Monday, September 26, 2011

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Every 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest, most of Asia celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival. This year we celebrated with the locals in Penang.

Here is Craig with his lantern that he carried during the festival. You can see the full moon above him. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, children parade around carrying lanterns lit with candles. Craig's dragon lantern is a more traditional style, but we also saw Disney characters, Ben 10, and Angry Birds lanterns.

According to Chinese Legend, the mid-autumn festival is held in honor of several events. One of those is commemorating the story of Chang'e and Houyi. Houyi is a famous general, and an accomplished archer. Chang'e is his beloved wife. Back in those days, there were ten suns that took the form of three-legged birds. Normally each sun would circle the earth one at a time, but things got really hot when the suns decided to circle the earth together. After a few fiery scorching days, the Emperor asked Houyi to use his superior archery skills to shoot down all but one of the suns. Houyi complied, and as a reward the Emperor gave him a magic pill that would allow Houyi to live forever. The Emporer gave strict instructions to Houyi to prepare for immortality by fasting and praying for a year. So Houyi took the magic pill home and hid it. One day, Chang'e saw a moonbeam shining on the exact spot where Houyi hid the pill. She investigated, and when she found the pill, she swallowed it. Of course, once he found out, Houyi was very angry. To escape his anger, Chang'e flew to the moon, and has since become the Moon Goddess of Immortality. Once she got there, she coughed up half of the pill that granted her eternal life. She asked the jade rabbit who also lives on the moon to help pound another pill of immortality from herbs so that Chang'e could give the pill to her husband, Houyi, and they could be together again. The jade rabbit is still working on it. In the mean time, Houyi has taken up residence on the sun and only visits Chang'e once a year in autumn, which is why the moon shines to brightly at this time of year.

The Mid Autumn Festival also commemorates the day when the Chinese defeated the Mongol in the 14th century. To prevent rebellions, the Mongols did not allow the Chinese to have any gatherings or meetings which would allow them to organize an attack. So, in order to communicate with each other, the Chinese hid messages inside of mooncakes, kind of like a fortune cookie. The Mongols did not eat mooncakes, so mooncake messages became the primary means of communication. According to legend, the Chinese coordinated an attack against the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month via mooncake messages. Thus, mooncakes have become a traditional part of the Mid Autumn Festival. Mooncakes are like miniature pies. The filling can be anything from chocolate to mixed nuts to lotus seed and bean paste. Craig likes the Disney ones, because they are chocolate flavored and have Mickey Mouse on them. I like mooncakes - but they are so sweet and rich that it's impossible to eat an entire one in the same sitting.

In addition to lanterns and mooncakes, the celebration includes lion dancing! Lion dancing is when two dancers dress up as lions and perform a ceremonial dance. Usually the dance is done to scare away bad luck. Here is Craig standing next to the lion costumes.

Another way to ensure prosperity and fortune is through dragon dancing. This dragon dances in the air, chasing a fireball. He is held aloft by 8 or so poles held by dancers. They synchronize their movements so that the dragon appears to fly through the air.

This is the Chinese god of Prosperity, who made an appearance during the celebration. He danced around with the crowd. At one point he gave away "ang pao", which is a small red envelope with something lucky inside of it.

Here is Craig standing next to some other Chinese deities. We had a wonderful time celebrating the Mid Autumn Festival.  Most of the information I cited here was told to us by strangers on the streets. I may have forgotten some of it, but I think it's fairly accurate. We are always happy to learn about the wonderful cultural celebrations that are held in Penang, and thankfully our hosts are always eager to share them with us and explain what everything means.

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