With the onset of September and signs of cooler temperatures, also comes one of the most important traditional festivals on the Chinese calendar, the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Zhongqiu jie, also known as the moon.
At this time of year, the Chinese store next door to us in Gainesville, Florida is stocked with moon cakes, called in Chinese yuebing (月餅).
The same goes for Chinese stores around the world. Nowadays, it is even possible to buy these desserts from online retailers such as Amazon.
These traditional delicacies are prepared in anticipation of the holiday, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. It’s a time for family and friends to get together, watch the full moon, and eat moon cakes and other delicacies.
Other highlights of the festivities include public lantern displays, evening dances, traditional performances, and worship of the moon goddess and other deities.
Due to the central theme of the family reunion, the festival sometimes evokes a comparison to Thanksgiving in the United States.
Mooncakes: Tradition and innovation
Offering and eating moon cakes is arguably the festival’s most iconic feature.
The round shape of the moon cake is believed to conjure up an image of the full moon. The roundness of the full moon, in turn, symbolizes fullness; by extension, it conveys a feeling of spiritual contentment, meeting and reunion.
Usually, moon cakes come with traditional fillings, such as red bean or white lotus seed paste. There are many regional variations, some of which contain an egg yolk preserved in the middle. Egg yolk yolk adds another layer of symbolism, as it looks like the round moon in the sky.
In addition, there are contemporary flavors such as chocolate, coffee or green tea. It is even possible to find frozen moon cakes. These are created by ice cream trading companies in order to tap into the lucrative moon cake market and meet contemporary tastes.
The legends behind the festival
As a scholar of Chinese religions, I am particularly fascinated by the legends associated with the origins of the festival. These are notable elements of folk tradition, rooted in China’s long history and rich cultural traditions.
Usually, the Mid-Autumn Festival is associated with the popular legend of Chang’e (嫦娥), the moon goddess.
The earliest versions of the story date back to the Warring States, an important historical period between 475 and 221 BC. AD, marked by recurring wars, bureaucratic reforms and political consolidation.
Chang’e allegedly stole the elixir of immortality from her husband, Yi, the great archer and hero of Chinese mythology. She then fled to the moon, where she was doomed to a lonely existence.
Later versions of the story, still told today, present a more flattering picture of the goddess.
She is described as a model of beauty and feminine elegance. She only digests the elixir to keep it from falling into the hands of a villain. She then chooses the moon as her immortal abode, to be close to her beloved husband.
For his part, Yi makes sacrifices to his late wife with cakes and fruits. The local people sympathize with him and also begin to make the same offerings.
To this day, the Chinese carry on this tradition, making moon cake offerings in commemoration of the goddess as they make wishes or pray for family unity and harmony.
In the agricultural society of premodern China, the Mid-Autumn Festival was linked to the celebrations of the harvest season.
The term “mid-autumn”, which has become the name of the festival, appears in “Zhou li” (周禮), or the Rites of Zhou.
It is one of the earliest Confucian classics, the basic texts that constitute the main canon of classical Confucianism.
The oldest history of the festival is uncertain, but scholars have shown that its celebration had already taken place during the Tang era which lasted from 618 to 907 AD, and gained popularity during the later imperial period. .
Celebrations in other Asian countries
The Mid-Autumn Festival is also celebrated in Asian countries beyond China, as well as among the Chinese diaspora in other parts of the world. This is particularly the case in Southeast Asian countries with a large ethnic Chinese population, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
It is also an important holiday in Vietnam. Called Tết Trung Thu, it is mainly celebrated as Children’s Day and is associated with unique Vietnamese legends.
Along with moon watching and the ubiquitous moon cakes, among its unique features are the traditional dance performances and lanterns carried by children, as they walk under the full moon glow with their light illuminating the path. . Mario Poceski University of Florida / The Conversation (CC)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons