wife Chang’e. At that time the Earth had ten suns, and the land was scorched. So the emperor asked Houyi to use his great skills to shoot down 9 of the suns so that the land could recover. After completing this task, he was given a pill said to grant eternal life, but before he could take it, he must fast for one year. So he hid the pill on a rafter in his home.
One day his wife saw a great light emanating from the rafters and discovered the pill, which she promptly swallowed. Chang’e than started to float toward the Moon, and Houyi tried to catch her, but he was blown off course and instead landed on the Sun. Once on the moon Chang’e met the jade rabbit who lives there, and she ordered him to try to recreate the pill so that she could be reunited with her love, but he has been unsuccessful so far.
Each year on Mid-Autumn Festival, the Sun and Moon appear to be closer together, and is the one day for Chang’e and Houyi to visit.
This story is one that most Chinese have heard before, and is important enough that China has named its lunar orbiter “Chang’e”.