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HK Magazine Archive

What Is Mid-Autumn Festival All About?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 September, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:50pm

During the Mid-Autumn Festival I take the time to remember the hard-drinking, wine-obsessed poet Li Bai. The man was as close to a rock star as you’d get in seventh-century China, and the writer of the best-known poem in the Chinese language.

In Putonghua it’s called jìng yè sī (靜夜思), which variously translates to “Quiet Night Thoughts” or “Thoughts in the Still of the Night.” The poem is generally the first one any Chinese student learns, and with good reason. It goes like this:

床前明月光    chuáng qián míng yuè guāng
疑是地上霜    yí shì dì shàng shuāng
舉頭望明月    j tóu wàng míng yuè
低頭思故鄉    dī tóu sī gù xiāng

(Very) roughly translated, it reads as follows:

At the foot of the bed, the moon shines bright:
Almost like frost on the ground.
I raise my head towards the bright moon
I lower it, and think of home.

The image is clear. It’s late in the year. The poet can’t sleep, kept awake by a cold, bright glow. He thinks that there’s frost sitting on the ground—but then he realizes that no, it must be the gleam of the moon: a single, untouchable reminder of home. It’s a subtly, gently perfect poem.

In Imperial China, scholars and court mandarins were often sent to the farthest reaches of the empire to carry out the Emperor’s orders. It could be many years before a man would see his family again. Meanwhile in Chinese tradition, a round moon signifies completeness and union. That full moon is the reason that families always make an effort to get together on the Mid-Autumn Festival. So when Li Bai sees the moon above his head, he can’t help but get nostalgic.

“Quiet Night Thoughts” perfectly encapsulates that lonesome feeling of being far from those you love. In the poem the moon’s light is beautiful, but it’s a cold and austere beauty. It offers little solace to our poet, just a reminder that his duty keeps him away.

They say that Li Bai met his end in the year 762. The legend goes that the rock star poet was in a boat on the Yangtze River when he leaned out to embrace the reflection of the moon. He fell in, and drowned: The moon dominated his life and death alike.

This Mid-Autumn Festival, look up at the full moon, and be comforted that even if your loved ones aren’t with you, they’re looking up at the same moon—and thinking of you.