During the Autumn many countries celebrate good harvest but China has something different. They celebrate Zhōngqiū Jié (中秋节), also known as the Moon Festival. These days it’s also celebrated in the Netherlands by giving large (asian oriented) parties or celebrations in casinos. This is not what the Moon Festival is about though, it is celebrated in many different ways.
The Chinese have celebrated the harvest during the autumn full moon since the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). Morris Berkowitz, who studied the Hakka people during the 1960s, theorizes that the harvest celebration originally began with worshiping mountain deities after the harvest was completed. For the Baiyue people, the harvest time commemorated the dragon who brought rain for the crops. The celebration as a festival only started to gain popularity during the early Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). One legend explains that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang started to hold formal celebrations in his palace after having explored the Moon-Palace. The term mid-autumn (中秋) first appeared in Rites of Zhou, a written collection of rituals of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BCE).
Empress Dowager Cixi (late 19th century) enjoyed celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival so much that she would spend the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth day of the eighth month staging elaborate rituals.
An important part of the festival celebration is moon worship. The ancient Chinese believed in rejuvenation being associated with the moon and water, and connected this concept to the menstruation of women, calling it “monthly water”. The Zhuang people, for example, have an ancient fable saying the sun and moon are a couple and the stars are their children. And when the moon is pregnant it becomes round. After the birth of a child the moon turns crescent. These beliefs made it popular among women to worship and give offerings to the moon on this evening. In some areas of China, there are still customs in which “men do not worship the moon and the women do not offer sacrifices to the kitchen gods.”
One of the most important rules during the moon festival is worshipping the moon deity Chang’e. In older texts there are two different reasons as to how Chang’e became a moon deity.
The Sacrifice of Chang’e
In ancient past, ten suns rose together into the skies, heating up the earth and scorching crops and animals causing hardship for man. Chang’e’s husband archer HouYi shot down all but one sun and as a reward he was given the elixer of immortality by an immortal. But because HouYi loved his wife Chang’e very much and did not want to leave her behind he hid the elixer in his house. One of HouYi’s apprentices Peng Meng knew of this secret and when HouYi went out to hunt Peng Meng broke in and threatened Chang’e for the elixer. She refused and instead drank the elixer so it wouldn’t fall in the wrong hands. Causing her to rise up to the sky to join the immortals but she wanted to remain close to her husband so she settled on the moon for residence. When HouYi came home and found out what happened to his wife, he got very sad and in her honor displayed her favorite fruits and cakes in the garden and offered sacrifices to her. Once people found out they felt sympathetic to him and participated with him honoring his wife on the moon.
After HouYi shot down the nine suns, leaving one he was pronounced the king by thankful people but HouYi became a tiran and conceited ruler. To continue his life this way he demanded the elixer of life from Xiwangmu. His wife Chang’e stole it on the fifteenth of August to stop the cruel king from living longer and hurting more people. She drank it and became immortal herself, HouYi was so angry he shot at his wife as she flew towards the sky and Chang’e took refuge on the moon thus becoming its spirit. Houyi died soon after because he was overcome with anger. To commemorate Chang’e’s sacrifice they offer and worship her on every lunar fifteenth of August.
The Rabbit of the moon
In Ancient Indian buddhist texts there is a tale about a monkey, an otter, a jackal and a rabbit. This group had to practice charity on the day of the full moon, believing a good deed of virtue would earn a great rewards. So when an old man begged for food the monkey gathered fruit from trees, the otter collected fish while the jackal wrongfully pilfered a lizard and a pot of milk-curd. The rabbit, who knew only how to gather grass instead gave his own body by throwing itself into a fire the man had built. The rabbit wasn’t burnt as the old man reveiled himself as the god Sakra. Touched by the rabbits virtue he drew the rabbit on the moon so all could see its greatness.
In Chinese texts it’s said that the rabbit and Chang’e became companions on the moon and that the pot displayed on the moon with the rabbit is the pot in which the elixer of life is made.
The festival was a time to enjoy the successful reaping of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Today, it is still an occasion for outdoor reunions among friends and relatives to eat mooncakes and watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity. During a year of a solar eclipse, it is typical for governmental offices, banks, and schools to close extra days in order to enjoy the extended celestial celebration an eclipse brings. The festival is celebrated with many cultural or regional customs, among them:
- Burning incense in reverence to deities including Chang’e.
- Performance of dragon and lion dances, which is mainly practiced in southern China and Vietnam.
During the festival families share moon cakes. In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and reunion. Thus, the sharing and eating of round mooncakes among family members during the week of the festival signifies the completeness and unity of families. In some areas of China, there is a tradition of making mooncakes during the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The senior person in that household would cut the mooncakes into pieces and distribute them to each family member, signifying family reunion. In modern times, however, making mooncakes at home has given way to the more popular custom of giving mooncakes to family members, although the meaning of maintaining familial unity remains. Mooncakes bought for the purpose of giving away are always packed in beautiful or elaborate boxes.
Imperial dishes served on this occasion included nine-jointed lotus roots which symbolize peace, and watermelons cut in the shape of lotus petals which symbolize reunion. Teacups were placed on stone tables in the garden, where the family would pour tea and chat, waiting for the moment when the full moon’s reflection appeared in the center of their cups. Owing to the timing of the plant’s blossoms, cassia wine is the traditional choice for the “reunion wine” drunk on the occasion. Also, people will celebrate by eating cassia cakes and candy.
Food offerings made to deities are placed on an altar set up in the courtyard, including apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, melons, oranges, and pomelos. One of the first decorations purchased for the celebration table is a clay statue of the Jade Rabbit. In Chinese folklore, the Jade Rabbit was an animal that lived on the moon and accompanied Chang’e. Offerings of soy beans and cockscomb flowers were made to the Jade Rabbit.