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Mid-Autumn festival (Zhōngqiū jié, 中秋节) is celebrated annually on the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar.
“Zhōngqiū (中秋)” was initially seen in Rites of Zhou which dictated people to offer sacrifices in worship of the sun in spring and the moon in autumn during the Zhou Dynasty. It became a fixed festival in early Tang Dynasty and popularized amongst the folk culture during the Song Dynasty. During Ming and Qing dynasties, Zhōngqiū prospered into one of the most important festivals in China. As for its origin, there are several versions — ancient Chinese worship of the moon, the custom of looking for a spouse when dancing in the moonlight, worshipping a gnome during autumn for good harvest, etc.
Main traditional practices during Mid-Autumn Festival
Rasa Malaysia’s recipe for Snow Skin Mooncake (冰皮月饼)
Mooncakes are as round as the moon, which symbolizes family get-together. Here is a popular saying about its history. In Tang Dynasty, in order to stop the invasion of the Basmyls, the emperor Lǐ Shìmín (李世民) ordered his General to lead the troops to the battle in the frontier fortress. On the 15th day of the lunar calendar’s eighth month, the army returned to the capital in triumph. The capital was filled with cannon fires and music to celebrate the victories. A Tubo businessman presented special round cakes he made to the emperor. Lǐ Shìmín accepted the splendidly decorated cakes with great joy, pointed to the sky and said, “We should invite the moon to eat the cakes.” Later, he distributed the cakes to the courtiers. From then on, the habit of eating mooncakes was passed down. Tang Dynasty is known for having very fine and delicate mooncake-making techniques.
Enjoying the bright moonlight
According to historical records, people first offered sacrifices to worship the moon in history. Afterwards, the serious moon worshipping was transformed into joyful moonlight enjoyment. In Tang Dynasty, the custom became very prevalent. The numerous shinning poems about it written by famous poets in Tang and Song Dynasties are still widely read today.
Some people worshipped the moon in ancient times, following a beautiful legend called Cháng’é (嫦娥) ascending to the moon, Cháng’é bēn yuè (嫦娥奔月).
A long time ago, ten suns burned fiercely in the sky. A terrible drought plagued the earth. Crops were scorched to death. Many people died of hunger and thirst. A Herculean hero called Hòu Yì (后弈) sympathized with the human sufferings. He climbed to the top of Kunlun Mountains, exercised his strength and shot down nine suns with his magical bow thus ordering peremptorily the last one to rise and set, to benefit mankind. Hòu Yì won the admiration and respect of human. Afterwards, Hòu Yì married a charming wife called Cháng’é. Except for shooting teaching and hunting, Hòu Yì stayed with his wife together. The people here all envied this happy couple.
Many people came to Hòu Yì as apprentices. A sinister man called Péng Méng (蓬蒙) joined in too. One day, when Hòu Yì went to Kunlun Mountains where he happened to meet Queen Mother of the West and asked for elixir vitae. This medicine could help common people go to heaven and become a god. Hòu Yì did not want to go alone and he entrusted the medicine to the wife. Cháng’é hid the medicine in a box at her dressing table, which was seen by Péng Méng. He wanted to steal the medicine and become a god himself.
Three days later, Hòu Yì led his apprentices out for shooting. Péng Méng pretended be sick and stayed. He took a sword into the back yard and threatened Cháng’é to give him the elixir vitae. Cháng’é knew she was no match for him. At that critical moment, she made a prompt decision. She swallowed the medicine. Out of her control, she floated from the ground, went out the window and flew to the sky. Since she was worried about her husband, she arrived on the Moon, which was closest to the earth and became a goddess there.
In the late evening, when Hòu yì (后弈) arrived at home, the crying maids told him what happened in the day. He was shocked and wanted to kill Péng Méng. However, Péng Méng had escaped. He was struck with grief and called his wife’s name. Surprisingly, he found the moon especially brilliant and a figure moved on the moon, very similar to his wife. He ran toward the moon. But as he ran three steps, the moon drew back three steps; if he drew back three steps, the moon moved forward three steps. He could not catch her forever. This happened on the 15th day of the lunar 8th month. Hòu Yì missed his wife so much, but he could do nothing. Finally, he had the incense burner table set in the moonlight within the garden where his wife used to spend a lot of time. He placed sweet desserts and fresh fruit on the table to commemorate his wife. When local people heard this, they too placed incense in the moonlight and prayed for Cháng’é. Worshipping the moon then became prevalent in the folk culture.
Enjoying sweet osmanthus flower
Sweet osmanthus flowers have more than 2,500 years of agricultural history in China.
Around Mid-Autumn festival, sweet osmanthus is in full bloom, so the 8th lunar month is also called ‘sweet osmanthus month’ in China. The sweet fragrance drifting in the air amidst the bright moonlight triggered ancient poet imaginations and they created holy sweet osmanthus in the moon palace in their lyrics. Since ancient times, sweet osmanthus flower, the bright moon and Mid-Autumn festival have always been connected to Chinese cultural life.