The advent of the fall season is eagerly awaited in most parts of the world, and it is no different here in Hong Kong. It maybe still hot and sultry in the SAR but according to the lunar calendar autumn is already upon us as we have entered the eighth month of the year. The Chinese celebrate this change of seasons by feting the moon. However, this practice of paying homage to the moon is not a recent phenomenon rather it dates back more than 3000 years to the era of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC).
The celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival is slated for the15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This day usually coincides with the appearance of a new full moon. The festival usually spans three days as people welcome the new moon on the 14th day and then bid adieu to the celestial body as it begins to wane on the 16th day. This year the festival will be celebrated from the 26th to the 29th of September. As with several other Chinese festivals, the Mid-Autumn festival also has various legends associated with its origin.
Sacrifices to the moon to ensure a good harvest
The practice of offering sacrifices and celebrating the moon originated with the Tang Dynasty and it gained in popularity during the reign of the Song Dynasty until it was firmly established during the Ming and Qing dynasties. At first the practice of offering sacrifices to the moon were the domain of Emperors and wealthy noblemen but down the ages it came to be celebrated by the general public as well. Families and friends gathered together to offer sacrifices such as osmanthus-flavored wine and orb-shaped fruits such as pears, oranges, grapes and pomegranates to the moon.
The term ‘Mid-Autumn’ first appeared in literature published during the reign of the Zhou dynasty.
The legend of Chang’e and Houyi
Another legend associated with the festival recounts the tale of Chang’e and Houyi, a couple who were immortal and resided in heaven. One day the ten sons of the Jade Emperor who lived in heaven turned themselves into ten suns. The heat from these ten Suns scorched the Earth and caused all life to perish.
The Jade Emperor summoned Houyi and asked him to stop his sons from destroying Earth. Houyi promptly proceeded to kill nine of the ten sons, leaving just one to be the sun. Houyi's actions angered the Jade Emperor instead of being pleased; he banished both Houyi and Chang’e to live on earth as mortals.
Chang’e was very upset at losing her ability to be immortal,so Houyi set forth to find her the pill of immortality.
The story transgresses a bit at this point. While one version says that Chang'e consumes the pill of immortality by accident, another version states that she consumes the pill to prevent Houyi’s apprentice Feng Meng from acquiring it. Both versions say that once Chang’e got her hands on the pill she became immortal and went back to the moon where she had only a jade rabbit for company. Chang'e and Houyi were then separated forever. However, during the Mid-Autumn Festival the bright rays of the moon illuminate a path that helps Houyi to access the moon and his beloved Chang’e.
In fact, the tradition of displaying shining lanterns during the Mid-Autumn festival is thought to have come about due to this legend. For it is believed that people on Earth helped House to get to his beloved Chang’e by illuminating his path with the light of many shining lanterns.
The legend of the Moon cakes
Moon cakes, a form of traditional Chinese pastry filled with salted egg yolk and lotus seed paste feature prominently during the Mid-Autumn Festival. In fact, bakeries at the luxurious five-star hotels in Hong Kong like the Peninsula, the Shangri-La, the Mira amongst others announce their moon cake incarnations several months in advance of the festival. They do this as people order and buy moon cakes to gift to family, friends and business associates for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
While classic moon cakes feature the salted duck egg yolk and lotus seed paste filling, the modern versions of moon cakes have a whole smorgasbord of fillings such as chocolate ganache, ice cream, jujube paste and more in order to serve modern tastes. The moon cakes feature an outer layer imprinted with three to six Chinese characters.
The practice of consuming moon cakes harks back to the ruleof the Mongol Yuan (1271-1368) in China. The native Han people greatly resented the rule of the Mongols. Thus, the leader of the Han people Chu Yuan-chang together with his trusted advisor Liu Bo-wen went on to hatch an ingenious plot to overthrow the Mongols. Their plot consisted of starting and spreading a rumor that a horrific plague was to descend on the land, and the only way to halt this terrible event and protect the populace was to consume moon cakes.
The revolutionaries proceeded to distribute moon cakes. Concealed within these small pastries was the message ‘Rise on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon.' The message succeeded in uniting the Han people who proceed then to overthrow the Yuan. Since this time moon cakes have come to be associated with the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival for they symbolize unity and happiness. Moon cakes till this day, are imprinted with Chinese characters that spell out these ideas.
The celebrations of the Mid-Autumn festival are evident all over Hong Kong. Holiday markets dot Lantern and Queen Streets in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island while lantern and moon cake crafting workshops also form apart of celebrations.
Hong Kongers clean and spruce up their homes in time for the festival. They hang lanterns and cook sumptuous meals for family and friends. Moon cakes feature prominently as desert and are consumed in accompaniment with green tea. A stunning full moon illuminates the night skies over Hong Kong during the festival. Folks usually head out for an after dinner stroll to one of the many viewing points all over Hong Kong.