Mid-Autumn Festival celebration by Cynthia Yuan Chen
Culture

Making sense of our obsession with the moon

Sep 24, 2018

Illustrations by Cynthia Yuan Cheng, who also happens to have a Google Doodle up for the holiday.

Once a year comes a very special astrological moment in which we, the Earth, are closest to the moon: the autumn equinox. This means that we’ll be seeing the largest full moon of the year, also known as the harvest moon. In 2018, this moon appears tonight, on September 24.

The harvest moon also happens to be one of the most important holidays of the year for Chinese and Vietnamese people: the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節). It’s a day dedicated to reuniting, eating, and moon gazing. You can think of it as Asian Thanksgiving, minus the celebration of questionable Mayflower activities, and with a lot more lanterns and mountains of mooncakes.

But if you, like me and pretty much the rest of the world, grew up with the standard Western (Gregorian) calendar, you’ll notice these holidays always feel very elusive because they land on different dates every year. In 2017, Mid-Autumn Festival was on October 4. Next year, it’ll be on September 14.

As arbitrary as these dates feel, there’s actually some method to this madness. The timing of a lot of Chinese Holidays, from Mid-Autumn to Chinese New Year, has everything to do with the movement of the moon.

The timing of a lot of Chinese Holidays, from Mid-Autumn to Chinese New Year, has everything to do with the movement of the moon.

Despite it being 2018, and most countries operating on a Gregorian calendar (including China), culture and tradition are still dictated by the Chinese calendar. The basic structure of this calendar has 12 months with 30 days in each month. The 30 days represent one full cycle of the moon, and the first day of each calendar begins on a new moon. This makes the 15th day of each month a full moon and thus, Mid-Autumn festival is not arbitrary at all and actually falls on the same day each year: the 15th day of the eighth month of lunar calendar.

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Photo: Cynthia Yuan Cheng

For a lot of Chinese-American kids like myself, this going back and forth between the Gregorian and Chinese calendar resulted in constant confusion over things like grandparents’ birthdays (my grandparents still go by their birthdays on the Chinese calendar), the timing of holidays, and convoluted predictions for dates of celebrations and weddings and funerals.

Most of these calculations are made based on the dates of the Chinese calendar, which some call the moon calendar (even though the Chinese calendar is technically lunisolar, meaning it accounts for both the movement of the moon and the sun) or the “yin” (as in yin yang) calendar. Even in simplified Chinese, the character for yin (阴), the dark, feminine side of harmony in Taoism, embodies the character for moon (月), making the movement of the moon, and the foundation of a lot of Chinese culture, inextricably linked.

Of course, there’s always some mythology that goes with traditional holidays. The one for the harvest moon is a love story between a woman named Chang’e who gets separated from her husband, Houyi, and banished to the moon for all of eternity. This is the time of year in which these star-crossed lovers are closer than they ever get to be, and thus why Chinese families also take this day to reunite with loved ones.

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Photo: Cynthia Yuan Cheng

Mythology aside, the more practical use of this calendar was for farming, thus the Chinese calendar’s more official name is the nongli (农历), which means rural or farm calendar. The harvest moon marked the time of year in which crops were ready for gathering.This was also the time to express gratitude for the yield of the year.

The character for yin (阴), the dark, feminine side of harmony in Taoism, embodies the character for moon (月), making the movement of the moon, and the foundation of a lot of Chinese culture, inextricably linked.

Of course, obsessing over the moon is not just a Chinese thing. The lunar calendar is a part of Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and other East Asian cultures, and the celebration of the Harvest Moon manifests in different ways, even in one region from Hong Kong to Taiwan to Mainland China.

And we all know the moon doesn’t just drive Asian people crazy: stories and fables of beasts and spooky phenomenons that come to life only at the full moon exist all over the world. Maybe it all goes back to that divine female yin energy that makes us feel some type of way.

For the Goldthread team here in Hong Kong, we’ve got Mid-Autumn festival as a public holiday and will share as much of the elaborate festivities with everyone as we can find. For Chinese and Asian kids around the world, it’s a special time of the year, our own Thanksgiving and open moon worship.

For the rest of us: giving thanks under the glow of the harvest moon is not limited by culture. And the harvest moon, more than anything else, is the marker that the spookiest time of the year is just about to start.