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中秋節, Mid-Autumn Festival

September 22nd, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

中秋節, Mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Festival) is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in China, perhaps second only to the Spring Festival (or the Chinese New Year). For 2010, it falls on September 22nd. It coincides with a full moon on the 15th day of the 8th month on the Chinese calendar, so there is no fixed date according to Gregorian. That has been the way mid-autumn was figured since ancient times.

“Mid-Autumn” first appeared in “Rites of the Zhou”, a collection of ritual matters of the Western Zhou Dynasty some 3,000 years ago. During the Tang Dynasty (618AD – 907AD), this tradition took a strong foot hold. It celebrates harvests and family reunions. This same tradition exists throughout the rest of Asia today.

中秋 pervades Chinese culture. Video below is 王菲 (Faye Wong) performing “但願人長久” (“Wishing We Last Forever”). The lyrics are based on a poem written by 苏轼 (Su Shi, January 8, 1037 – August 24, 1101), who is also known as 蘇東坡 (Su Dongpo), a Song Dynasty poet. The melody is based on, “水调歌头”, to which a poem in the Cí(詞) style can be sung. Many poems throughout Chinese history have been written to this melody. This version by Su is the most famous and is titled, “水调歌头·丙辰中秋.” (“丙辰中秋” refers to mid-autumn of the ninth year of the reign of Song Emperor Shenzong (1076AD)).

For a youtube.com version, click here.

水调歌头·丙辰中秋 (Source: Wikipedia.org)

Bright moon, when did you appear?
Lifting my wine, I question the dark night sky.
Tonight in the palaces and halls of heaven
what year is it, I wonder?
I would like to ride the wind, make my home there,
Only I hide in a jade room of a beautiful mansion,
As I could not bear the cold of high altitudes.
So I rise and dance and play in your pure beams,
this human world — how can it compare with yours!
Circling red chambers,
low in the curtained door,
you shine on the sleepless.
Surely you bear us no ill will —
why then must you be so round at times when we humans are parted?
People have their griefs and joys, their togetherness and separation,
The moon has its dark and clear times, its waxings and wanings.
Situations are never ideal since long ago.
I only hope we two may have long long lives,
So that we may share the moon’s beauty even though we are a three hundred miles apart.

While it is true that the Chinese celebrate Mid-Autumn festival by family reunions, moon gazing, and eating the moon cake, this tradition is also accompanied by legends and customs. The most famous is of 嫦娥 (Chang’e). There are many versions of this legend, but the fact that Chang’e is the moon goddess and resides on the moon is a constant – even across China, Korea, and Japan.

The story begins with her husband 后羿 (Hou Yi), who was a legendary archer.

A silk embroidering with nine suns (in the upper right) from a Western Han Dynasty tomb at Mawangdui.

Long time ago, there were ten suns, represented as three-legged sun birds who resided in a mulberry tree in the eastern sea. Each day, one of the sun birds would travel around the world. Until one day, the birds got bored and decided to abandon routine and travel together instead. All the suns at once brought about drought and caused great calamity for all living things on earth. Emperor Yao requested Hou Yi to help. In doing so, he shot and killed nine of the ten sun birds and thus saving mankind.

Chan'e Flies to the Moon

For this act, Hou Yi was given an elixir of immortality for himself and his wife, Chang’e.

Before consuming it, Emperor Yao recommended Hou Yi spend a year preparing himself for the transition. The elixir was hidden. However, Chang’e discovered it by accident and drank all of it. Upon Hou Yi’s return, he noticed his wife had started to float. Chang’e would eventually fly all the way to the moon and be stuck there. The only other living being on the moon is a rabbit, whom Chang’e employed to find an herbal formulation that could one day also grant Hou Yi immortality. (In the Korean and Japanese versions, the rabbit makes rice cake and mochi.)

Hou Yi grieved as he watches Chang’e flies to the moon. The Queen Mother of the West would subsequently grant Hou Yi residence up in the sun. In mid-autumn of every year, Hou Yi visits Chang’e, when the moon is lit brightest. It is said on that night, if one brings a bucket of water to catch the reflection of the moon, one might see the outline of Chang’e and the rabbit.

The moon and the sun, Chang’e and Hou Yi have come to symbolize the concept of yin and yang.

Below are some common expressions (in pinyin) around 中秋, courtesy of Living Chinese Symbols:

“Pin2 Hu2 Qiu1 Yue4” – Moon Reflected in West Lake (i.e. One of the most famous and beautiful lakes in China, located in West of Hangzhou, hence the name West Lake.)

This is the considered the best scene to behold during the Chinese moon festival.

This expression also means being in a high state of artistic appreciation especially in mid-autumn, the harvest season.

“Yue4 Bai2 Feng1 Qing1” – The moon is bright, the wind is soft.

A very special scene in the beautiful mid-autumn night guaranteed to make one homesick!

“Hua1 Hao3 Yue4 Yuan2” – Literally, the flower is intact and moon is full.

It means to live a life of fortune and happiness.

“Yue4 Xia4 Hua1 Qian2” – Under the moonlight and in front of the flowers

Definitely the place for lovers!

“Yue4 Xia4 Lao3 Ren2” – The old man under the moon.

The old man under the moon has everybody’s records in safe keeping, and from studying these he can tell which man will marry which woman. i.e. Marriage is determined by fate, a theme which underlies many Chinese novels.

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