ALSO CALLED THE MOON FESTIVAL – 中秋節 (Zhōngqiū jié)
One of the perks of living in/travelling to non-Christianised countries is there are many holidays and festivals we don’t necessarily know about. While living in Taiwan for about a year, I could barely apprehend and celebrate a few holidays from the lunisolar calendar. Each festival has its own traditions, legends, superstitions, but also its own mascots, lottery scratchers (amongst others!) and, of course, its own food! It’s not just all about the Chinese New Year in this part of South-East Asia, far from it! There are also the dragon boat festival, the ghost’s month, the lantern festival, or even the cleaning tombs’ day (I already told you about this one on Instagram)
But what I’m interested in talking about today is the Mid-Autumn Festival, also called the Moon Festival, (中秋節 – Zhōngqiū jié) which is celebrated at the moment (September 13th 2019) all around the Chinese diaspora. This day is a holiday in Taiwan and is about mooncakes, an immortal young lady, a Jade Rabbit and barbecues!
THE LUNISOLAR CALENDAR
Before going any further, it’s important to talk about the lunar calendar. Or rather the lunisolar calendar. In fact, this calendar, which is used in countries like Taiwan, China, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet and some regions of India, was also used by the Incas, the Egyptians and even the Celtics.
We’re talking about lunisolar calendar because it’s based on the annual cycle of the Sun for the counting of years, as well as the regular cycle of the moon phases for the counting of months. Each month is starting with a new moon. This calendar is now mainly used to define the dates of traditional and religious holidays and festivals. This is why the Chinese New Year always occurs one or two months after the New Year from the Gregorian calendar: it’s generally the date corresponding to the second new moon after the winter’s solstice.
As for the Mid-Autumn Festival, it’s celebrated the night of the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (which varies between September and October in the Gregorian calendar). There’s a full moon on that night and it’s supposed to be the roundest and the most beautiful moon of the year! The round and bright moon symbolizes family unity and gathering.
THE LEGEND OF CHANG’E & THE JADE RABBIT
Behind the Moon Festival, there’s the legend of Chang’e (嫦娥) an immortal young lady living in a Palace on the Moon (does it also rings a bell to you?). There are many different legends about Chang’e, but the most common one goes like this: once upon a time there were ten suns in the sky. Obviously, it made the plants burn and humans were dying of heat and dehydration. Until a mythical archer named Hou Yi (后羿), took things in charge, and aimed his bow and threw his arrows towards the suns, one after the other until there was just one left. The world was saved. As a reward, the gods offered him an elixir of immortality.
However, as he met his wife Chang’e, he didn’t want to use it, as he’d rather stay with his beloved -being immortal alone wouldn’t be of any interest. He then gave the elixir to Chang’e. That’s when comes into scene Hou Yi’s apprentice named Fengmen (逢蒙) who, jealous of his master’s fame and deeds, tried to steal the elixir a day when Hou Yi was out hunting. As Chang’e didn’t want to give him the elixir of immortality and couldn’t defeat him, she then decided to drink it and ended up rising in the sky. She chose the Moon for her residence to stay as close as she could from her husband stayed on Earth. All alone, Hou Yi started to venerate the Moon and making offerings with cakes and fruits for her beloved wife Chang’e. The legend says that Chang’e is still living on the Moon and that we can catch sight of her face in the Moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The image of the now goddess Chang’e is often associated with the Jade Rabbit (玉兔- Yùtù ) also called the Moon Rabbit or the Apothecary Hare, busy making the elixir of immortality on the Moon with a mortar. He’s diligently squashing some cassia’s rind with bamboo juice and toad’s brain (sounds yummy, right?!) It seems that the legend says that when the Buddha was starving to death, the hare threw himself into the fire as an offering. Buddha then sent his soul to the Moon as a reward for his sacrifice. Since then, he’s living there with Chang’e in her beautiful palace.
A MOONCAKE OR NOTHING!
Since a holiday in Taiwan isn’t of any interest if there’s no delicious food involved, let me introduce you to the Yuè bǐng (月餅), or Mooncake! Those delicacies of different shapes and flavours can be found in every good pastry shop before the festival (and even all year round in the supermarkets). They’re obviously round-shaped as a reminder of the full Moon, but also as a symbol of equilibrium and gathering. Those cakes are skilfully decorated with embossed patterns of flowers or Chinese characters of good omens or even, more recently, characters indicating the cake’s flavours as a way to facilitate the client’s choice.
And there’s a lot of choices! They can be stuffed with red bean paste, lotus seeds paste, jujube paste, durian paste, nuts paste, etc… There are even some stuffed with meat or mushrooms! In Taiwan, they are traditionally stuffed with mung bean paste or taro paste. And sometimes, you can find a salted duck egg yolk inside, which makes this delicacy as heavy in calories as surprising!
Mooncakes are traditionally made with sculpted wooden moulds. This tradition of eating mooncakes goes back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as a way to thank the gods for the autumn’s harvests. The Moon has always been associated (as well as water) with renewal in the Chinese tradition: the Moon can affect the women’s periods and the full Moon can symbolize the pregnant woman – as if Chang’e could have found her way back to Hou Yi.
