By Greg Hugh, Staff Writer
One of the most important holidays in Chinese and other Asian cultures is the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. The Moon Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, so the date on the Georgian calendar is different from year to year but it is always on the full moon which this year occurs on Sept. 30, 2012. This holiday dates back over 3,000 years to moon worship in China’s Shang Dynasty. It was first called Zhongqiu Jie (literally “Mid-Autumn Festival”) in the Zhou Dynasty.
Since the Moon Festival takes place at harvest time, it is a good occasion to celebrate the abundance of Mother Nature and is a time to gather with family and friends under the full moon sky while eating moon cake if you are Chinese, or pomelo fruit (native to Southeast Asia) or barbecued delicacies by other Asian countries.
As with most Chinese festivals, there is a story to go along with the Moon Festival. There are many versions of the Moon Festival legend, but most of them involve the archer Hou Yi and his wife Chang’e.
According to one such legend, many years ago there were ten suns in the sky. Crops could not grow and rivers ran dry, so the people were dying of hunger and thirst. Hou Yi took his bow and arrows and shot down nine of the ten suns, saving the people.
As a reward, the Western Queen Mother gave Hou Yi a special potion. If Hou Yi shares that potion with his wife, they will both live forever, but if only one of them takes the potion, he or she will become a god.
Hou Yi and Chang’e plan to take the potion together. But one of Hou Yi’s enemies, Feng Meng, hears about the potion and plans to steal it. One night, on a full moon, Feng Meng kills Hou Yi, and then forces Chang’e to give him the potion.
Rather than give the evil man the potion, Chang’e drinks it all herself. She starts to rise into heaven, but she feels a close connection to the world of the mortals, and wants to stay close to them, so she stops at the moon, the closest body to earth. And that is where she remains today.
Like many Chinese holidays, food plays a prominent role. On this day, Chinese will eat nian gao or glutinous rice cakes and moon cakes, made up of bean paste or lotus-seed paste packed inside a pastry layer. There is sometimes even a salted duck egg inside. The tops of moon cakes usually have Chinese characters representing longevity or harmony. Moon cakes are considered a delicacy; production is labor-intensive and few people make them at home. Most moon cakes are bought at markets and bakeries.
Many Chinese will admit that they don't really like eating moon cake, but like the fruitcake at Christmas, giving the gift of moon cake seems to be a case of tradition beating out taste.
As noted, the Moon Festival is a popular harvest festival celebrated by Chinese and Chinese descendants around the world. The Government of the People's Republic of China listed the festival as an "intangible cultural heritage" in 2006, and it was made a Chinese legal holiday in 2008. It is also a legal holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also a widely celebrated festival in Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia.
Different parts of China each have different ways to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. In some places people make fires inside towers to celebrate the festival, because they think the fire is a symbol of good business. In the Zhejiang Province, watching the flood tide of the Qian-tang River during the Mid-Autumn Festival is not only a must for local people but also an attraction for those from other parts of the country.
In Nanjing, people cook duck with sweet-scented osmanthus because Nanjing people think it is a symbol of peace. (According to Wikipedia, osmanthus is a plant native to Asia that is a shrub that has culinary uses as a tea and jam.) It also is the “city flower” of Hangzhou, China. In Guangzhou, a huge lantern show is a big attraction for locals and visitors. Thousands of differently shaped lanterns are lit, forming a fantastic contrast with the bright moonlight. In Chaozhou, Guangdong Province, people eat taro to celebrate the festival, because the taro harvest occurs at the same time as the Moon Festival. They eat taro and hope the harvest is good in the next year.
In Taiwan, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also celebrated throughout the country. However, unlike mid-autumn festivals in other countries, in Taiwan the food most synonymous with the festival is barbecue instead of mooncake. Asking Taiwanese people what they plan to do on Mid-Autumn Festival, the most likely answer is barbecue.
Additional information about the Mid-Autumn Festival and how other Asian countries celebrate can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Autumn_Festival.