When did the bright moon first appear? One raises a cup and asks the blue sky. One does not know, in the celestial palaces, what year it is this evening.
— Su Shi – Water Melody
Full poem and translation linked to here. Do you know! How People Celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan?
A Chinese version of this article and a reading comprehension exercise can be downloaded here.
In 1983 a Taiwanese singer named Theresa Teng (Lijun Teng) sang a song that brought back an 11th century poem back to life. In the Song dynasty a poet name Su shi writes a poem about longing for family. Already a literary favorite, when Theresa Tung’s crooned lyrical version was released close to the mid-autumn festival, the song swept through the Chinese diaspora. The lyrics echo the sentiments we have at mid-autumn when we come to be together as a family.
So what kind of a festival is the mid-autumn festival exactly? Autumn, in the lunar calendar, actually begins towards the beginning of August. Why the mid-autumn festival begun being celebrated in the non-middle of Autumn is anyone’s best guess. What we do know is that this period of time has marked the celebration of the harvest and the full moon. Our earliest record of this dates back to the the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Now generations upon generations later, it is one of the Han people’s four big festival days. It is also celebrated by most Asian countries follow a lunar calendar. Though the festival takes many different styles, forms and customs throughout the world – two themes that thread throughout are ‘coming together’ and ‘moonwatching.’
In Taiwan, the ‘Han’ (non-indigenous) people are largely divided into two groups: the Minnannese and the Hokkien. The ancestors of the Minnan people hail mostly from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, in the Fujian province of mainland China – they make up the majority of the Han people of Taiwan. The Hokkien people also come from Fujian, but from the mountainous and hilly areas. They came to settle in the hills, terraces, or mountain plains of the north and south sides along the west coast of Taiwan. Though both of them are from the Fujian Province, their dialects, cultures and customs are different and they are also considered to be from two distinct ethnic groups. Because of these differences, the Mid-Autumn Festival activities have come to be celebrated in a few distinct ways within Taiwan.
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Though cultures and customs transform from generation to generation, the zeitgeist of the mid-autumn festival lives on in many guises. Just as the ancient literature of Su shi came back to be a classroom poem which then back back around as a popular pop song the mid-autumn festival unites the people of Taiwan across generations.
On mid-autumn‘s evening the whole family will go outside to see the full moon, share stories, eat mooncakes, and eat grapefruit. But how else do they celebrate the mid-autumn in Taiwan?
How People Celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan?
If you ask any Taiwanese person “what do you do to celebrate mid-autumn festival?” chances are that you’ll hear one response over and over again. The funny thing is that noone really knows why the entire country of Taiwan has developed a mid-autumn tradition of having a barbecue! One theory is that in the 1980s, there were two sauce companies that wanted to sell their barbecue sauces. Their advertising campaigns were so effective that barbecuing on the mid-autumn holiday became a ‘thing’. Another theory is that there was a company selling barbecue grills that was blocked from exporting them which caused these grills to overflow the domestic market and hence drop drastically in price – which led to eventually every family having one.
Whatever the reason – during the mid-autumn Taiwan is filled with the mouth watering flavors of grilling food. Households take their grills out onto their balcony, outside their porch, sometimes just out to the side of the street and enjoy the cooling weather, conversation, and cooking out. You can find a massive variety of items on the grill, the classic Taiwanese pork belly on toast & blood sausage, fishcake etc.. But also chicken wings, drumsticks, shrimp, oyster, vegetables, and many different types of tofu.
2. Moonflower cake (Moonlight cake)
Many Hakka people still follow their folk traditions of worshipping the land god and the moon goddess (tǔdì gōng & yuè niáng). When the full moon for mid-autumn comes around they make round biscuit dishes called moonflower cakes (yuè huá bǐng) to offer to their gods as offerings. These biscuits need to be round, but they also need to be big. The bigger the better! Store bought moonflower cakes can only be so big, so, during the mid-autumn festival, many families make their own.
Autumn in Taiwan is also the harvesting season for sweet potatoes, and taro. These root vegetables are washed and pureed into a paste that can be pan baked into a cake. They are often decorated with red lettering that say ‘moonflower cake’ before they’re cooked up. Usually one moonflower cake is cooked per member of the family. In the morning, half of the cakes are ceremonially offered to the land god, and in the evening the other half are offered to the moon goddess. The moonflower cake is only eaten once they have been offered, or ‘sacrificed’ to the deities. Because of this tradition, most Hakka people will remember childhood memories of sneaking moonflower cake while the adults aren’t looking. A tried and true method? Eat the bottom part of the moonflower cake first – the adults will never notice anything wrong!
3. Ceremonial rituals for the land god
For the Minnanese people, Mid-autumn marks the day when the land god ‘ascended’ into divinity. To commemorate the occasion, canes paired with incense, are placed on the fields (which are looked after by the land god). The canes are placed there so that it is easier for the very elderly land god to walk around bless the farmers’ fields with a rich harvest and protect them from pests.
In the south of Taiwan, the temples of the land god are all hustle bustle during the mid-autumn festival. What’s being offered to Tudigong at the temple? Mochi! Because the land god is elderly, what better dessert to offer him than soft, easy to chew, mochi. Since the land god also represents money, the stickiness of the mochi might also mean that your fortunes might ‘stick’ to you this year. Either way, the mochi sellers don’t do too shabbily during the mid-autumn festival.
4. Duck feasts
Ducks are central to life in the Meinong district of Kaohsiung as they have traditionally been duck farmers. The mid-autumn season is when these ducks are at their absolute plumpest. In this Hokkien region of Taiwan, duck dishes are always on the menu for the mid-autumn festival.
5. Veggie cakes and swings
The Minnanese people of Yilan have a very special type of cake that they eat during the mid-autumn festival that is called a ‘veggie cake.’ Interestingly enough, there are no vegetables in this cake! It’s made of kumquat and brown sugar. But, since vegetarians can eat them, they are still called veggie cakes. Another very special mid-autumn festival tradition in this region of taiwan is a giant swing competition. How giant are these giant swings? The competitors in this massive ordeal have the task of ringing a bell placed at 5.5 meters with their feet. The contestant who can ring this bell the most time within the span of 3 minutes wins. The competition, which has a history of a 130 years, started out as a off-season activity for farmers but is now a highlight of the mid-autumn festival in Yilan.
One line from Theresa Teng’s hit song talks about wanting to go with the wind. The little customs and traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival, they change, they change from region to region, generation to generation, and so on and so forth. Perhaps the only thing about the Mid-Autumn Festival that doesn’t change is the full moon – the hopes, dreams, and love we share with our families within it.
We wish everybody a happy Mid-Autumn Festival!