According to Marielle Brie’s research on her blog “Objets d’Art et d’Histoire” (“Objects of Art and History”), those little mooncakes had a role to play in China in the XIVth Century:
« Notons d’ailleurs que le cuisine fusion sucré-salé chinoise n’emporta pas un vif succès auprès des envahisseurs mongols. Une légende populaire veut que le signal de la révolte des Han contre la dynastie mongole squattant alors le territoire (à partir de 1279) ait été donné par le biais de messages cachés dans les gâteaux de lune. Les Mongols goûtant manifestement peu la pâtisserie chinoise laissèrent circuler les gâteaux sans se douter de rien et se prirent une formidable raclée en 1368, ouvrant la voie à l’avènement de la dynastie Ming en Chine. »
“It’s worth noting that the sweet and sour fusion Chinese cuisine was not a great success amongst the Mongol invaders. A popular legend says that the signal of the Han uprising against the Mongol Dynasty which was occupying the territory (since 1279) was given through messages hidden into mooncakes. As the Mongol obviously didn’t enjoy the Chinese patisserie, they let the mooncakes come and go without suspecting anything and took a tremendous beating in 1368, then opening the way to the rise of the Ming Dynasty in China.”Marielle Brie
THE MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL TODAY
- MAKING POMELO HATS
This time of the year is also the pomelo (柚子-Yòuzi) season! Besides the fact that pomelos can also symbolize gathering with their round shapes -like the Moon- as well as a good harvest, “Yòuzi” in Mandarin is a homophone for “prayer for a son” and symbolises prosperity and heritage. It’s said that eating a pomelo and put the rind on your head will make your wishes come true as the goddess Chang’e will see it from the Moon.
Another tradition came up with time, and many people are now sculpting the pomelo’s rinds. It’s kind of funny because many different pomelo’s sculptures can be found on the Internet, everyone’s getting a hand on it! Here you can even find a tutorial on how to turn your pomelo into a Totoro!
- BARBECUES ON THE SIDEWALK
Since about twenty years or so, in Taiwan, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated… on the sidewalks! Taiwanese people gather with their family and/or friends around a barbecue. Because of the smoke and since not many houses have a garden, but every house has a porch, you can witness rows of barbecues on the sidewalk! And if the sky is clear, it allows everyone to enjoy the full Moon while dining.
Apparently, this tradition was born thanks to a barbecue sauce brand which suggested to have a barbecue for the festival. As the weather is still good at this period of the year, the barbecue tradition kept on, selling tons of barbecue sauces!
- A WASTE FESTIVAL
Nowadays, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important holiday in the Chinese diaspora, right after the Chinese New Year. Mooncakes are sold everywhere and all year round. Even Starbuck and Haagen Dasz have their own mooncakes with their brand’s logo as a pattern. Some are sold in luxurious boxes which can be found in big department stores. Sales are booming, not so much because people are loving eating mooncakes -as a matter of fact, many people find them too heavy- but because that’s the tradition to offer them.
And traditions are sacred in this part of the world, as a code of honour that must be respected. So, everyone is gifting mooncakes to everyone, even though no one really wants to eat whole boxes of them. It’s a bit like Easter chocolates: you didn’t really plan to eat all those bunnies and eggs, so you end up baking a brownie out of them. Except that there’s no way of melting mooncakes into something else, right?
As everything is overwrapped in Asia, each mooncake is wrapped into a plastic container which is itself wrapped and sold into a wrapped box… that’s a lot of wrapping. The amount of waste following the Mid-Autumn Festival is unbelievable. And that’s even worse when thinking of all the mooncakes that won’t be eaten.
Nonetheless, I do like to eat mooncakes and you can offer me a beautiful box if you feel like it – as long as it’s not stuffed with meat or durian- I’ll be pleased and happy to taste bits of Taiwan again.
While living in Taiwan, I only remember the Moon Festival holiday spent snorkelling in Longdong, in the North East of the island, with my Taiwanese friend Joy. We decided to hitchhike our way back to Taipei, and the Taiwanese guy who picked us up had some beautiful boxes of mooncakes in the rear seats. He just offered us some and that was my first time eating the ones with the salty duck egg yolk stuffed inside! What a surprise! I still remember him making a huge detour on his way to drop us off in the heart of the city.
Now blurry, I have memories of pomelo hats and sculptures while living and working at the World Inn hostel in Hualien, as well as a barbecue under a bridge, beside the Tamsui River in Taipei. Foreign traditions are always fascinating to me and believe me I will not soon forget about this first bite into a mooncake while hitchhiking!
I actually was delighted and over the moon (if I may say) when I found mooncakes at my local Asian shop the other day. If my nostalgia of Taiwan would have a taste, on that day, it was of mooncakes.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!
Wish you a perfect life just like the roundest moon in Mid-Autumn Day.
Yuàn nǐ de shēnghuó jiù xiàng zhè shíwǔ de yuèliàng yīyàng, yuán yuánmǎn mǎn
Wikipedia Posts (ENG/FR):
- About the lunisolar calendar
- About the Mid-Autumn Festival
- About the Jade Rabbit
- About Chang’e
- About Hou Yi
Three legends from the Mid-Autumn Festival (China Highlights – ENG)
Chang’e, goddess of the Moon (Chine Informations – FR)
The Jade Hare (Le blog du lièvre lunaire – FR)
The Moon Festival (Chine Informations -FR)
The wooden moulds for the Chinese Mooncakes (Marielle Brie – FR)
5 Taiwanese Customs to celebrate Moon festival (The Culture Trip – ENG)
The Moon Festival (The Travel King – ENG)
The Mooncakes’ curse (Le Manger – FR)
Useful Mandarin Phrases for the Mid-Autumn Festival (ThoughtCo – ENG)