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History and Origin of Mid-autumn Festival
Celebration of Mid-autumn festival has a long history. In ancient times, the emperors had the tradition of worshiping the Sun in spring, and the Moon in autumn. The word "Mid-Autumn" first appeared in the famous ancient book "Zhou Li" (The Zhou Rituals, a book telling the rituals in the Zhou Dynasty). However, it was not until the early Tang Dynasty that the day was officially celebrated as a traditional festival. It became a established festival during the Song Dynasty, and has become as popular as the Spring Festival since the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Celebrations have continued ever since and more customs for marking this occasion have been formed.
There are several explanations on when and where the festival began and some of the most convincing versions are as follows:
Version One: Nanjing and Mid-autumn Festival
A much-told story about the beginning of the Mid-autumn Festival celebration comes from Niuzhu (a place in ancient Nanjing). As early as 1,600 years ago, Nanjing which was called Jianye served as capital of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. On a Mid-autumn night when Xie Shangyue, the governor of Niuzhu, was boating on a river he met Yuan Hong, a poor, frustrated but gifted scholar who had to earn his living by renting boats. Admiring his ability, Xie made friend with him and Yuan had a rise to fame with the help of Xie. Later on, having heard of the story, many refined scholars from all over the country followed suit to boat in the river, climb up the towers, and watch the moon. Famous poets like Li Bai and Ou Yangzhan were all touched by the story, and then wrote numbers of poems about it. Because of this, the tradition of watching the moon on Mid-Autumn Festival gradually came into being.
Version Two: Season and Climate
The Mid-Autumn day is the very moment of rice maturity. And at that day farmers will worship the local God of land, whose birthday is exactly on that day. Mid-Autumn day is possibly an old tradition of telling the coming of autumn. In terms of the seasons in a year, the Mid-Autumn day can be named as "Harvest Day", when the crops sowed in the spring can be reaped. Since ancient times, people would drink, dance, and sing on that day, celebrating the harvest. This scene can be found in the Books of Odes (the earliest collection of poems in ancient China).
Legends of Mid-autumn Festival
Almost every traditional Chinese festival has a connection with legends. The most well-known stories of the Mid-Autumn Festival is Chang,e flying to the moon, Jade Rabbit making heavenly medicine, and Wu Gang chopping the cherry bay. Those stories have been passed down from generations to generations alongside the celebrations of the festival itself. Today for young children, listening to the stories is still an important part of their way to celebrate the Moon Festival.
Chang,e Flying to the Moon
It is said that long ago there used to be 10 suns in the sky. Each day, one of the suns would travel around the sky on a carriage driven by Xihe, the mother of the suns. One day, unexpectedly, all 10 suns simultaneously appeared in the sky, which instantly dried the crops and caused disaster to the people on earth.
Hou Yi, a local archer, had great sympathy for people,s sufferings from the blistering weather and decided to help them out. Houyi climbed up to the summit of Kunlun Mountains and shot down the suns leaving only one to benefit people. After he shot down the sun, Hou Yi became a hero who was revered by local people.
Later, Hou Yi married a beautiful girl—Chang,e. The young couple lived a happy and sweet life.
Hou Yi was so famous for his perfect archery skills that he had a lot of apprentices, including the unrighteous Peng Meng. One day when Hou Yi was on the way to visit his friend, the Queen Mother of the West gave him an elixir of immortality as a reward for his heroic undertaking. Meanwhile, he warned Hou Yi "Do not swallow this pill before preparing yourself with prayer and fasting for a year". Hou Yi gave the elixir to Chang,e for safekeeping and she took it as a treasure and hid it in her jewelry box. Unfortunately, Peng Meng found this secret and made a plan to steal it.
Several days later, when Hou Yi and other apprentices went out for hunting, Peng pretended to fall ill and stayed at home. After they left, Peng forced Chang,e to give him the elixir. Chang,e, knowing that she could not defeat Peng, swallowed the elixir herself, and mmediately she felt herself floating up and flied to the sky. With deep love to her husband, Chang,e chose to be an immortal on the moon, closest to the earth; then she could see her husband every day.
In late afternoon, Hou Yi came back and was told what had happened. Heart-stricken, Hou Yi went to the back garden and called his wife,s name ceaselessly. Surprisingly, he found that the moon was extremely clean and bright that night; and that there was a moving figure like Chang,e in the moon. Hou Yi desperately tried to catch up with the moon, but he could not do it. Hou Yi then asked servants to set a table in his back garden and with his wife,s favorite snacks and fruits on it. In a short time, more and more people heard about the news that Chang,e had become an immortal, and they also put tables under the moon to pray to Chang,e for good fortune and safety. From then on, the custom of worshipping the moon on the Mid-Autumn Festival began to spread in China.
Jade Rabbit Making Heavenly Medicine<