LI MIN/CHINA DAILY
The span of autumn, according to the lunar calendar, is from July to September. For most of its 5,000-year history, China has been an agricultural society, with autumn generally being the harvest season, between a busy summer and a slack winter.
In the past, farmers used the lunar calendar to plan their production cycle. But despite its name, the lunar calendar is divided into 24 solar terms, which reflect the changes of not only the climate but also agricultural activities, including animal husbandry. The six solar terms in autumn signal the coming of autumn, end of high temperatures, onset of white dews, the autumn equinox, the beginning of cold dews, and hoarfrost.
Five traditional Chinese festivals are celebrated in autumn. In chronological order on the lunar calendar, they are Liqiu Festival (or autumn heralding festival) in late June or early July, Qixi Festival on July 7 (Chinese equivalent of Valentine's Day), Ghost Festival on July 15(similar to All Saints' Day), Mid-Autumn Day on Aug 15, and Chongyang Festival on Sept 9 (or Senior Citizens' Festival).
A little knowledge about the festivals in autumn and the customs associated with them will help one to better understand the correlations between climate and civilization, and offer insights into Chinese culture and history.
The festival dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). Legend has it that a Zhou emperor went hunting with his senior officials on the day. This practice was adopted by the ruling dynasties that followed.
Although the festival is known today more for its solar term, many people still observe some customs associated with it, such as eating watermelon, muskmelon and corn (or "bite autumn") and braised meat (or "put on fat for autumn").
People pay tribute to celestial phenomena to mark the festival. Altair, or the star of Niu Lang (cowboy), and Vega, or the star of Zhi Nv (female weaver), are the closest to each other on July 7 on the lunar calendar. People believe this to be a once-a-year date for the two lovers, so they call the festival Chinese Valentines' Day, which is also observed in some parts of East and Southeast Asia.
The earliest record of the festival goes back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220). In ancient times, Chinese people believed Jan 1, Feb 2, March 3, May 5, June 6, July 7 and Sept 9 on the lunar calendar to be auspicious days, the days when Earth (meaning people) and Heaven communicate with each other. People also believed the sun and the moon, along with Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn were the "seven luminaries". As a result, seven became a magic and auspicious number.
According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, a man's life is measured in eight-year cycles and a woman's in seven-year cycles. A lot of physical changes take place in men and women every eight and every seven years, respectively.
So, many closely relate Qixi Festival, or double seven day (July 7 on the lunar calendar), with women. The most important custom associated with the day is qiqiao, or begging a deity for dexterity and happiness. Young women offer fresh fruits as oblations to the moon, asking Zhi Nv to bless them with a happy life, ideal lover and a pair of skillful hands.
The festival was also called Qiqiao Festival in ancient times, and is probably the only festival specifically for women.
A day to dress up
In some parts of Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangdong provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, women wash their hair, paint their fingernails and put on makeup on the day, reflecting the great importance they attach to the festival and their longing for a happy and beautiful life.
In Zhejiang and Hunan provinces, some women wash their hair with water boiled with cypress leaves and peach twigs on the day, as they believe water so prepared has divine properties which can purify their spirit and thus help them seek the protection and blessings of Zhi Nv.
In the northern part of Shaanxi province, women make delicate scarecrow with handmade clothes, to which they offer fruits, and make paper-cuts to decorate the windows on the day. They regard the entire exercise as a test of their skills, even as a competition.
In some places of Fujian and Taiwan, where the main means of men's livelihood is fishing, the women celebrate the festival more as a children's day, because they see their happiness and future in their children, as the man of the house might not return from his fishing trip.
Preparing sweet snacks with some local specialties, offered first as oblation to Zhi Nv, has become a custom, as the local residents believe desserts are the goddess' favorite food.
Yet with the passage of time, particularly because women have become increasingly independent, socially, professionally and financially, the festival has lost much of its traditional color. It has basically evolved into a day for lovers to pour out their hearts to each other, and go shopping.
Ghost Festival, which dates back to the pre-Qin period (before 221 BC), is now observed by Chinese people across the world as one of the four major ancestor-worshipping festivals along with Spring Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day and Chongyang Festival.
