It’s the middle of holiday season in China. Last week was Mid-Autumn Festival. Right now it’s the National Day holiday, which means 3 days off, or 7 for a lot of people, or 10 if you’re a student.

At Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节Zhōng Qiū Jié) it’s the done thing to gaze skywards and indulge in a spot of harvest moon appreciation. Lovers who are apart at Mid-Autumn Festival can content themselves with the thought that even though they are in different places, they are looking up at the same moon.

People eat pomelo (a large citrus we don’t commonly eat in the UK), slitting the yellow rind and peeling it before tearing off the segments of the moon-shaped fruit. Especially in the south they put up red lanterns.

Mooncakes

And people buy mooncakes and give them as gifts. Mooncakes are sweet pastry confections that look a bit like pork pies. Their fillings exhibit a bewildering array of flavours, everything from lotus seed paste to wisteria blossom to pork. The names of the flavours are written into the pastry.

Despite their ubiquity, very few people actually like eating mooncakes. I think it’s a bit like Brussels sprouts at Christmas. They are sold everywhere, everyone buys them and somehow they’ve taken a place in the psyche of Mid-Autumn Festival, but they’re not that nice. Funny really.

Houyi and Chang’e

The story goes (with many variations) that there were once ten suns circling the sky, scorching the earth. The archer Houyi (后羿 Hòu yì) shot down nine of them, leaving the present one remaining.

He was given the elixir of life which he entrusted to his wife Chang’e (嫦娥 Cháng é). Houyi’s evil apprentice tried to steal the elixir, so Chang’e swallowed it. She ascended into the heavens and settled on the moon.

The jade rabbit lives on the moon too. Three immortals disguised as old men went to earth and asked a fox, a monkey and a rabbit to feed them something.

The fox and monkey found food for them. The rabbit, empty-handed, leapt into the fire to offer his own body for them.

The immortals were so touched by his sacrifice they let him live in the moon as the jade rabbit.

Holiday

In the university and in the workplace, Mid-Autumn Festival was given as a 3 day holiday, Wed-Fri. But to avoid the loss of 3 days of work, 3 days from the weekends either side of the Festival were designated work days.

You might wonder how that’s a holiday! Let’s face it, it’s just a rearranged weekend. That’s the way things work.

That Wednesday night found me squashed into a tiny storage area with the people with whom I went to an orphanage in the summer, writing a letter together to the boys and girls.

Significance

Talking to different Chinese I got different answers about the importance of Mid-Autumn Festival in the calendar of Chinese festivals. It seems that traditionally it’s the second most-important festival after Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).

Yet besides the pomelo-eating, moon-gazing and mooncake-buying, there seems little actual celebrating, certainly not on a par with the firework revelries of Spring Festival.

In comparison, the National Day Holiday is a bigger deal, with more days off. But that’s a modern holiday, without cherished traditions. It’s a vacation time rather than a festival.

The National Day Holiday (国庆节Guó Qìng Jié) commemorates the birth of modern China. On October 1st 1949, Mao Zedong stood on Tiananmen and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It’s like China’s Independence Day.

National Flags appeared outside the doors of all the buildings. Tiananmen Square is decorated and portraits of Mao put up. People are going travelling with friends, going to enjoy the countryside or to see family.

I went away for a few days to a ‘rural tourism household’ with uni friends. It was a lot of fun! We ate together. We kicked around a jiànzi (毽子), like a weighted shuttlecock. We played games and did family activities. We sang songs round a campfire. We laughed and cried and performed and pondered together.

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