Better known by its more imaginative moniker of the Mooncake Festival, for millions of Chinese across Asia the Mid-Autumn Festival is a big deal, second only to Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.
Throughout the continent, households celebrate in style in a variety of ways, with the releasing of sky lanterns, dragon dancing and the age old tradition of eating mountains of moon cakes. These ubiquitous bite-sized chunks of pastry are filled with everything from red bean paste, lotus seeds, almonds, egg yolk, minced meat, candied fruits or chocolate.
There are literally hundreds of varieties found throughout the region and in cosmopolitan areas such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, well-to-do folk can even munch on moon cakes of black truffle, caviar and foie gras.
Mid-Autumn Festival: date and traditions
The Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, which translates to September or October in the Gregorian solar calendar. Whether by fault or design, it’s a cunning plan as Chinese National Holidays start the very next day, affording a full week of nonstop festivities.
As with most Chinese traditions, its origins are cloaked in layers of myth and legend, with some dating back at least 4,000 years. Most variations of a very convoluted tale involve the Jade Emperor, three legged birds, a moon rabbit and the immortal goddess Chang’e who still lives on the moon to this day.
Throughout continental Asia, Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for families to reunite and spend time together and the days leading up to Mid-Autumn week brings a little chaos to the roads and industry dramatically grinds to a halt. Celebrations kick off with a special meal at home, akin to a western Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner before everyone steps out together, often in traditional dress, to enjoy local festivities such as dancing, music and bright lantern displays. Each nation and to some extent, region has its own peculiar customs for moon worship with many quaint customs still going strong.
Zhongqiu: the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival
In China the strong scent of incense wafts through the air and twinkling lanterns can be seen for miles around. Unsurprisingly it is in the rural heartland where the most colorful traditions still hold true.
Jiannin province sees village womenfolk follow very elaborate fertility rites while in parts of Southern China the full moon is time for a little romance. Masquerades are held at Festival time to pair up single guys and girls from neighboring villages with the quaint yet symbolic dropping of a handkerchief.
One of the most spectacular aspects of Mid-Autumn Festival is the building of huge bamboo and stone towers, often rising over 50 feet high, which are then unceremoniously set ablaze after dark in order to ensure a good harvest.
Mid-Autumn celebrations in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is arguably the best place of all to be for the Festival. The teeming city goes mad for moon cakes and the famous city skyline is even more dramatic among thousands of shimmering lanterns and the glow of the full moon.
Seemingly every household in the city takes the kids up to Victoria Peak to see the cityscape and harbor view in all its glory. From here you can see a flotilla of boats ferrying couples around the harbor on romantic moonlight cruises. Throughout Kowloon there are special street markets, extravagant lantern processions (including the world’s largest structure made entirely of lanterns) and the famous fire dragon dances shows.
Mid-Autumn Mooncakes in Singapore
Although not a designated public holiday in Singapore, the city celebrates in typically over-the-top fashion which is as ever, well stage-managed.
All the action takes place in Chinatown with an official opening ceremony and light up of shimmering lanterns. There are numerous troupes of lion dancers all jostling for position to the sound of deafening firecrackers and cheesy Mandarin pop songs.
This being Singapore, there is a huge moon-inspired street bazaar with the usual mix of tacky Chinese souvenirs and fabulous street food.
Chuseok in South Korea
Falling on the same date as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, Chuseok is a big deal; hands down the most celebrated holiday on Korea’s calendar. For outsiders, it’s sometimes difficult to grasp the significance of this three-day event, as it is extremely family-oriented. If you have an in with a kind Korean family, this would be a great opportunity for an in depth look at Confucianism in action. If you’re not so lucky, don’t worry. Korea would love to teach you all about its most important holiday.
Read more about Chuseok
Mooncake Festival in Taiwan
Due in part to the creeping westernization of Taiwanese society, there is a modern trend of spending Mid-Autumn Festival with a barbecue and a few beers under the light of the full moon. It is usually a small family affair but some towns and villages do organize large scale versions where the whole community gets together under twinkling lanterns to eat mountains of sizzling meat and moon cakes.
Tết Trung Thu – Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam
The Vietnamese version of Mid-Autumn Festival has taken on a life of its own, including its very own unique and bizarre legend. It recounts the story of a woman who accidentally urinated on a sacred banyan tree and for her sins was transported to the moon to be stranded there for eternity. During festivities in Vietnam, lion dances are the main attraction with small dance troupes performing on street corners or going from house to house collecting ‘good luck’ money in exchange for a private show.
Read more about Tết Trung Thu