Lantern Festival

A dragon lantern, the kind of lantern popular when I was a child. I liked the goldfish ones. They used to cost RM2 but are RM20 each these days!

We called it the Lantern Festival when I was growing up. I never heard the term mid-autumn Festival until I was older and had moved to Kuala Lumpur, but that is probably because I hadn’t paid much attention before.

The festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, which is around the time of the autumn equinox and harvest time in China. Thus, it is a thanksgiving festival, a celebration for a bountiful harvest, and even in non-agricultural communities thanks can and is given for other forms of plenty. On this day, for example, prayers centre on requests for prosperity, offspring and longevity, which can all be seen as forms of bounty. Lantern Festival is what the Chinese in China call the celebration on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. However, Malaysians call it ‘chap goh meh’ (‘fifteenth night’ in the Hokkien language) and so there is no confusion for us when we call the fifteenth of the eighth lunar month Lantern Festival.

The festival is called Zhōngqiū Jié in Mandarin (中秋節), Jūng-chāu Jit in Cantonese, and Tiong-chhiu-cheh in Hokkien. The Chinese believe that the moon is at its fullest and shines brightest on this date, and mooncakes are sold and eaten during the weeks and days approaching the fifteenth and on the day itself. I like the white lotus with salted egg yolk and will greedily get the variety with four yolks in each cake so that when the cake is quartered, each fourth has a whole yolk in it.

Mooncake with salted egg yolk from the Emperor Chinese Restaurant, Dorsett Grand Subang.

Chang'e_flies_to_the_moon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15250Apparently the festival is also about moon worship, but that has never come up in my experience of celebrating here in Malaysia. Of the names of deities/immortals associated with the moon that I have come across in my research, I only recognise Chang’e, the beautiful woman who took more than her fair share of the elixir of immortality meant for her husband and her, and thus achieved not just immortality, but such extreme buoyancy that she flew up to the moon (see picture [left] taken from Myths & Legends of China by E.T.C. Werner, 1922) where she remains to this day, with no company except for a rabbit who offered its own life to whom he thought was a beggar. The beggar turned out to be a deity who rewarded the rabbit’s sacrifice by making it immortal. It’s not said why the poor beast had to spend eternity on the moon, but perhaps the powers that be decided that Chang’e needed some company.

I have also learnt of Wu Gang who was punished (different versions of the story describe different misdemeanours) by being banished to the moon. Interesting that living on the moon is a reward for the rabbit, but a punishment for Wu Gang! Of course, the rabbit is said to spend its time making either more potions for immortality or rice cakes, a less difficult existence than Wu Gang’s: He is doomed to perpetual labour, cutting down an orchard of osmanthus trees which spring up again as soon as they’re felled. But perhaps Chang’e brings him tea and rice cakes, and poor Wu Gang is allowed breaks to sit with the beautiful Moon Goddess while her companion the Moon Rabbit sits nearby, nibbling on osmanthus petals and rolling its eyes at human weakness. (Why is Chang’e a goddess when she greedily and impatiently drank her husband’s share of the elixir of immortality? This is just one of many myths that do not makes sense. Maybe something crucial has been left out!)

25ghqThere is another Moon goddess named Changxi who mothered twelve moon princesses who are the twelve months of the year. Perhaps Chang’e was her thirteenth daughter. There is another story in which Chang’e lived in heaven and was an immortal handmaiden at the Jade Emperor’s palace until she carelessly accidentally broke a beautiful porcelain pot and, as punishment, was sent to Earth to live as a mortal. On Earth, she met and married Hou Yi, an archer who shot down nine of the ten suns that were in the sky and making the Earth too hot for comfort. Hou Yi was rewarded with the elixir of immortality and you know the rest. Changxi may have pleaded her daughter’s case for her and then handed over the reins of Moon Goddess to Chang’e. I’m just speculating, don’t take me too seriously.

What I find interesting is that Changxi’s husband is Di Jun, an ancient supreme deity, and that he had another wife (Xihe) who bore him ten sons who were suns. That’s right, the same sons/suns who Hou Yi shot his arrows at. Were they really his half-brothers-in-law? Perhaps Chang’e drinking the whole potion and leaving Hou Yi was a plan hatched by her, Changxing and Xihe as revenge for the murder of nine of Xihe’s sons.

The picture on the right (found here) shows Wu Gang and Chang’e on the moon. I suppose they look resigned. The toad in the foreground is another incarnation of Chang’e for in some stories, she is indeed punished for her hastiness and greed,  transformed into a three-legged toad. If petitions were/are made to the beautiful Moon Goddess for luck and safety, I wonder if anyone prays to the toad begging to be blessed with patience and contentment.

