China’s Mid-Autumn Festival

In Chapter 6 of my book, The Wild Wild East, I mentioned the Mid-Autumn Festival, but didn’t have an opportunity to explain what it was as the chapter had a different focus. Let me do that now. Most people don’t know about China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, but it’s the second grandest festival next to the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. For those of us who speak with Chinese staff and companies on a daily basis, this means that the country is basically shut down for four days. This year the Mid-Autumn Festival fell on Thursday September 19th and, just as with our Thanksgiving holiday, everyone will return to work the following Monday, even though the official holiday period is just one day. Technically, this festival always falls on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Therefore, the date of the festival is a moving target and next year it will fall on September 6th.

The Mid-Autumn Festival originated in ancient China around 1046 BC. At that time it was generally accepted that seasonal changes were related to the lunar cycle. As a result, crops were planted and also harvested at a certain time during this cycle. People at this time were also very superstitious, and China’s ruling class was no exception. They would traditionally make a sacrifice to the Moon Goddess on the Autumnal Equinox, a time when the crops were nurturing and the weather pleasant, for a prosperous harvest. But this practice by the ruling class was not a festival, it was just an individualistic offering of thanks by a ruler. The festival itself didn’t start until around 618 AD when farmers started to give thanks to the Moon Goddess for their harvest. At that time the festival by the farmers, and the sacrifice by the ruler, merged into a single festival held on the Autumnal Equinox.

When I’m in China around the time of the festival, I can sense that the entire country is in a holiday mood. China is big on symbolism and, during this time, moon cakes, are sold throughout the country. Moon cakes are flat round pastries that supposedly resemble the moon, and are the symbolic food for this festival. They’re given to both friends and relatives to wish them a happy life. Over time the festival has shifted its meaning to where it’s now considered a time when families and friends reunite and renew their relationships. In fact, many people refer to the Mid-Autumn Festival as the Festival of Reunion.

Alan Refkin

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