The Mid-autumn Festival (or Zhong Qiu Jie in Mandarin), also known as the Mooncake Festival, falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. It is called the Mid-autumn Festival because the 15th day is the middle of a month, and the eighth lunar month is in the middle of autumn.
In Singapore, mooncakes, and lanterns are offered for sale as early as a month before the festival. These days, however, it has become more common to give mooncakes as gifts than to eat them during the festival. The custom of offering sacrifices to the moon has been replaced by celebrating the festival with family and friends. Moon-viewing parties are one way to enjoy the occasion, with family and friends sitting in gardens lit by paper lanterns, sipping tea, nibbling on mooncakes, and if so inspired, composing poetry in venerable Tang Dynasty fashion.
The full moon is considered a symbol of reunion, as such the Mid-autumn Festival is also known as the Reunion Festival. Shaped round like the full moon, mooncakes signify reunion. The Mid-autumn Festival is associated with the moon and “moon appreciation” (shang yue 赏月) celebration, particularly because the moon is at its brightest during this time. The festival also coincides with the end of the autumn harvest, marking the end of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which occurs during the seventh lunar month. The day of the Mid-autumn Festival is traditionally thought to be auspicious for weddings, as the moon goddess is believed to extend conjugal bliss to couples.
The festival started more than 2,000 years ago as a post-autumn harvest celebration, which was devoted to thanking the gods. Most scholars believe that the Mid-autumn Festival first appeared during the Song dynasty, derived from the tradition of worshipping the moon. Legends associated with the full moon became attached to this festival. It was during the reign of Emperor Tai (Northern Song dynasty) that the 15th day of the eighth month was designated as mid-autumn’s day.
Among the Chinese, the most popular of all the tales connected with the Mid-autumn Festival is that of Chang-E, also known as the Moon Lady, and her husband Hou Yi. This myth is said to have originated from storytellers in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), and even as far back as the time of Emperor Yao (2346 BCE). Another popular story about the Mid-autumn Festival is the moon rabbit.
Hou Yi and Chang-E
Hou Yi – an archer and member of the Imperial Guard – was said to have saved the earth from scorching when he shot down nine of the 10 suns circling the planet. As a reward, he was chosen by the people to be their king but he later became tyrannical. In his possession was the elixir of life, but Chang-E, his wife, stole the elixir and drank it. Chang-E then ascended to the moon and became the Moon Goddess. Hou Yi, on the other hand, was given a cake by the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise (Xi Wang Mu). Upon eating the cake, he was able to withstand heat and was sent to the sun. With a special talisman, he was able to visit Chang-E on the 15th of every month, during the full moon. In another version of the tale, Hou Yi placed the elixir in Chang-E’s care. His disciple, Feng Meng, tried to force Chang-E to give it to him. To prevent this, Chang-E swallowed the elixir and was separated from Hou Yi forever.
Rabbit on the moon
In this tale, Buddha disguised himself as a hungry old man and approached three animals – a fox, a monkey, and a rabbit – for help. The fox caught a fish for him, the monkey brought some fruits, but the rabbit threw itself into the fire, offering itself as meat. In gratitude, Buddha resurrected the rabbit and sent it to the moon to be venerated.
Overthrow of the Mongols
Mooncakes played a major role in the liberation of Yuan China (1206–1341 CE) from the Mongols in the 14th century. Despite a prohibition against large gatherings, rebel leader Zhu Yuan Zhang was able to instigate a rebellion by placing secret messages in mooncakes. The rebellion took place during the Mid-autumn Festival, and the celebration of the festival and eating of mooncakes took on a different meaning thereafter.
The Mid-autumn Festival is held in conjunction with the worship of the God of Heaven. On this night, many houses are illuminated with lanterns, and feasts and dance parties are held on a grand scale. In Chinese tradition and literature, a full moon symbolises completeness and is associated with a family reunion. The month of the festival is a popular time for family gatherings with traditional activities such as “moon viewing” and lantern-carrying. As part of the celebrations, many organizations organise community festivities where senior citizens, children, and adults alike are invited to partake in delicious mooncakes, go for moonlit walks, and watch traditional Chinese performances. Some common performances include Chinese dance, Chinese opera, cross-talk, and puppetry.
Offerings of mooncake and pomelo are made to the moon. Thirteen types of offerings to the moon, signifying the number of months in a full lunar year, are prepared by the female members of the family. Each offering has its own significance. Cosmetics may also be placed on the altar in the belief that it would beautify the user. During the festival, people also admire osmanthus flowers, which are regarded as a symbol of purity and innocence. Osmanthus flowers usually bloom during the festival period.
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