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What is Mid Autumn festival? (中秋节 Zhōngqiū jié)

Mid Autumn Festival is a big deal in China, but virtually unheard of in the West. It is probably the second most important Chinese festival after Chinese New Year, so I think it is my responsibility to help share it and some Chinese culture with my Kung Fu enthusiasts!

This festival (like most things China related) has a long history, dating back over 3000 years in one form or another. The Chinese calendar is lunar, so linked to the phases of the moon. In ancient times this was a time of celebration simply because it is when the moon is brightest and largest and it coincides with the agricultural harvest. As such, families would gather together in the evening lit by the bright moon and have a big feast with all the food they have just harvested. Over time additional myths, legends and celebrations were added.

The most famous story of mid autumn festival is the tale of the moon goddess Chang' E and her husband Hou Yi. There are many versions of this story and other people do a better job of telling it so here it is from Lihui Yang's Handbook of Chinese Mythology:

In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang'e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to the people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal (like a demi god in the West) admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang'e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang'e keep the elixir. However, Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi's house and forced Chang'e to give the elixir to him. Chang'e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and floated into the sky. Since she loved her husband and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang'e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang'e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.

This is one of the nicer and more romantic retellings. In some versions Chang'e wants to drink the elixir so she can stay beautiful forever and then realises (too late) that beauty and immortality without those you love are worthless.

The key message of this festival is always the importance of a close family and spending time with those you love. In modern China it is celebrated with a big meal, preferably outside where you can see the moon. Its important that you can see the moon as if you have any family that cannot be with you, it is believed that you can be close on this day, as no matter where you are the large moon will be visible to everyone. A touching thought, especially as due to COVID restrictions so many Chinese families across the world have not been together for some time now. At this feast you eat many special dishes such as ones with crabs, fruits cut into the shape of lotus petals, lotus roots, moon cakes (see below) as well as many other fancy "Imperial" style dishes.

Another huge part of this festival are lanterns. Lanterns of all different kinds are made at home by the family but also bought. Then lit and hung outside of houses and places of business. There are also sky lanterns that work like mini hot air balloons and are sent floating into the sky.

There isn't much carry over to the martial arts community in the same way as Chinese New Year. In Southern China they do sometimes have lion dances around this time but it isn't common. I will be doing some archery themed moves with the kids, so practice your best Hou Yi impression! I will be doing the kids kung fu and teens kickboxing classes this Tuesday but have cancelled the adults kickboxing as it is important to spend time with my family.

Happy Mid Autumn Festival! 中秋快乐! (Zhōngqiū kuàilè!)

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