SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON
From royal wishes for fertile crops to family reunions, Mid-Autumn activities have evolved over the centuries to mean different things to different people
Despite the difficulty booking train tickets and the inevitable huge crowds, Lin Xuejuan travels about 200 kilometers from Shenzhen, where she works, to her hometown Shanwei, Guangdong province to spend the Mid-Autumn Festival every year.
“It’s a ritual to go back home for such a traditional festival,” says Lin, 28.
Since she started working at a health service company in Shenzhen in 2010, Lin has rarely missed an opportunity to attend family gatherings, unless she’s caught in work.
“Nowadays we are always busy with life and work, and rarely have time to meet and stay with family or friends far away. Such festivals give us a good excuse to reconnect with each other,” Lin says.
According to Lin, going home for traditional festivals like MidAutumn is important, because she wants to spend as much time as possible with her grandmother, who is in her 90s.
Like Lin, millions of Chinese people travel home during the three-day break to spend the festival — one of the most important traditional festivals in China — with loved-ones, and train tickets are usually sold out long before it.
In recent years, the Chinese government has been making efforts to revive traditional festivals, including Mid-Autumn, which was made a public holiday in 2008 and was listed as part of the nation’s intangible cultural heritage in 2016.
The Mid-Autumn Festival has
a long history, with lots of related traditions that are passed down, alongside new trends that have grown up around it, especially in the cities.
Origin and evolution
There are several popular theories about the festival’s origin. Some historians and experts believe that the early iteration of the holiday was related to the ancient custom of moon worship, which goes
back over 3,000 years.
Ancient Chinese emperors worshipped the harvest moon in autumn to wish for a plentiful harvest the following year. The custom was adopted by the masses and became popular over time.
The term “Mid-Autumn” first appeared in Rites of Zhou, a classic almanac written during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), although, it was only a reference to the time of the season.
In the early Tang Dynasty (618907), worshipping the moon was popular among the upper class, a practice which, later in the dynasty, became more widespread among the populace and was no longer just the preserve of just the rich merchants and officials.
In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the 15th day of the eighth lunar month was established as the “MidAutumn Festival”, and offering up sacrifices to the moon became part of the festival’s ritual.
During the Ming and the Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the Mid-Autumn Festival grew to be as popular as Chinese New Year, with many different activities celebrating the holiday, such as burning pagodas and performing the fire dragon dance.
There are also many legends and poems related to the occasion that have been produced and passed down through the generations.
For example, the poem Prelude to Water Melody by famous Song Dynasty poet and statesman, Su Shi, written to his brother after a particularly joyous Mid-Autumn spent drinking together, is among the mostly widely known by Chinese people.
“May we all be blessed with longevity, though thousands of miles apart, we are still able to share the beauty of the moon together,” wrote Su.
Mooncakes as a symbol of reunion
Mooncakes have become intrinsically linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival.
In Chinese belief, the roundness of the full moon, seen on the Mid-Autumn Day, means “togetherness.” The mooncake, so called because it resembles the shape of a full moon, is also regarded as a symbol of family reunion and good luck, according to Wang Laihua, a folk-custom expert from the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.
It is customarily offered between friends or on gatherings during celebrations of the festival. In the cities, mooncakes are often provided with other gifts by employers to their staff for the festival.
Mooncakes, typically consisting of a thin and flaky pastry enveloping a sweet and dense filling, used to be made at home as a family reunion activity, but very few people do so nowadays.
There are various mooncakes on the market, some are for home consumption, while others are expensively packaged to be given as gifts.
Wang observes that the name “mooncake” was first recorded during the Song Dynasty, but it was still not a very popular repast back then.
It was not until the Ming Dynasty that mooncakes became the official food of the festival, and their popularity gradually spread. In fact, many descriptions about eating mooncakes during the festival can be found in various historical records from the Ming Dynasty period.
Nowadays, the variety, flavor and design of the mooncake are continuously evolving to both reflect more advanced cooking techniques, and to match modern tastes.
Tradition transcends time
Lin’s hometown of Shanwei is dominated by the Teochew people, who mostly hail from Henan and Shanxi, with a well-maintained dialect and traditional customs derived from North and Central China.
