This week marked 中秋節 (zhōngqiū jié), or the Mid-Autumn festival. Celebrated in several Asian nations, Mid-Autumn festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full (September 19th this year). The same as the Northern hemisphere’s harvest moon, it falls during the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Given the importance of the full moon, the holiday is also referred to as the Moon festival.
The history of celebrating the autumn harvest is very old, and the accompanying veneration of the full moon also goes back several thousand years. The festival in its more organized form seems to have gained popularity during the Tang dynasty (618-907AD).
Today, Mid-Autumn festival is a public holiday in China. Traditionally a time for reuniting with family and giving thanks, most people spend the holiday with relatives. The moon in its roundness is said to symbolize family unity.
I spoke with my Chinese roommate about her plans to spend time with relatives for the holiday. Not having enough time to get back to her immediate family, she is spending time with other relatives, including an uncle. The word she used for “uncle” led us to a discussion of vocabulary for relatives, which is far more complex in Chinese than in English. There is one word for “uncle” used when speaking of one’s father’s elder brother, and another for one’s father’s younger brother, and yet other words for maternal uncles and uncles-by-marriage in what seems to me to be an almost endless variety of combinations. In this case she explained the relative is really her mother’s cousin, but since it’s her mother’s side of the family she used the word for maternal uncle. We briefly digressed into the many words for “cousin.” Having some forty-odd first cousins, this particular family vocabulary complexity has always plagued me. I am usually reduced to describing the relationship (the daughter of my father’s younger brother, who is younger than I am) instead of using the proper word.
In addition to the different words for cousins on your father’s and mother’s side, she also reminded me that the correct term also depends on whether your cousin (male or female, elder or younger) is born to your father’s brother or sister. Essentially, there is one category of words for the cousins who share your last name, or “belong” to your family, and another for the category of cousins born to female relatives who “belong” to someone else’s clan/household and have other last names. She said though that sort of thinking is outdated, the words are the vestiges of the idea that girl children are born to be “given away” and after marriage, she will no longer belong to your house, and any children born to her belong to husband’s family.
Of the many fables surround Mid-Autumn festival, one of the most popular is the story of Houyi, the mythical hero who saved the world from drought and famine by shooting down nine of the ten suns in the sky until only one remained, and Chang’e, his wife. Houyi was rewarded for his efforts with an elixir of immorality, which he gave to his wife for safekeeping. Once when Houyi was away, an evil disciple came to Chang’e and demanded the elixir. To protect it from falling into his hands, she drank it herself and floated away in the sky, coming to rest in the moon. Heartbroken, Houyi lined up her favorite cakes under the moon, hoping to bring her back. Others in sympathy joined him in setting out offerings. Chang’e’s outline is said to be seen in the full moon.
This story has many variations, one of which was acted out by my classmates in shadow-theater style.
Chang’e is also known as the moon goddess, or the goddess of immortality. The first spacecraft in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program was a lunar orbiter named “Chang’e 1.” Chang'e 3, China's first lunar rover, is set to launch later this year.
For those who cannot see their loved ones, the festival is also a time for “expressing the strong yearnings for family and friends who live afar,” with whom we share the same moon, no matter the distance. Poetic, and fitting for the many foreign students who are my classmates, all of us far from home.