Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节 is one of the most important Chinese festivals. It takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese calendar, and is a celebration of the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox. In other words, it’s the full moon we see in September or early October, known in English as the Harvest Moon.

Mid-Autumn Festival is associated with harvest and thanksgiving. It’s a time for family and friends to get together, gaze at the moon, remember loved ones far away, give and eat mooncakes, and guess lantern riddles. And, like all good festivals, there’s a legend that goes with it! Chang’E’ Flies to the Moon 《嫦娥奔月》 is the sad story of Chang’E and and Hou Yi, the married couple destined to live on different planets: Chang’E on the moon, and Hou Yi on earth.

There are many different versions of this legend. One of them says that a long, long time ago there were ten suns in the sky, and they shone so brightly they scorched the earth. Hou Yi, the archer, shot nine of them down, leaving only one sun in the sky. As a reward, the Queen Mother of the West gave him the Elixir of Life – a drink that would take him straight to heaven and make him immortal. But Hou Yi didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to stay with his beautiful wife Chang’E. So he gave her the Elixir of Life, and asked her to look after it. Chang’E kept it safe in her dressing table. But one day, when Hou Yi was out hunting, a man called Feng Meng burst into her room and demanded that she give him the Elixir. She refused, and rather than hand it over, drank it herself. Immediately, Chang’E rose from the ground, floated out through the window and away towards heaven. When Hou Yi returned that night, and heard what had happened, he was heartbroken. He gazed up at the sky, and against the bright light of the full moon saw a swaying shadow just like his wife’s. He was on earth, she was on the moon. There was no way he could reach Chang’E, but he could not stop thinking about her. He missed her so much that he set up a table in the garden, and laid it with her favourite foods, for her to enjoy in her moon palace.

Some versions of this legend are clearly for children (although we found surprisingly few picture books for such a big festival). Some are more ambiguous, even sinister – perhaps the most famous of these is Flight to the Moon 《奔月》 by Lu Xun 鲁迅, in his collection Old Tales Retold 《故事新编》 (1935). The story of Chang’E going to the moon is so well-known that when China sent a space probe to the moon, the probe was named after her!

For a long time I didn’t understand why this festival is called the Mid-Autumn Festival. From my English perspective, Autumn starts on the 21st of September. It felt wrong to be celebrating the middle of Autumn before my Autumn had even started!  But when we look at the Twenty Four Solar Terms (二十四节气), it’s obvious that the Mid-Autumn Festival is in the middle of Autumn! It’s halfway between the Beginning of Autumn and the Beginning of Winter.

In many Chinese stories , there are no clocks or watches to tell us the time, but there are other indicators: the position of the sun in the sky (rising in the east, overhead at noon, setting in the west), the early morning haze, the blur of twilight, or smoke rising from the chimney just before mealtimes. The Twenty Four Solar Terms appear frequently in Chinese literature. They set the scene, and often express emotion (for example, the Beginning of Autumn is such a welcome relief after the stifling heat of summer).

The 24 Solar Terms

  1.   立春   li chun  –  Beginning of Spring (approx 4 Feb)
  2.   雨水   yu shui  –  Rain Water (approx 19 Feb)  –  it’s raining rather than snowing
  3.   惊蛰   jing zhe  –  Waking of Insects (approx 6 Mar)  –  little creatures are stirring
  4.   春分   chun fen   –   Spring Equinox (approx 2 Mar)  –  day and night are equal length
  5.   清明   qing ming   –   Clear and Bright (approx 5 Apr)  –  it’s time to sweep the graves
  6.   谷雨   gu yu  –  Grain Rain (approx 20 Apr)  –  the ground is wet, time to sow the seeds
  7.   立夏   li xia  –  Beginning of Summer (approx 6 May)
  8.   小满   xiao man  –  Grain Full (approx 21 May)  –  the grain’s growing, and filling out
  9.   芒种   mang zhong  –  Grain in Beard (approx 6 Jun)  –  the grain’s growing bristles
  10.   夏至   xia zhi  –  Summer Solstice (approx 21 Jun)  –  the longest day of the year
  11.   小暑   xiao shu  –  Slight Heat (approx 7 Jul)  –  it’s getting warm
  12.   大暑   da shu  –  Great Heat (approx 23 Jul)  –  the hottest time of the year
  13.   立秋   li qiu  –  Beginning of Autumn (approx 8 Aug)
  14.   处暑   chu shu  –  End of Heat (approx 23 Aug)  –  the temperature’s dropping
  15.   白露   bai lu  –  White Dew (approx 8 Sept)  –  there’s frost in the morning
  16.   秋分   qiu fen  –  Autumn Equinox (approx 23 Sept)  –  day and night are equal length
  17.   寒露   han lu  –  Cold Dew (approx 8 Oct)  –  leaves are starting to fall
  18.   霜降   shuang jiang  –  Frost’s Descent (approx 23 Oct)  –  there’s hoar frost and ice
  19.   立冬   li dong  –  Beginning of Winter (approx 7 Nov)
  20.   小雪   xiao xue  –  Slight Snow (approx 22 Nov)  –  there’s snow
  21.   大雪   da xue  –  Great Snow (approx 7 Dec)  –  the snowiest time of the year
  22.   冬至   dong zhi  –  Winter Solstice (approx 22 Dec)  –  the shortest day of the year
  23.   小寒   xiao han  –   Slight Cold (approx 6 Jan)  –  it’s cold
  24.   大寒   da han  –  Great Cold (approx 20 Jan)  –  the coldest time of the year

There’s something special about traditional calendars. And it seems they are popular again. A few years ago the Palace Museum in Beijing revived its traditional calendar, and it’s a bestseller!

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! 中秋快乐!

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