Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Autumnal Equinox, The Harvest Moon, and The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival


The Autumnal Equinox


The Autumnal Equinox occurs when the nights and days are approximately equal, and as the days are growing shorter. It is a solar event, marking one of the 2 points when the sun passes directly over the equator, the other being the Vernal or Spring Equinox. The length of the days depends on the earth's axial tilt and its orbit around the sun. In the Northern hemisphere the earth begins to tilt  away from the sun from about the Autumnal Equinox to the Vernal one, with the maximum tilt away, and hence the shortest days, being at the Winter Solstice (~Dec 20-22). The earth then begins to tilt towards the sun, with the maximum tilt towards, and hence the longest days, being at the Summer Solstice (~June 20-22).

Each of these 4 major solar events has been a cause for celebration throughout the world, across cultures and since ancient times. The autumnal celebrations are those of harvest festivals, as the growing season comes to an end, and crops are harvested for preparation, storage, and distribution over the upcoming winter, and for seed supplies for the following spring. These harvest festivals occur throughout the Autumn or Fall, depending on local custom and also growing seasons. Thus Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada are mid-October, while in the US they are late November. The UK celebrates the Harvest on the Sunday closest to the Autumnal Equinox.

Like the Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox, and the Summer Solstice, in the interest of "North South relations" between the hemispheres, and to accurately avoid confusion, it would be best to name the Autumnal Equinox by its Gregorian calendar month, as the September Equinox, which has its corresponding and opposite season, whether one is celebrating in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

The Harvest Moon


This year the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the time of the Autumnal Equinox coincides (almost) with the Autumnal Equinox itself. It usually occurs in late September to October.

The Harvest Moon is special, because it rises earlier in relation to sunset that the usual full moon. Due to the narrowed ellipsis of the earth's orbit around the sun at the Autumnal Equinox, the moon rises about 30 minutes after sunset during autumn, rather than at about 50 minutes later.


Thus the full moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox may appear bigger (because of an optical illusion due to its closeness to the horizon), brighter, and more colourful (because the reflected light of the sun on the low hanging moon passes through more atmospheric particles) than other full moons.

Its name derives from its presence earlier after sunset, and thus as an aid to the farmers at the end of a long harvesting day.


No less spectacular, though higher in the sky, the September Full Moon in the Southern Hemisphere, is part of the beginning of Spring (something to celebrate!).

The first full moon of the Australian Spring, photo of the September Full Moon in Australia, 2005, 
by Dylan O'Donnell, Deography

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival


More correctly this is an East Asian Mid-Autumn Festival, though it is a more prominent custom in China, and in "China Towns" throughout  the world. Traditions vary  from one East Asian country to another, through different regions of China, and among different ethnic minorities of China. A particularly interesting one is that of the Dong People, of Hunan Province, described below.

The interesting custom "Stealing Moon Dishes" is widely practiced on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival in the areas of Hunan Province where Dong people gather.
It's said that in ancient times, the fairies in Moon Palace would descend to the human world at the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival and sprinkle nectar all over the world, so that people could share together the fruits and vegetables sprinkled with the unselfish nectar. The custom is thus named "Stealing Moon Dishes" by the Dong people.
On that very night, ladies will hold their colorful umbrellas and pick the vegetables or fruits in their beloved young man’s vegetable garden without being regarded as thieves. Meanwhile, they will knowingly give out a loud cry: "Hello! I've got your vegetables, come to my house to have some oil tea!" Actually, they are expressing their feelings on this very day! It's said that if they are lucky enough to pick two fruits on one stalk, they will get happiness and love. So the kidney beans growing in couple have become their target. The married women will also "steal" vegetables from neighborhood gardens in the hope of picking the biggest melon or a handful of fresh Maodou (green soy beans, which shares a partial tone with "Maotou", or children) that signifies strong and healthy children. The young men will not skip the custom too, since they also hope that the fairies in the moon will give them happiness. However, they are supposed to cook the vegetables in the open air instead of taking them home. The custom brings great joy and fantasy to Dong villages on the Mid-Autumn Festival.



