19 Sept. 2013 – Mid Autumn Festival

Some people call it the Harvest Moon, but for me and my culture, it is known as the Mid Autumn Festival.

For most Chinese people around the world, the Mid Autumn Festival, or Zhong Qiu Jie 中秋季, falls on the 15th day of the Chinese Lunar month (8月15日). On this night, not day, many families will sit in their gardens, or parks, chat over tea and mooncakes while the younger ones play with lanterns and sparklers, all under the bright full moon while regaling each other with stories of how and why we are celebrating the full moon.

One such story was how there were ten suns.

(Copied from Wikipedia) “In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at shooting. His wife was Chang’e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Feng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Feng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband very much and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.”

Another ending goes “After the hero Houyi shot down nine of the ten suns, he was pronounced king by the thankful people. However, he soon became a conceited and tyrannical ruler. In order to live long without death, he asked for the elixir from Xiwangmu. But his wife, Chang’e, stole it on the fifteenth of August because she did not want the cruel king to live long and hurt more people. She took the magic potion to prevent her husband from becoming immortal. Houyi was so angry when discovered that Chang’e took the elixir, he shot at his wife as she flew toward the moon, though he missed. Chang’e fled to the moon and became the spirit of the moon. Houyi died soon because he was overcome with great anger. Thereafter, people offer a sacrifice to Chang’e on every lunar fifteenth of August to commemorate Chang’e’s action.”

Continuing on another note, mooncakes are not from the moon, but they are cakes specially baked to celebrate the festival. It was first made in China, a traditional cake with a pastry mixed with lard or vegetable oil, and the filling is a sweet lotus paste or red bean paste. Because of its sugary nature, most people eat it in small slices with cups of Chinese tea, without sugar of course. Nowadays, it is possible to get ice-cream mooncakes and other concoctions. Prices of such new cakes can be very pricey, at least $20 a piece. The normal ones, like the red bean paste, lotus seed paste, lotus seed with single egg yolk, snow skin, price at about $8 per piece. Yes, the business of mooncakes is a serious business.

As to myths and legends regarding the mooncake, I have already shared with you the traditional one about the fairy Chang’e. Here is another story, a true one, about how the mooncake was used during a rebellion in Chinese history.

(From Wikipedia) “There is a folk tale about the overthrow of Mongol rule facilitated by messages smuggled in moon cakes. This was the Ming Revolution.

Mooncakes were used as a medium by the Ming revolutionaries in their espionage effort to secretly distribute letters to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China in the Yuan dynasty. The idea is said to have been conceived by Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) and his advisor Liu Bowen (劉伯溫), who circulated a rumor that a deadly plague of “Hóuzi chuánwěi jíbìng de” was spreading, and the only way to prevent it was to eat special mooncakes, which would instantly revive and give special powers to the user. This prompted the quick distribution of mooncakes, which were used to hide a secret message coordinating the Han Chinese revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.

Another method of hiding the message was printed in the surface of mooncakes as a simple puzzle or mosaic. To read the encrypted message, each of the four mooncakes packaged together must be cut into four parts each. The 16 pieces of mooncake, must then be pieced together in such a fashion that the secret messages can be read. The pieces of mooncake are then eaten to destroy the message.”

Well, I hope you all had enjoyed a lovely evening admiring the full bright moon and also learning a bit more of Chinese culture.

中秋季快樂! Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

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