On the full moon of the eighth Chinese lunar month, women celebrate the Moon. This is the beginning of the yin part of the year, when the dark takes precedence over the light, and the Moon is the symbol of yin energy, which also includes water, women and night. In the old Chinese agrarian system, autumn and winter were the womens seasons. There is a Peking proverb that says: "Men do not bow to the moon. Women do not sacrifice to the God of the Kitchen."
The Moon Goddess, known as Hengo or Chang-o rules the Jade Palace of the Moon. She swallowed the pill of immortality given to her husband, the archer Hou Yi, and then fled to the moon to avoid his wrath. Her husband later became the God of the Sun and now the two meet only once a month during the New Moon. Other creatures that live in the Moon include a rabbit who is always pictured working with a pestle, pounding up the elixir of life, a three-legged toad (sometimes said to be Chang-O) and a cassia tree, which although attacked by a woodcutter, keeps renewing itself.
To honor the Moon, women build an altar in the courtyard and sometimes put a ceramic figure of the Moon Hare or the three-legged toad of the moon in the center. Also on the altar are moon cakes and plates of pomegranates, melons, grapes, apples and peaches, all fruits that are round like the moon, and rice, wine and tea. The pomegranates and melons represent children, the apples and grapes fertility and the peaches long life. According to Li-ch'en, the melons should be cut open and the edges cut in jagged shapes like the petals of the lotus.
According to Rufus, another popular fruit for the altars is the grapefruit-like pomelo, whose Chinese name, yow, is a homophone for "to have." She also describes the filling of the moon cakes: sweet bean paste or lotus seed with a boiled egg at the heart to symbolize the moon. And Li-ch'en mentions yellow beans (offerings to the rabbit in the moon) and cockscomb flowers. Members of the imperial court in Peking in 1900 offered nine-joints lotus roots to the moon but since the lotus rarely produces roots that have more than two or three joints, several roots were patched together to get the lucky number of nine.
The full moon cakes, t'uan yuan ping, were sometimes as big as a foot in diameter and often had images on the top of the three-legged toad and the rabbit of the moon. Burkhardt says they were made out of a greyish (moon-colored) flour and arranged in a pyramid of thirteen (13 for the 13 full moons of the year). Some people eat them as soon as they are done sacrificing to the moon, while others keep them until New Year's Eve.
Burkhardt mentions an offering commonly made in Hong Kong: a brown seed called Ling Ke, or water calthrops. It looks like a Chinese bat which makes it an emblem of luck. It is sometimes found carved in jade or shaped as the knob of a teapot. It is also made into a child's toy, whirled on a string which is threaded through a hole cut in the middle.
A sand-filled receptacle in the center of the altar holds sticks of incense and candles. Spirit money is also placed on the altar, sometimes in the form of folded gold and silver paper, representing ingots, or as "thousand sheets" (a series of connected zigzag strips), or circular pieces like coins. Paper clothing is also set out for the sun and moon, for instnace, a gilt and red crown, or a red apron with gold embroidery.
In the 1900s in Peking, people often displayed a banner called the "moon nimbus," which depicted, the Goddess of the Moon, a Bodhisattva sitting illuminated by the full moon and the disk of the moon showing the rabbit, standing up, working at his pestle. These banners could be as tall as eight feet or as short as two feet and were decorated with pennants of red, blue and yellow on the top two corners. They were set up facing the direction in which the moon would rise and burnt at the end of the ceremonies, along with the "spirit money." and paper clothes.
When the full moon rises after sunset, each woman approaches the altar, bows three times, and lights two candles and some incense. Afterwards they burn the moon nimbus and the cardboard bowl containing the paper clothes and "spirit money." As it dies down, firecrackers are sometimes thrown into the embers to scatter the ashes to the four winds of heaven.
For the rest of the night, the women sit in the courtyard all night long, feasting and drinking tea and wine, some studying the moon for auguries, some composing poems about the beauty of the moon and the night, some playing the game of Capturing the Moon, by trying to catch her reflection in a bowl of water. Burkhardt mentions other typical foods enjoyed on this night: chicken and roast pig and Chinese bacon.
In Korea, to the north, this is a harvest festival, Hangawi or Chusok, which is sometimes postponed to the ninth day of the ninth moon if the grain is not ripe..Although people celebrated with songs and feasting, it was also a day for visiting the graves, cleaning them and leaving offerings.
In Vietnam, it is celebrated by children who march in the night, carrying lanterns shaped like animals, birds, and fish, moving with a swaying motion, and chanting nonsense rhymes. These fantastic lanterns are also mentioned by Yan Phou Lee, who says that mythology books were ransacked to procure strange creatures. They were carried in procession along with censers burning sandalwood and bands playing music.
In Japan, this holiday is called Tsukimi. People gather at lakes or in special moon-viewing pavilions and eat "moon-viewing noodles": thick white udon in broth with an egg yolk floating on top.
In Hong Kong, in the 1980s, the elaborate form of the festival was less common but families often took their young children to the parks where they would have a picnic dinner, featuring moon cakes and fruit, on a blanket surrounded by candles and small lanterns.
Burkhardt, V.R. Chinese Creeds and Customs, Hong Kong: South China Morning Post, 1982, pp. 64-65.
Law, Joan and Barbara E Ward, Chinese Festivals in Hong Kong, Hong Kong: A South China Morning Post Production, 1982, p 68.
Lee, Yan Phou, When I Was a Boy in China¸ Boston: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard, 1887, pp. 78-80.
Li-Ch'en, Tun, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, translated by Derk Bodde, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994