Greetings and celebrations occur throughout East and Southeast Asia: China, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam, Korea. They are part of universal harvest celebrations in various manifestations across cultures and over time and space. In the East Asian calendar this festival is second only to New Year in the spring.

Traditional Chinese Legends

Long long ago, there were 10 suns in the sky. They burnt all the plants on the earth. People were dying.
One day, a hero whose name was Hou Yi used his bow and arrows to shoot down nine of them. All the people on the earth were saved.
One day, the queen of heaven gave Hou Yi a bottle elixir that could make Hou Yi become an immortal, but the elixir was only efficacious for one person. Hou Yi did want to become an immortal, but he wanted to stay with his beautiful wife Chang'e more, so he didn't drink the elixir and asked his wife Chang'e to keep it for him.
Hou Yi was becoming more and more famous after he shot down the nine suns and more and more men wanted Hou Yi to be their master. Most of them were accepted by Hou Yi.
Not every student of Hou Yi had good morality. Feng Meng, one of his students, wanted to seize his elixir. One day, Hou Yi went hunting with his students, but Feng Meng pretended to be ill and stay at home. When making sure Hou Yi had gone he went to Hou Yi's house and tried to force Chang'e to give him the elixir. Chang'e knew she couldn't defeat Feng Meng so she drank the elixir immediately. The elixir made her become an immortal and fly higher and higher. Finally, she stopped on the moon.
From then on, people often pray to Chang'e for fortune and safety. During the Mid-Autumn Festival they offer lots of foods to Chang'e.

Chang'e flies to the moon, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner
嫦娥

The Goddess Chang'e in the Lunar Palace, 16th-17th century Ming Dynasty

Legend has it that there were three immortals that turned themselves into three poor old men asking a fox, monkey and rabbit for food. The fox and the monkey had food to give them, but the rabbit had none and didn't know what to do. Later, the rabbit said: "just eat me for food!" With that, the rabbit jumped into a blazing fire, making himself ready to be eaten. The immortals were deeply touched and sent the rabbit to the palace on the moon to keep Chang'e company and he was made a jade rabbit.

Rabbit figurines have become popular toys and symbols of the Mid-Autumn Festival
A rabbit figurine is a popular Mid-Autumn Festival toy in old Beijing. The figurine is an artistic image of a personified or even deified rabbit based on the legendary jade rabbit on the moon. The figurines are made of clay and come in various shapes, but all are white-faced, wearing golden helmets and armors, with flags or canopies on the back. They ride such animals as lions, tigers, deer and elephants etc.

Apart from the famous mythological story of "Cheng'e Flying to the Moon", there's another moon related story, which is about the laurel tree cutter Wu Gang. It is said that there was an extremely tall laurel tree on the moon and a man called Wu Gang was ordered to cut down the tree as a punishment for offending the god of heaven. He was not allowed to go home until he could cut down the tree. But the problem was that each time he chopped the tree, it would instantly grow back, making it impossible for him to cut it down. Like Chang'e, he had no choice but to cut the tree on the moon forever.

Mid-Autumn Festival Lanterns

Lanterns are a natural part of the "Moon Festival" for its emphasis on light and for the place of lanterns in Chinese celebrations generally. This festival is the second largest one in terms of lanterns, following in importance the Lantern Festival that marks the end of Chinese New Year in the Spring.

Mid-Autumn Lanterns, of the Kongming (Hung Ming) lantern type,
which rise up and fly because of the heat from the burning candle

Colourful Mid-Autumn lanterns, Vietnam

Straw Dragon Lanterns of Wuyuan



Dances Beneath the Moon

The dances described below are codified cultural rituals associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, and particularly with certain regional or ethnic celebrations.

Fire Dragon Dance, Hong Kong, a particular tradition there
Fire dragon dance is the most traditional custom on the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong, dating back some 100 years. Every year, grand fire dragon shows are performed for three nights in a row in Tai Hang of Causeway Bay starting the 14th of August on the lunar calendar. The fire dragon is more than 70 meters long with its body divided into 32 segments, all of which are stuffed with straw and stuck full of incense sticks. On the festive night, the streets and alleyways in the area are packed with fire dragons joyfully dancing to drum music against the backdrop lit by colored lights, creating a fantastic atmosphere for the festival.

