On the Move

China’s Mid-Autumn Festival Draws Nigh

China’s Mid-Autumn Festival is a widely celebrated national holiday marked by a full moon, falling anywhere from early September to early October each year. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, festivities will take place on or around September 27th this year with the usual mooncakes, colorful lanterns and moon gazing.

Not only in China, but in cities/regions worldwide with ethnic Chinese populations, this holiday is enjoyed mainly as a combination of modern-day harvest festival/tribute to the moon. It is also known simply as the Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival.

Chinese dragon and gates - festival display

What is unusual about this year’s event is that many can celebrate it not only under a rare “super moon” but also accompanied by a total lunar eclipse, assuming skies aren’t clouded over. So for those in Chinese communities around Europe, much of Africa and the Americas, they are in for a treat amid the celebrations. The moon should appear about 14% larger in diameter and perhaps even tinted slightly red, as a result of light refracted through certain atmospheric conditions.

Those in China, along with Southeast Asia, aren’t so lucky as this phenomenon won’t really be visible in these regions. Still, the full moon should appear to be larger and brighter than usual, so many are planning ahead to take advantage of viewing. Apart from the usual crowds who head outdoors to mountains and parks to catch the moonrise, others are actually booking moon-viewing flights in China during choice times to catch the view from the window seat.

For those who prefer to avoid jam-packed airports and jacked-up airfares, there is the signature ritual of this holiday to enjoy on the ground—giving mooncakes to friends and family. Mooncakes are especially important because they are a symbol of family unity and no Mid-Autumn festival is complete without them.

How much people enjoy actually eating these is another matter altogether as some varieties are not so popular and many are simply thrown away or re-gifted. Are they that bad? Well, no, but some avoid eating them because they are incredibly calorie-rich and dense, pretty much the size and heft of a hockey puck. Popular fillings are lotus seed paste and red bean paste—better enjoyed by those with a sweet tooth. Then there are the varieties with salted egg yolks mixed with any number of other fillings such as chopped nuts, candied melon or meat.

As with any other big holiday in China, Mid-Autumn festival is also marked by the tradition of businesses promoting ever-pricier products for the obligatory gift-giving that the masses practice with fervor. Every fall, stores will set up huge displays and shelves with luxurious looking boxes of mooncakes. As with the gift-giving that is a core practice in social settings, especially among businessmen and government officials (expensive booze, watches etc.), mooncakes are no exception. It has even gotten as far as these snack items coming under scrutiny amid the ongoing anti-corruption crackdowns in China. Gifts big and small are being looked at more than ever as many government officials have been accused over the years of using public funds to support these purchases for use as bribes.

Getting back to another (and less controversial) practice that is enjoyed by many this time of year, there is the display of brightly colored paper lanterns that marks every Mid-Autumn Festival. These can be seen all over—especially in popular tourist and shopping districts. Some lanterns are hung across buildings while others can be lit and left to float up in the air in the same way people enjoy lighting sky lanterns for different festivals in Thailand. Always makes for great photo opportunities.

For those curious about how celebrations differ around parts of Asia, here is a quick breakdown:

  • Taiwan- Barbeques are especially popular here during this holiday, as are giving pomelos (in addition to mooncakes).
  • Hong Kong- Chinese lantern carnivals and the Tai Hang Fire Dragon dance highlight celebrations. The dragon is almost 70 meters long and features some 300 performers. Should be quite a sight if you are in the area.
  • Singapore- There are a variety of events taking place over a month spanning the holiday. Of note are lantern walks, performers and the night market in Chinatown.
  • Vietnam- This holiday is also known as Children’s Festival here and this is emphasized by featuring Children’s parades and lion dances.
  • Philippines- As with most other countries, mooncakes are essential part of festivities. An added element is the Mooncake Dice Game, perhaps providing something that is really enjoyed by Filipino-Chinese in particular.