The moon has always been a symbol of romance, mystery and a fruitful source of inspiration to many, particularly to writers of love poems, songs and to authors of gothic novels. A few years ago , during a sojourn in China, I discovered the legend behind a centuries-old tradition and its annual celebration by people of all ages: the Moon Festival. I have found since that sojourn that there are several versions of this legend.
The version I am about to relate was told to me by student teachers of English at a Teachers' College situated in a mountain region in the south of China in the Province of Guangxi. The County in which I lived and worked was, in those days a closed area (out of bounds to foreigners) and the people lived a very traditional way of life.
The central character of the legend was known as Chang'e, a beautiful maiden who endeared herself to her people by marrying a local hero, the Lord Archer who was called Hou I. According to the account which has been handed down from generation to generation through many centuries, one evening she caught a villain in the act of trying to steal a magic elixir and, to thwart him, in a desperate deed of bravery she swallowed it. Moments later she found herself being lifted higher and higher into the sky until, finally, she settled on the moon. It was the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon was full.
When the people became aware of her bravery and her ascent to the moon they became saddened and, in their grief, they proclaimed her the goddess of the moon. They prepared fruits and made cakes in the shape of the full moon; her husband, with the concurrence of all the people, decreed that from that time on the fifteenth day of each lunar month would be a day of celebration in honour of Chang'e, the goddess of the moon. The custom has continued to this day and is observed by Chinese people the world over.
During the year of my stay there, the Moon Festival fell on August 25 and I joined in the festivities on the campus of Hechi Teachers' College in Yishan County where such festivals are celebrated strictly according to tradition.
For weeks beforehand one could sense the festive build-up permeating the atmosphere as people began making preparations for family reunions and a party atmosphere became palpable. Children started to stock up on fruits, sweets and moon cakes as gifts for friends and offerings to Chang'e. There was a roaring trade in fire crackers and groups of students started preparing for "moon parties" to be held at the sports ground under the full moon.
On the evening of August 25 I arrived at the apartment of Zhou Yi, Dean of the English Department, where I had been invited to join him and his family for a festive meal. And what a treat it was: exotic dishes of frogs' legs, squid, bean curd (tofu), lean pork and beef cooked in a variety of ways, and a wide selection of vegetables. And, of course, lashings of steamed rice. The table was really creaking! For the toasts (to Chang'e and China-Australia friendship) we drank a particularly potent rice wine.
After dinner we strolled through the campus grounds under a brilliant moon, chatting on the way to groups of children. They were sitting outdoors at small, low tables laden with moon cakes and other offerings to the moon goddess. A breeze kept blowing out candles which, with traditional Chinese lanterns, were there to attract the attention of the goddess. The scene reminded me of the Western custom of leaving out drinks and cakes for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
At the sports ground we sat with many groups of students on the grass, each group formed a circle with the traditional offerings in the centre. The atmosphere was one goodwill and a brand of excitement that only such a long-standing tradition could generate. The students loaded me up with gifts of moon cakes and other traditional foods (apparently they assumed that Chang'e would recognise my "status") as we laughed and sang songs and drank toasts with the local version of Coca Cola.
The moon was bright and full and the students were still celebrating as Zhou Yi and I wandered back to our respective apartments several hours later.
The Rest Room