Lots of old traditions for Mid-Autumn Festival have been preserved, and quite a few practices are related to the local religious beliefs, she says.
Since the beginning of the eighth lunar month, people start visiting relatives and friends to present traditional gifts, such as fruits, mooncakes and cooking oil.
The point of doing so is to show love and respect to relatives and friends, especially the elderly, Lin explains.
During the day of Mid-Autumn, people will prepare hearty food and other offerings for their ancestors. In the evening, the whole family will enjoy a reunion dinner together.
Then, they will worship the moon. Families gather in their front yards to put mooncakes, fruits, incense and candlesticks on an altar or table. The younger generation follow their elders in expressing their respect for the moon and their wishes for a better life.
Though the custom of worshipping the moon and people’s ancestors is far from as popular as it used to be, Lin insists that it remains a key part of the festival’s culture.
“Some people may think it’s oldfashioned and unnecessary, but I believe it’s very important as it gives us a sense of belonging and keeps us connected with our wider family, both past and present,” Lin notes.
Besides worshipping the moon and eating mooncakes, other customs, such as drinking the osmanthus flower wine during the festival, are also popular nationwide.
However, folk customs for MidAutumn Day vary in different parts of China, Wang observes.
New options for traditional festival
Family reunions for the Mid-Autumn Festival can be a greater challenge for many, compared with Lin.
Chen Yannan, a native of Quanzhou in Southeast China’s Fujian province, who now works for a Beijing-based media firm, says she had to give up going home due to the long distance.
It would take Chen, 23, almost a day to get home and would cost her more than a 1,000 yuan ($150). Given that she has just started her career last year and has to tackle the high living costs in the capital, it is an expense which she can ill afford.
“It’s only a three-day break. I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend only one day at home but two days on the road,” Chen explains.
Instead, Chen will spend this Midautumn holiday with her visiting friend, and they plan to dine together at a restaurant to celebrate the occasion.
“While our parents’ generation sticks to the traditional practice of cooking and eating at home during the festival, we young people prefer to eat out. It’s more convenient, and we can try to find some delicious and novel dishes,” says Chen.
According to Chen, quite a few of her friends choose to stay, too, to avoid the hassle and cost of returning home.
However, Chen admits that she will still try to get the symbolic food that is associated with the specific festivals, such as mooncake in this instance, wherever she is.
“Having the traditional food on such occasions helps to assuage my homesickness a little when I think of my parents are also having the same food,” Chen says.
Nowadays, more people in the cities tend to celebrate the festival with friends, dining out or taking short trips together.
Instead of appreciating the full moon, watching the Mid-Autumn Festival galas on TV are a popular form of recreation for the festival among younger people. Equally, electronic greeting cards and digital red packets have started to usurp mooncakes as the gift du jour.
Family at the core
With their forms and rituals, traditional festivals like Mid-Autumn are charming as it offers a special opportunity for Chinese people to throw off the shackles of restraint and freely express their feelings and utter their love for friends and family, according to Chen.
Despite not being able to visit home, she will make a video call to her parents on the day of the festival to send them her greetings and love.
On the other hand, Chen’s parents usually send her some food from home by mail and give her some money to make sure she enjoys a good festival experience while away from home — inviting her to buy herself some nice clothes and good food.
“The routines may get less important, but family always is,” Chen says.
While customs and traditions for festivals like Mid-Autumn inevitably evolve with social development, the core of them will not change, according to Guo Wenbin, a writer and cultural critic.
“The goal of traditional festivals is to increase people’s sense of belonging and being home,” Guo says.
“Even though many people can’t go back home during such important occasions, they still have other ways to create a festival atmosphere and find those feelings.”
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Mid-Autumn” first appeared in a classic almanac written during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
The custom of worshipping the moon and people’s ancestors is far from as popular as it used to be, but it remains a key part of the festival’s culture.
Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns are bright, colorful, and come in many different sizes and shapes.
During the day of Mid-Autumn, people prepare hearty food and other offerings for their ancestors.
always is.of appreciating the moon may get less important, but family