On the Mid-Autumn night when the bright moon sheds light over the Miao villages, after a family gathering in the house, every household will come to a vacant field in the mountain forest to sing and dance under the moon.
According to a legend of Miao ethnic group, the moon was a simple and honest young man who was hardworking and brave. A beautiful lady named Shui Qing fell in love with him despite of proposals made by 99 young men from 99 states. After trials given by the sun, she finally tied the knot with the moon and lived happily ever after. In order to remember their love, every generation of Miao minority will dance under the moon, referring to the custom as "Tiao Yue", or moon dance. The unmarried men and women will look for their love during the dance. Once found, they will express their feelings and vow that their love will stay pure and last like the happiness between the couple - Shui Qing and the moon.


The Ball-Holding Dance of the Gaoshan People, Taiwan
On the night of every Mid-Autumn Festival, the Gaoshan ethnic people in Taiwan traditionally put up beautiful ethnic costumes and gather around the Sun Moon Lake, playing the game of "ball-holding dance" in the moonlight. The colored ball symbolizes the sun and the moon, which is said to have something to do with the legend about the Sun Moon Lake. In the game, people try to keep the colored ball in the air, preventing it from falling to the ground. The game represents their wishes for good weather and banner harvests in the year.

Moon Worship Dance of the Dai People
The custom of "worshiping the moon" on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival is popular among the Dai people in Yunnan Province. According to the Dai legend, the moon was the incarnation of Yan Jian, the third son of the god of heaven. Yan Jian was a brave and unyielding man, who led the Dai people in defeating their enemies. He was greatly respected and supported by the Dai people. Sadly, he later died. But he changed into the moon and rose into the sky, giving out gentle light and bringing brightness to the Dai people in the dark night.
On every Mid-Autumn Festival night, the Dai people traditionally put a round glutinous cake on each of the four corners of a table, with a joss stick on each cake. When the moon rises in the sky over the mountain, the sticks are lit. The whole family then begins to "worship the moon". And black powder gun shots are fired into the sky as a way of paying tribute to the hero Yan Jian. After that, the whole family sits around the table, eating delicacies, chatting and enjoying the moon.


Mooncakes


As seen in various images particularly those below, "mooncakes" are a traditional treat of the Mid-Autumn Festival. They are prepared in traditional flavours--egg yolk, lotus seed paste, sweetened bean paste, five kernel (of nuts and seeds), jujube paste-- and packaged in traditional reds and golds. Regional specialties, like Cantonese melon paste or sweetened meat mooncakes, larger Chaoshan mung bean or black bean potato paste cakes in a distinctive crust, and Ningbo-style savoury mooncakes, are part of local celebrations. Newer types, like ice cream moon cakes, are more contemporary confections.







Flowers


The moon cake packaging design above, along with the flowers in other pictures, and in the designs on moon cakes themselves, show that flowers in bloom--here peonies and lotus flowers--are also a traditional part of the Mid-Autumn Festival, though one which is less prominent than previously. In the past, a "flower mountain" or pyramid of flower pots would be set in the window sill, in anticipation of the full moon marking the Mid-Autumn festival, and gazing upon them before and during the festival was one part of the celebration. Urban life has made this less common.

Moon Watching

Moon watching as a family, while having a celebratory dinner, or treats is a common custom

Moon over calm West Lake, perfect for moon watching

Celebrating under the moon, and red lanterns


Happy September Equinox to All!
Is my reluctance to celebrate Fall showing?
I might be ready for it by Thanksgiving--US Thanksgiving that is!


Related Posts:
The Winter Solstice: Where Physics Meets Culture for All
The Vernal Equinox: Springtime in Saudi and the Equinoctial Day and Night that Join Us All
The Summer Solstice--June 21, 2010; Midsummer Celebrations: June 21-24; St John the Baptist/ Yahya ibn Zakariya يحيى بن زكريا

Sources for Mid-Autumn Festival:
China Highlights, Mid-Autumn Festival
Traditions Cultural China


Do you celebrate the September Equinox? How?
Have you participated in a Mid-Autumn Festival?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

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