In this instalment of our celebrations series across Asia, we explore the ancient Mid-Autumn Festival commemorated in China and throughout the region.
The Original Full-Moon Party
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival celebrated on the night of an especially bright full moon in China, Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Held on the fifteenth of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (September 10 in 2022), the festival is a public holiday in many Asian countries. Lanterns of all shapes, sizes, colors and decorations are symbolic icons of the festival, however fireworks, flashing lights and dance music (both modern and traditional), are now just as likely to fill the streets of Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau, as is a game of lucky dice in the Philippines. Similar street festivities are held worldwide in cities with large Asian populations – making Mid-Autumn a truly international festival.
The celebration is also known as the mooncake festival – after the round, rich red bean or lotus seed pastry typically consumed during the period. While in the past many families prided themselves on cooking their own version of the delicacy (sometimes by the light of the moon), today it is much more common to invest time choosing the most elaborate or famous brand of cake – and then distributing widely to family, friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, with this custom comes waste – with some estimates suggesting that as many as two million mooncakes are thrown away each year in Hong Kong alone.
Bringing in the Harvest
Ancient Chinese rites dating back to the beginning of agriculture itself may explain the start of this summer harvest festival. Close to the autumnal equinox when day and night are of equal length, a series of full moons over several nights rapidly rise on the horizon after sunset. Rice is harvested in China at this time of year, and the moonlight is said to have helped busy farmers extend their days and thus bring in crops with greater speed. While difficult to discern with the naked eye, the moon is brightest on the fifteenth day of the month.
Chasing the Moon
Today there are a plethora of local myths and religious beliefs explaining the festival throughout Asia. In China, poems describe how the lovely Chang’e was transformed into a goddess after stealing an immortal potion and subsequently floated to the moon. Similarly, a mid-autumn game in Guangdong province involves a woman surrounded by a circle of onlookers, each holding an incense stick to envelop her in a ring of smoke. The woman would seek to metaphorically awaken in heaven and describe its beauty. Earthlier explanations of current Chinese customs surrounding the festival include that revolutionary messages against the Mongol Dynasty were hidden in moon cakes, and lanterns were lit to signal an uprising on the day of the full moon. For their own part, the Mongolians today still enjoy the sublime experience of ‘chasing the moon’; riding all night in an impossible attempt to beat it to the horizon.
Vietnamese stories also describe an unlikely ascent to the moon by a wretched figure named Cuoi, a young man who discovered a magic banyan tree. The story goes that Cuoi’s wife offended the tree (in different versions of the story either by forgetting to water it, cutting its roots, or by urinating on it), and it subsequently uprooted itself and began floating into the night sky. Cuoi held its roots, trying to bring it back to earth, but was instead carried to the moon. According to some, you can still see Cuoi unhappily sitting on the moon under the banyan tree, missing his wife back on earth.
The family sits at the heart of Moon Festival celebrations. The moon’s wholeness symbolises the perfect unison of the family. Watching the night sky with family – either at home or in a quiet spot – is a customary ritual before entering larger, louder parades. Similar themes embody a different version of the festival in South Korea, which commemorates both the harvest – but more fundamentally – one’s family ancestors. A low-key celebration in Japan includes the same ‘moon viewing’ and the consumption of small rice dumplings. The Moon Festival is also a particularly special time for Vietnamese children, who typically traverse the streets alongside both professional and amateur dance groups performing dragon and lion parades. Children also carry fish-shaped lanterns that are said to keep away a mythical angry carp (or goldfish) that once came to terrorise the neighbourhood.
A Chance for Romance?
Bountiful harvests, family and children, bring us of course to the question of romance. Asia is not unique in seeing moonlight as synonymous with romance. Traditional courtships are sometimes orchestrated through games, dances and singing. Delivering a special gift to a potential partner, or a pre-arranged rendezvous, is also common on this night of nights. If you need any pointers, the moon goddess Chang’e symbolizes the romance and grace of doing this well. Pay special attention to the depictions of her whirling towards the moon – her husband’s jealously beckoning from the earth below.
Sending our warmest wishes to you and your loved ones
At J.P. Morgan Private Bank, we take a great pleasure in working with families globally. By respecting and celebrating cultural diversity, we look to enrich our world and to continue to pass on immense wonder and intrigue to future generations.