By DS, Sep 29 2015 03:31PM
This weekend has been Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, here in Taiwan.
Mid-Autumn Festival is the Harvest Festival for Chinese and Taiwanese people, and much like Easter, it falls on a different date each year. This is because its date is dictated by the Lunar Calendar rather than our Gregorian calendar, with the festival falling on the 15th day of the 8th Lunar Month.
So whilst in 2014 the Festival took place on 8th September, this year’s took place on 27th September, which being a Sunday meant a long weekend for everyone here in Taiwan, as Monday 28th became a public holiday.
The history and traditions around Moon Festival are an interesting hotchpotch of ancient customs and legends and modern commercialism. Most ancient cultures around the world associated the movements of the moon with the changing of the seasons and had some sort of ceremonies to give thanks for a prosperous summer, or to pray for better luck next year when it hadn’t gone so well.
Mid-Autumn Festival can be traced back as far as the Zhou Dynasty, some 3,000 years ago, when sacrifices would be made to the moon on the Autumn Equinox. This tradition was mostly followed by royalty and nobility, but later Dynasty’s saw it mixed with other Moon Ceremonies marked by common people and the Lunar Calendar date became fixed.
There are also a number of really interesting legends associated with Moon Festival which illustrate a lot about the traditional belief culture here. I am going to briefly tell three of them here.
The first two supposedly explain why the Moon is so important in Chinese culture:
The legend of Chang E:
The story of Chang E tells that in ancient times there were 10 suns and the world was so hot people could barely survive. Hou Yi was a man of great strength who shot down 9 of the 10 suns. Later he married a kind and beautiful woman called Chang E.
One day Hou Yi met Wangmu, the queen of heaven who gave him an elixir which would make him a god and send him to heaven. Rather than take it he took it home and left it in the keeping of his wife. But one of his disciples saw him, and went to his wife to demand the elixir. Knowing she could not win, Chang E swallowed the elixir and immediately flew out of the window and up into the sky. Her love for her husband meant she went to the moon, which was closest place in heaven to the earth.
Hou Yi grieved for his wife and shouted to the heavens, before seeing the figure of his wife appear on the moon. He made an offering to her, and she became a goddess, with people from across the land making offerings and sacrifices to her.
The Jade Rabbit pounding Medicine:
This story tells of three immortals who were reincarnated as three impoverished old people. They had to beg for food from a fox, a monkey, and a rabbit. The fox and the monkey both gave food, but the rabbit did not have any. Instead he said, you can eat me, and jumped into the fire.
The immortals were so moved by this sacrifice they sent the rabbit to the moon to become an immortal jade rabbit. Since then he has lived on the moon with Chang E and has pounded immortal medicine for the Gods.
The Chinese traditionally believe they can see a rabbit in the moon rather than the ‘man’ which we believe we can see in the West.
The third legend explains why people traditional give and eat Mooncakes (a pastry with various sweet fillings) over Moon Festival.
Zhu Yuanzhang & the Mooncake Uprising:
In the late Yuan Dynasty (first half of the 1300’s), there was a revolt led by Zhu Yuanzhang who was trying to unite various different groups against the Government.
He struggled to communicate with everyone, but his aide, Liu Bowen had the idea to hide a message saying ‘uprise on the night of August 15th’ in mooncakes and sending them to the different groups.
The uprising was a success and Zhu rewarded his supporters by giving them Mooncakes on the next Mid-Autumn Festival. The tradition has remained from then on.
The reality of Mid-Autumn Festival today is of course very different from what it was in the past. As is often the case with such religious festivals, indulgence has taken the place of worship.
These days, people across Taiwan (and only Taiwan) will always get together with family or friends for a Barbeque. Whilst this might seem to be a tradition linked to the Harvest Festival element of the day, it is actually owing to a TV advert for a barbeque sauce in the 1980’s. This was picked up by rivals who ran similar campaigns saying ‘Moon Festival night is Barbeque night’.
The tradition took hold in Taiwan and now over the weekend, family and friends can be seen gathering in front of their house and shops with everything from the latest in electronic grills, to an improvised barbeque on a car wheel rim, and mountains of meat and seafood, and of course some of the Barbeque Sauce which brought this tradition about.
This year we visited a friend of my wife’s sister, Keith, who was hosting a large Barbeque at his house in Renwu District of Kaohsiung. Much food was eaten, beer drunk, and merriment had. There were plenty of children running around playing, which owing to the heat and absurdly long school hours here, can be a rare enough sight. Fireworks were set off (another tradition) and the kids enjoyed sparklers.
As if often the case at such events, as people began to drift away, the male contingent settled down to an evening of cards (it can be Mahjong as well), smoking, and drinking. Personally, I slipped away to find a TV and take in the Moto GP race with my brother-in-law.
With a rare long weekend, it is no surprise that the festival has become an opportunity for Taiwanese people to let their hair down and be sociable. There are plenty of Mooncakes to be had, but little of the old traditions still remains today.
Usually people might look up to the Moon, which is at its largest on this night, but with Typhoon Dujuan fast approaching there was nothing but cloud to be seen this year. The blood-moon so lauded across the rest of the world would not have been seen here in any case.
But, Moon or no Moon, Moon Festival is one of the most enjoyable Taiwanese Festivals.