People pay tributes to their late family members and ancestors on the day, and seek their blessings for a good harvest. They also set off floating lanterns in rivers to help the dead find their way back home. Newly harvested food grains, called "autumn taste" are offered as oblations, to the ancestors. And many people burn paper oblations as, according to Taoism, the dead can receive the offerings that are burned in "this world" because on this day, the King of Hell sets them free to meet their offspring and family members.
However, during a campaign aimed at modernizing social traditions in the 1950s, the authorities criticized the festival for its "superstitious" nature. The festival lost its appeal in the years that followed until 2010 when the government recognized it as a national intangible cultural heritage.
Mid-Autumn Day, which falls on Sept 24 this year, is observed on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar.
The festival dates back to the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), and gained prominence during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). By the time the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) came to power, it had become an important traditional festival－second only to Spring Festival.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, listed Mid-Autumn Day in the first batch of national intangible cultural heritages in 2006, and declared it a national statutory holiday in 2008.
The day is also celebrated by people in some parts of East and Southeast Asia, and Chinese communities around the world.
There are two stories about the festival's origin. Some people say it has its origin in the ancient emperors' worship of the full moon, which began way back in the Spring and Autumn Period (476-403 BC). It spread across society as a tradition afterward.
Others believe the festival is related to agricultural production, as it is celebrated around the harvest season in most parts of China. Farmers also express their gratitude to the gods on the day, and offer oblations to the moon.
The day is now regarded as one of the most important four traditional festivals along with Spring Festival, Dragon Boat Festival (May 5 on the lunar calendar) and Tomb Sweeping Day (the 15th day after the spring equinox on the lunar calendar).
Completeness of life
People believe the full moon represents completeness of work, life and family. Apart from eating moon cakes, a kind of round baked snack with fillings, the customs associated with the day also include giving offerings to the moon, and admiring the full moon and flowers. Most of the customs evolve around the concept of completeness.
In South China, people light lanterns, which are made from hollowed-out pumpkin, orange or grapefruits, at night to mark the festival, and admire the sweet-scented osmanthus, which can be used to make cakes, pastries and wine.
Many places of historical interest around the country are considered ideal for admiring or worshipping the moon, and a large number of poems and essays describing the beauty and other special characteristics of the moon and the festival have been passed down from ancient times. Poets and authors have used the moon to express their loneliness, nostalgia and homesickness.
According to Chinese culture, 9 is a "positive" number (yang in Chinese), and double (or chong in Chinese) nine means chongyang. The pronunciation of 9 in Chinese is the same as eternal or forever. So the festival, which falls on Sept 9 on the lunar calendar, is regarded as especially auspicious.
The festival, dating back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), gained prominence during the Wei and Jin dynasties (220-420) and became a national festival during the Tang Dynasty. It is regarded as the most important festival after Spring Festival, Mid-Autumn Day, Tomb Sweeping Day and Dragon Boat Festival, and is celebrated by Chinese people living outside the country, particularly those in East and Southeast Asia.
The government ascribed another name, Senior Citizens' Festival, to the day in 1989 to promote respect for senior citizens, and listed it in the first batch of national intangible cultural heritages in 2006.
The customs associated with the festival include mountain climbing, admiring chrysanthemum, wearing cornels to drive away ghosts, eating chongyang cake (which sounds like high in Chinese, meaning climbing high) and drinking chrysanthemum wine.
Tribute to Kitchen God
A star which people in ancient times called the Big Fire, the brightest in the multiple star system Acrab (Beta Scorpii), disappears from the night sky after the day. In ancient times, people organized a special ceremony to see off the Big Fire, and to prepare for the oncoming winter. Some customs in South China still remind us of its origin, with people offering oblations to the Kitchen God, or god of fire, on the day.
In their works, some ancient poets and writers have lamented the passing of autumn, perhaps at the thought of the harsh winter ahead.
Some social organizations, schools and local governments often organize visits to old age homes on the day as a mark of respect to senior citizens. And although the festival is not a national holiday, many families get together on the day to make elderly family members feel happy.
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