Mid-Autumn Festival

Mid-Autumn Festival
The Mid-Autumn Festival is generally thought to have long since become an entirely folklorized event: people eat ‘moon cakes’, share a family meal, and then go outdoors to ‘gaze at the moon’ (shangyue). The reality is very different: in the Hong Kong New Territories, for example, it is the day of all days to consult the mann mae phox (‘women who consult the rice’) and speak with the dead. In 1985 in Quanzhou, just after nightfall, people began to gather in the street near the site of a former temple to Chen Jinggu to ‘listen to the incense’ (tingxiang). Each person lit sticks of incense, planted them in the cracks in the brick wall in the alley where a small altar replaced the destroyed temple, and then stood silently in the street to wait for the chance word of a passer-by that could be used to divine the future. In 1990, in Fuzhou, I was told to go to a famous temple in nearby Fuqing dedicated to the Nine Immortals—nine brothers who, having turned into carp, ascended to heaven: the temple is, every Mid-Autumn Day, a privileged moment to come in ‘search of a dream’ (qiumeng). Clearly, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a key moment for entering into contact with the invisible world of spirits.
This festival clearly has religious dimension, particularly in the south, where it is associated with a specifically feminine mode of worship of the moon. In the Hakka county of Renhua (Shaoguan, Yuebei), starting on the first day of the month, the women gather in an inner courtyard—the men may not even watch—to ‘worship the Big Sister of the moon’. Under the direction of an elder, they invite the Lady of the lunar palace by means of songs that she herself once taught when she descended to earth during the Tang dynasty. The song of invitation begins thus:
Enjoy the moon high in the sky, up in the clouds,
Up in the clouds on high, in a thousand-room [palace];
Contract the lunar contract, contract with the Yin world,
Contract with the Yin world where Chang’e wraps;
Chang’e wraps the clouds up in the clear sky above.
When the Big Sister arrives, she is asked to designate the woman who, this year, will be her ‘replacement body’ (tishen). She obliges by causing chopsticks held by two young women to write in the rice in a winnowing basket. Once her representative has been named, the latter answers, by means not of words—speech is forbidden—but of gestures, whatever questions the women wish to ask about their lives and future. After fifteen days of songs and divination, on the evening of the sixteenth day of the month, the women thank the Lady of the Chang’e palace and send her back to the moon. Zhang Zhaohua adds this remark: ‘In northern Guangdong, there is a popular saying which states, “The men amuse themselves during the first month; in the eighth, it is the women who have fun.”’
Men, however, are not entirely excluded from this festival: throughout western Fujian, one encounters tales of divinatory practices—by dream, by the ‘god of the winnowing basket’ and the ‘god of the carrying stick’—which involve men every bit as much as women. In Yangjiang (along the coast, in southwestern Guangdong), by the light of the moon, the men gather on the rice-drying arena to ‘invite Huagang’, a ‘warrior god’. Some of the men stretch out full length on the ground, as if asleep: they are the potential ‘substitute bodies’ of the god. The others, having planted incense sticks at the four ‘entry gates’ of the arena, run around the supine men, singing, ‘Master Huaguang, show yourself. A troupe of players, many people, wish to perform martial arts, and have prepared money and gold.’ Among the sleepers, some begin to tremble—those who do not thus show themselves incapable of trance—and then slowly stand up, somnambulate, and finally begin to leap and assuming the postures of the martial arts. Men may also invite the ‘god of the table’ or the ‘mother of bullfrogs’—some even leap into a pond—while the women, closeted inside the house, invite the Seventh Lady, who can divine the future by inspecting the flowering tree of each of the women in the other world.
In general, the Hakka, even where the Mid-Autumn Festival no longer involves any rituals, celebrate a ‘meal of cohesion’ on that day whose only equal is that of New Year’s Eve. Even today, the young folk who have gone to work in the cities invariably come home for a week, often to participate in the annual village festival, sometimes called a Jiao (‘sacrifice’, ‘offering’), but in some areas known as chansha, a term no one is sure how to write but which may mean ‘to make confession before the god of the earth’. Both are community rituals addressed to the divine protection of the village—sacred rituals in which Daoists, dressed as women, play the sacred theatre of Chen Jinggu (see Lüshan jiao (Sannai jiao)).
What is the relationship between the first and eighth months, that they are both characterized by major community festivals? According to Suzuki, ‘The rituals of thanksgiving for a good year begin in the eighth month and fulfil thereby the vows made the day of the Lantern Festival when prayers for good fortune were made.’ A Taoist master in Zhangping (Long yan) told me that they did locally three kinds of jiao: those for the Lantern Festival, which involve the sacrifice of a pig and the dispatch to heaven of a document (pang) bearing the names of all the faithful; those of the first day of the seventh month, ‘for peace’; and those of Mid-Autumn, for the birthday of the god of the earth. An observer of customs in Taiwan, Wu Yingtao, confirms that the fifteenth day of the eighth moon is at once the birthday of the goddess of the moon, Taiyin niangniang (Lady of the Great Yin), and of the god of the earth: ‘On that day, every family must worship its ancestors, as well as the god of the earth.’ Thus is concentrated on that single day in the middle of autumn everything that belongs to the yin principle—the moon, the god of the earth, the dead—just as all that is yang is honoured in the first month.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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