What is Mid-Autumn Festival all about? Chinese legends, lanterns, and mooncake mountains in Hong Kong explained
Ancient event was held to celebrate family while giving thanks to crop harvest, and its spirit lives on, albeit altered to suit contemporary culture
“May we live long and share the beauty of the moon together, even if we are hundreds of miles apart.”
This line from a famous Song dynasty poem written by Su Shi, better known as Su Dongpo, perhaps best captures the spirit of Mid-Autumn Festival, an age-old event with roots in both Chinese and Vietnamese cultures.
As Hong Kong is once again illuminated by dazzling lanterns of all shapes and sizes, the Post explores the ancient history behind the festival, which falls on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar – the night when the moon is at its fullest and brightest.
For thousands of years, it has been an occasion for Chinese families and communities to come together and feast to give thanks for the harvest of crops following the summer.
Today, the family theme of the festival is still widely observed throughout Hong Kong. Children can be seen holding lanterns and shops tout mooncakes of every conceivable flavour.
The date, which falls on September 24 this year, is regarded as the second-most significant traditional Chinese festival after Lunar New Year. In Hong Kong, the following day after Mid-Autumn is a public holiday, while in mainland China, the break lasts from September 22 to 24.
From legend to fact
The central legend associated with Mid-Autumn Festival concerns the goddess Chang’e. This tale tells of how, long ago, the Earth had 10 suns, the heat of which ravaged the world with a terrible drought.
At the request of the Emperor of Heaven, the great archer Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, saving life on Earth. As a reward for this feat, Hou Yi was given the elixir of immortality, which he hid in his home, planning to share it with his beautiful wife, Chang’e.
But while Hou Yi was away hunting, his wicked apprentice, Feng Meng, came to his home to steal the elixir. Chang’e, determined to keep it out of Feng’s hands, drank the potion and ascended to the heavens, where she took the moon as her home.
It is said that, to this day, those who look hard enough can see Chang’e’s likeness in the moon. China’s Lunar Exploration Programme takes its name from the goddess, and this December, the Chang’e 4 mission will be launched – slated as the first mission to make a “soft” or unstaffed landing on the far side of the moon.
On the night of Mid-Autumn Festival, do not forget to look into the heavens and admire the moon in its full glory, for this is when its orbit brings it closest to the Earth.
The moon should appear a bright yellow, but if it becomes orange or red, do not mistake this for any part of myth or legend: environmentalists have said this is the result of dust or pollution in the air.
A very Hong Kong holiday
Now, as in years past, extended families gather together for a feast. Among the many activities associated with the festival, children are encouraged to make and decorate their own lanterns, though nowadays these can be bought ready-made.
Celebrations are also held annually in Hong Kong, with lantern carnivals in parks and estates across the city. This year these will take place each night from September 22 to 25.
One unique Hong Kong practice is the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance, featuring up to 300 performers carrying an incense-festooned straw dragon. The dance originated from the Tai Hang community in the 19th century, in which villagers held the event to drive away bad luck. It has lived on for more than a century and made its way onto the national list of intangible cultural heritage.
This year the dragon will appear from September 23 to 25, and wind its way along Lily Street, Ormsby Street and Tung Lo Wan Road, near Causeway Bay.
Mountains of mooncakes
Much of the contemporary interest in Mid-Autumn Festival revolves around the famous mooncake. The quintessential delicacy of the festival, mooncakes are a dense pastry made of lotus seed paste and salted duck egg yolk. To be sure, there are thousands of regional and contemporary variations, and nowadays one can find ostentatious confections flavoured with everything from coffee to champagne and truffles.
Accounts of the origin of the mooncake vary: historians generally agree that they first appeared during the Tang dynasty (618–907), but one particularly patriotic legend has it that during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Han revolutionaries smuggled messages inside mooncakes to orchestrate an uprising against Mongolian rule. There is, however, little evidence to support this claim.
In recent years, mooncakes have found themselves at the centre of controversy, and what was originally a celebration of plenty has become synonymous with modern-day excess.
Each year, as Mid-Autumn approaches, businesses and individuals spend thousands of dollars on lavishly packaged mooncake gifts.
Many such gifts go straight to the landfill, the problem reaching such a scale that the government has run campaigns to promote environmentally friendly mooncake packaging.
Yet such initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. According to environmental charity Green Power, Hong Kong residents dumped more than 1.6 million mooncakes in 2017, adding drastically to the city’s near-exhausted landfills.