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October 1, 2009

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Over the moon

MANY moons ago ancient Chinese prayed to the moon in elaborate rituals seeking peace and prosperity. Today young people are reviving the ceremonies and dressing in traditional style to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Yao Minji is over the moon.

The round yellow moon hangs high in the night sky, as it has from time immemorial. Down on earth, a young woman wearing a silk robe with long loose sleeves gazes skyward in reverence, then pours a cup of sweet osmanthus wine on the ground in an offering. She reads aloud an ode to the moon, a Chinese ritual from time out of mind.

She is joined by young men and women, all wearing traditional Han-style costumes, all burning incense and praying to the moon. Their multi-colored robes and ornaments glitter and sway in the warm autumn breeze.

This could be a scene from a historical novel of ancient China. In fact, it is a modern reenactment of an ancient ritual to observe the Moon Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie).

It is the 15th day of the eight month on lunar calendar, and this year it falls on Saturday, October 3.

These days some young Chinese are trying to recapture and promote Han history and culture and are observing festivals in ancient, largely forgotten ways.

This Saturday, they will pay homage to the moon at Guilin Park in Xuhui District.

"We want to explore the spirituality and culture of our ancient ancestors through these age-old ceremonies that are long forgotten by modern Chinese people," says Yao Yuan, head of HanWeiYang, a Website-based organization promoting Han culture.

"The traditional customs are much more than just getting together in a rush to share a bunch of food and drink. That's only part of the traditions, but it has become almost the whole thing now," says Yao, who lives in Shanghai. He has a job that's not too demanding and allows him time for his passion, Han culture.

"Let's get outdoors to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, like our ancient ancestors, and show more people the beautiful and intriguing ceremonies that have been carried through thousands of years," he says.

Traditionally people wore their finest clothing for ceremonies that lasted an entire day, culminating at night. At first only emperors and nobility performed these rite seeking divine blessing. Later the practice spread to the wider population, and it became an occasion to appreciate the moon, sip wine and read poetry about the lunar body.

To thank the gods and pray for peace and prosperity, people prayed to the sun in spring, the earth in summer, the moon in autumn and heaven in winter.

HanWeiYang, meaning never-ending Han, was founded in 2004 to promote the culture and history of the Han people, including costumes, customs, cuisine and ceremonies. It takes the name from the Weiyang Palace in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), considered the earliest peak of the Han culture.

The organization, with a few hundred members and frequent Website visitors, hosts events featuring traditional ceremonies and customs on festivals. This is the fourth year they will celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The members, mostly under 35 years old, dress themselves in Han clothing and spend five or six hours meticulously preparing for and carrying out ancient ceremonies that last into the night. Just putting on the layers of elaborate clothing and styling one's hair (or wig) with appropriate ornaments is time-consuming.

It represents enormous devotion since the festival today has been largely reduced to merely eating mooncakes and having big family dinners at a round table. Mooncakes are commonly sent to family, friends and business associates.

But tradition calls for sitting outside, savoring nature, observing the perfectly round harvest moon, eating traditional mooncakes, sipping wine and reading or reciting poetry about the moon.

Most young people, working hard and often stressed out, consider the holiday welcome time off from work, but it's not as much fun as Christmas with lots of parties or Valentine's Day and all that mooning over love. Many say it's a boring day to eat mooncakes and watch TV programs with their parents at home.

Many other traditional Chinese festivals confront similar problems, ending up as another round-table dinner with family.

Experts express concerns that the essence of the traditional holidays is lost on the younger generation.

And some youths in Shanghai, members of HanWeiYang and others like them have taken an interest in elaborate traditional ceremonies.

"It's funny that you can find costumes and small toys for Halloween very easily in Shanghai, yet it is rather difficult to rent an authentic Han costume," says 19-year-old Lily Lin, a sophomore at Shanghai Normal University.

"Most of my friends are familiar with 'trick or treat,' but know next to nothing about traditions for the Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year) or the Mid-Autumn Festival," she says.

Lin and her friends favor old Guilin Park, minutes away from her university in Xuhui District, and known for its autumn-blooming sweet osmanthus. Every year the park hosts traditional performances, ceremonies and puzzles around the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The HanWeiYang group will also take part this year, displaying costumes and explaining culture and rituals.

Mid-Autumn Festival celebration

Date: October 3, 7-10pm

Venue: Guilin Park, 128 Guilin Rd Customs, rituals and snacks

Moon prayers

Most people know about the lighthearted tradition of appreciating the round harvest moon, but this originated in the much more serious tradition of praying to the moon in ancient times.

It was one of the four major prayer ceremonies of the year and at first only the emperor and nobility carried out the rituals thanking the heavens and beseeching the gods for peace and prosperity throughout the year.

The practice spread to more people and evolved from prayer to moon appreciation, the perfect round shape and symbol of harmony. Ancient scholars wrote poems and essays about the moon and odes to the orb.

Mid-Autumn 'tree'

It is mostly a tradition in the south, where people used to take long bamboo poles ("trees") and place lanterns on top to "compete" with the moon itself. In some villages the skies would be alight with hundreds of moon lights.

Mr Rabbit

An immortal rabbit is said to inhabit the moon. One story goes that three immortals transformed themselves into pitiful old men and begged for food from a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. Only the rabbit had none to give, so it sacrificed itself and jumped into a fire. It became immortal, lived in the Moon Palace and was known as the Jade Rabbit.

Long ago families prayed to small clay figurines of the good rabbit, seeking good health. Today the rabbit has become a child's toy for the moon festival.

Another story says the rabbit is the companion of the legendary moon deity, lonely Lady Chang'e, wife of the tyrannical archer Hou Yi. She was said to have accidentally eaten herbs that made her immortal and she floated off to the moon.

Traditional snacks

Duck is traditional around the Mid-Autumn Festival. According to traditional Chinese medicine, duck is a "cold" (yin energy) dish, which is recommended in early autumn to nourish the body's yin and promote body fluids in dry weather.

Taro root is a common festival dish, especially in southern China. Taro, or yutou is shaped like a head (tou) and the pronunciation is similar.

According to legend, warring factions slipped messages into the tuber to communicate about a battle planned around the time of the moon festival.

Taro root was also used in rituals to substitute for the head of a rival during prayers to ancestors during the festival period.

Yellow rice wine and sweet-scented osmanthus wine are popular. Osmanthus blossoms around the time of the festival and it has been traditional to sit outside appreciate the shape and fragrance of the osmanthus flower, as well as the moon. The flower was added to rice wine during the festival.


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