Hungry Ghosts

Taai Si Wong presides over the festival reports to the King of Diyu about the conduct of the spirits during their month back on Earth.

The seventh lunar month is when the gates of Diyu 地獄 Diyu translates literally as earth prison) open and the inhabitants of hell may roam freely in the land of the living.

All those who are in Diyu are given a free pass. These include spirits undergoing punishment for their sins and being prepared for reincarnation. However, for an outsider who is not actively involved in the rituals and observations of the seventh lunar month, it seems that the focus tends to be on ‘hungry’ ghosts. In fact, this festival is one of several practised by the Chinese to revere their ancestors. (The others include Qingming festival 清明節 and the Double Ninth festival 重陽節, which I will cover in separate posts.)

Continue reading “Hungry Ghosts”

Qixi Festival

Picture by Vows on the Move on Unsplash.

I seem to remember being told that if you look into a basin of water on the evening of the Qixi Festival (七夕节), you will see the reflection of star-crossed lovers Zhinü and Niulang meeting on the swallow bridge.

I’ve never been able to find any record of such a belief so I probably imagined it, but the love story of the cowherd and the weaver is one of the few Chinese myths I was told by my mother when I was a child.

The celebration is also called Qiqiao, the Double Seventh Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day, the Night of Sevens, or the Magpie Festival. The reason for the number seven occurring in so many of the names (Qixi means seventh evening), is because the festival is on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, the one day the lovers are allowed to meet.

The reunion of the Zhinü and Niulang on the bridge of magpies. This painting is in the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace in Beijing.

Continue reading “Qixi Festival”

Dragon Boat Festival

By Samuel Wong (Unsplash)

I have never attended the dragon boat races held in Penang during the yearly festival that falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. And it was only relatively recently that I made the connection between zhang (glutinous rice dumplings) and the festival. I used to hear of ‘zhang festival’ when I was growing up, but perhaps because there was no boat racing in Segamat or Batu Pahat, Johor, the boats were never mentioned.

Zhang is also called zongzi 粽子 and the significance of this food is that it was thrown into a river to keep the fish from eating the body of a poet named Qu Yuan 屈原.

Legend has it that Qu was a minister of the state of Chu during the Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States period of Chinese history. He was a member of the cadet branch of the royal house of Chu, but when he opposed the emperor’s alliance with the state of Qin, Qu was accused of treason and banished. Twenty-eight years later, when the capital of Chu was captured by the Qin state, Qu Yuan committed suicide by leaping into the Miluo River. The locals, who admired his poetry and his upright character, set forth in their boats, hoping to save him from drowning. Alas, they were too late.

By Mae Mu (Unsplash)

The dragon boat races are said to commemorate the race to save Qu from a watery death and the glutinous rice that was thrown into the river to feed the fish is why zongzi is eaten during this festival. (However, these days, zongzi or zhang (in particular bak zhang, which is stuffed with pork, salted egg, chestnuts and dried mushrooms) is available for purchase all year round.)

This is just one explanation for the festival. There are other legends associated with it and other regions of China. There is also a theory that the festival originates from ‘dragon’ worship. This makes sense considering the kind of boat that is raced, with a ‘dragon’ head carved on its the prow.

The ancient Yue tribes (Baiyue 百越) who lived in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, worshipped ‘dragon’ totems and considered the ‘dragon’ an ancestor. Some tribes were assimilated into the Han race and it’s more than likely that rituals, beliefs and culture merged. The fifth day of the fifth lunar month usually falls near the time of the summer solstice. In China, the festival is called duānwǔ jié 端午節, which refers to position of the sun during this period. Both the sun and ‘dragons’ are associated with powerful yang (male) energy and vital to the success of a harvest. In addition, Chinese ‘dragons’ are said to rule moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, and control rainfall, wind, and clouds, once again underlining their importance in ensuring bountiful rice harvests. A festival that features ‘dragon’ boats on a river and involving sacrifices of rice makes perfect sense.

By Callum Parker (Unsplash)

N.B. I use the term ‘dragon boat festival’ because it is the popular name for the event. However, it seems to be used everywhere except in China. I believe it’s a westernised term. In Mandarin, the festival is called duānwǔ jié 端午節 — no mention of ‘dragons’ or rather, lóng 龍, which I think they should be called. In my opinion they have nothing to do with the dragons which are found in the West, and I doubt they are even related to them as a species (fantastic or otherwise).