A Primer for Mid-Autumn Festival

As China’s priceless ancient traditions slowly dry up in the internet age, take a moment to learn about some historic culture and appreciate its tales and wisdom.


Back 500 years ago—really, even just 20 years ago—celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival was very different from today. Lacking attention-grabbing smartphones, eye-catching advertising campaigns, highly addictive virtual games and Internet, people had fun in a simple, yet sincere and warmhearted way with friends, relatives and neighbors.

The games
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), a Mid-Autumn formation of kids singing festive songs was traditionally led by a 10-year-old boy riding on another young man’s shoulders to parade across alleys and streets. The group would carry a pomelo lamp—carved, hollowed and fashioned with lights inside, similar to a jack-o’-lantern. In times without electricity, yellowish rays would pass through carved shapes, like dragons or phoenix, to cast flickering shadows on the ground.

By the time the 20th century rolled around, the tradition gradually died out and was replaced by simple lantern tour around the neighborhood. The lantern itself also evolved to employ different styles, using materials like woven bamboo or folded paper.

Close-Up Of A Heap Of Pomelos In A Store

“The Mid-Autumn lantern tour was a dangerous and exciting game for us,” said 24-year-old Shubin Chow from Changping Town. She later described how a few days ahead of the festival, the adults would tell children: “It’s time.” With that, the news was merrily spread and teams would form for the ultimate game of hide-and-seek.

After decorating their grandparents’ yards with colorfully lit lanterns using trees, long sticks or walls, two teams would start the game. Generally, four or five boys and girls would look for 10 kids in an area without boundaries. Ambitious hiders could go as far as other villages.

Still, a handful of hole-in-the-wall workshops in Guancheng are keeping the lantern making, pottery jars and mooncakes important to some. To wit, people from other towns even return to Guancheng to buy these unique treasures each year. Then, it is one of the few occasions when old Guancheng bustles once again.

More daring players always believed that the most dangerous places were actually the safest locations to hide. Once, Chow and her friends hid in a half-finished house. When the seekers came, fortune protected the group. “We were so nervous, but our big brother was smart and blew out all our lanterns. They didn’t see us and we narrowly escaped,” said Chow.

She lamented that those crazy times won’t happen anymore because parents today hold on much tighter to their kids. “At that time, our parents didn’t know anything, they just thought we were having regular lantern tour. In fact, we hiding in the most dangerous places,” recalled Chow.

The etiquette
This is also a festival to maintain maternal bonds, where mothers will send gifts to married daughters and their children. In a traditionally paternal-valuing society, this gesture highlights the female power and was specifically done during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Grandma would prepare a red pottery jar called “bao ta” (precious pagoda) with lucky patterns and flowers and fill it with all kinds of Mid-Autumn foods such as taro, pomelo, mooncakes and peanuts. Then, she’d send the package— together with the lanterns—to her daughter’s children. The tradition continues until now, but is slowly replacing giving gifts for cash.

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The food
Mooncakes originated as an offering during the moon worshipping ceremony, but gradually, the festive treat came to symbolize family reunions. Today, it’s given as a gift. The red bean paste-flavored mooncakes, wrapped in oiled red paper, can still be bought in Guancheng.

Due to its homophonic relationship to “ling”—meaning “smart” in Chinese—water chestnuts are also widely found on local family’s tables during the festival. Compared to chestnuts, which are also very popular during this holiday, it’s almost tasteless and often served as a symbolic gift to children.

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The harvesting of the pomelo starts from Mid-Autumn and lasts until Spring Festival. Due to its long shelf life, it can be placed on an altar for months. It is also believed that after putting pomelo rinds on the head, the moon goddess Chang’e will take notice and respond to any prayers.

Fried field snails are also one of the must-have dishes while appreciating the moon. In fact, they’re almost as important as mooncakes. It’s said that the snails that haven’t produced any babies taste best, though eating them is a challenge—a considerable amount of sucking skills are required.

What’s left today?
As people moved out from the old neighborhood to live in newly developed districts, kids no longer play with neighbors and tours through alleys lit by lanterns are unrealistic. The tradition of gifts from grandma is more or less kept alive by the older generation, but increasingly lost.

Still, a handful of hole-in-the-wall workshops in Guancheng are keeping the lantern making, pottery jars and mooncakes important to some. To wit, people from other towns even return to Guancheng to buy these unique treasures each year. Then, it is one of the few occasions when old Guancheng bustles once again.

Category Culture