Mid-Autumn Festival in the eyes of Chinese literati

By / 09-30-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A detail of “Moon Rabbit Under an Osmanthus Tree” by Jiang Pu (1708–1761), a court official of the Qing Dynasty Photo: FILE 

Deng Yunxiang (1924–1999) is a Chinese scholar known for his works about Chinese history and customs written in a warm humanist style. In his book Yanjing Xiangtu Ji (Custom in Beijing), Deng described how people in Beijing celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival in old times: 
“In the human world, sometimes the imagination is more beautiful than reality. After Apollo 11 landed humans on the moon, people realized that the moon, with dead silence reigning everywhere, is not a charming place. However, we still imagine a wonderful world on the moon—the beautiful goddess Chang’e, the moon rabbit, an osmanthus tree and the Moon Palace… 
“On a Mid-Autumn Day fifty years ago, inside a small courtyard along an alley in Beijing, my mother put a table on a red carpet near the stairs of the northern room. On the table laid the yue guang ma er [a piece of paper containing the images of the Candraprabha], tu er ye [Lord Rabbit, literally, a dressed clay rabbit sitting in a squatting position like a human], a bunch of cockscomb flowers, two plates of mooncakes, a plate of fruits, Ya pears, grapes, crabapples, half of a watermelon carved with a serrated edge [resembling a lotus flower] and the Five Buddhist Offerings. The flames of the red candles glittered in the flower-filled courtyard. When all the preparations were complete, it was nearly 7 p.m. Under the cloudless sky, the courtyard was filled with cool, brisk air. What a nice autumn night! Later, the moon slowly rose in the southeast, bathing the courtyard with its silky silver glow. 
“My son, come here and kowtow to Candraprabha!” my mom shouted to me in the courtyard. “No! ‘Men do not worship the moon while women do not pray to the Kitchen God’ [an old saying in China]…” I stood inside the room, staring at the mooncakes left while the rest had been offered to Candraprabha. “What are you talking about? You are still a child… Come here now!” I put on my coat and went downstairs to the courtyard, then stepped on the red carpet to perform the “sacred ritual.” 
“Mid-Autumn Festival is the time for family reunion under the full moon. Our parents had their share of superstitions, including making offerings to Candraprabha and Lord Rabbit. ‘Superstitions’ like this are somewhat charming to us. Many of our old customs and traditions seem to be more or less supernatural, mysterious and vague. They are not merely superstition, but the cozy rituals in daily life that have evolved through thousands of years, endowed with a celebration of life. Perhaps we should distinguish the customs, such as of the Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, from superstitions. 
“According to Dijing Jingwulue [Monuments in the Imperial Capital, a 17th-century Chinese prose classic], among all the offerings to the moon on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, all the fruits and cakes must be round, and watermelons must be carved into petal-like lotus shapes… After performing the rituals of worship, the offerings are shared by all the family members… Married daughters who visit parents must return to the families of their husbands on the day of Mid-Autumn Festival. So the Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as Festival of Reunion. 
“The beauty and good wishes that go along with the Mid-Autumn Festival are not represented by offerings to the moon, but by watching the moon high in the sky and wishing warm greetings to family members that are far away. People draw inspiration from this festival, such as with the different emotions that lie behind the lines, ‘Tonight’s full moon gazed at by everyone,/ Wonder whose home is hit by the falling gloom’ [see ‘Moon-Gazing on the Fifteenth’ by the Tang poet Wang Jian], ‘I lift my eyes and see the moon,/ I bend my head and think of home’ or ‘I wish a long life to us all./ Then, however far apart we are/ We’d still be sharing the same enchanting moonlight’… All these poems are associated with people who are far away from home, and with reunion.” 
Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967) was the younger brother of the renowned writer Zhou Shuren (literary name Lu Xun), and an important Chinese essayists of the 1920s and 1930s. Zhou praised the realism of Western writers. The influence of these ideas can be found within his essay “The Moon of The Mid-Autumn Festival”: 
“As recorded in Yanjing Suishiji [Annual Customs and Festivals], ‘the so-called August Festival in Peking is the Mid-Autumn Festival. In the run up to the day, upper-class families gave each other mooncakes and fruits as gifts. As the night of the full moon fell, families set altars in courtyards, offering fruits, green soybeans and cockscomb flowers to the moon… When worshipping the moon, however, men usually didn’t perform the kowtow ritual. Therefore, it became a popular saying in Peking that ‘Men do not worship the moon and women do not pray to the Kitchen God.’ 
“Yanjing Suishiji was written 40 years ago. Its recorded customs still haven’t changed much yet. Now people are suffering declining opportunities with their livelihoods and failure of their aspirations, but they don’t give up the tradition of eating mooncakes on the Mid-Autumn Festival. As for the other festival custom, the moon-viewing, they seem to have little interest in it. ‘Raising a cup to toast the bright moon’ used to be an intellectual pleasure of the Chinese literati. Intellectuals made Mid-Autumn Day a special day after they found that the crisp, refreshing air and lustrous moon on that day made moon-viewing much more enjoyable. Commoners don’t seem to care much about these pleasures. Perhaps doing their accounts is the top priority for them, followed by mooncakes. “In my memory, villagers’ attitudes towards the moon were quite different from that of the literati. The commoners called the moon ‘Granny Moon,’ and offered it su mooncakes [mooncakes that didn’t contain meat], fruits, over-mature pumpkins and a bowl of water. Women and children dipped their fingers in the water and then dabbed their eyes after praying to the moon, a ritual designed to refresh the eyes. 
“In traditional Chinese astronomy, the moon was viewed as a monster, waxing or waning. Tides were also at its disposal. The ancient Chinese believed that the moon had something to do with the lives of women, or even more strange, with mental diseases. That was why the Latin word lunaticus originally referred to epilepsy and madness [as diseases thought to be caused by the moon]. Though this idea has been overthrown by modern medicine, I still believe that there is somehow a subtle connection between the moon and the disease. The moon is terrifying in some ways, which may affect people who suffer from heart palpitations. 
“Many years ago, I walked home from the east of the city at night. In the dark sky was a waning crescent moon with a yellow-orange tint. It looked grim and dreary. If modern urbanites still feel this way, how should people living primitive lives in ancient times be better? People who lived in caves and heard the howl of jackals and nighttime bird sounds from all sides might not have been in a good mood when they saw such a night sky—No, even if there were no beasts lingering around, the moon was scary enough… 
“The moon looks friendlier when it begins to wax. During the 14th, 15th and 16th days of a lunar month, it looks almost like the face of a rich person. No wonder people feel happy seeing it. However, the moon still makes me feel cold, and there is no way to get rid of the coldness. ‘I want to fly home, riding the air,/ But fear the ethereal cold up there,/ The jade and crystal mansions are so high’ [see ‘The Mid-Autumn Festival’ by the Song poet Su Shi]. Su Shi grasped the essence of the moon. 
“In a word, I have no interest in appreciating the moon, neither snow or rain, because I fear nature more than I love it. I can’t believe that I can overcome the fear of nature. So the pleasure of some of the civilized doesn’t belong to me. The significance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, from my perspective, lies in enjoying the mooncakes more than moon-viewing, and paying my bills is more important than enjoying the mooncakes. In this way I’m probably a man of vulgarity.” 
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