We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

Mid-autumn festivals

Moon Rabbit

I wonder if humans have always found something festive about the autumn. It’s not simply the celebration of harvest, the ingathering of food and survival through the winter, though that is part of it. It the sense of change, of transformation, that appears in the sky and in growing things. The changes of summer are languid and slow, but autumn changes quickly. Trees drop their leaves overnight, and night draws on visibly sooner each day. Autumn is a liminal season, and so we turn to festivals that celebrate limninal spaces: summer and winter, birth and death, wandering and belonging, time past and time future, heaven and hell.

The European Halloween, the Christian All-Souls, the Jewish Sukkot, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival—in these and many others the world over, the blurring of boundaries, the fluid uncertainties of edges and crossings, become ritualized. The phenomena of seasonal change receive an external, particpatory form, in food, gift-giving, procession, burning paper, putting up tents, song and prayer and story. The summer past and the winter to come converge in a single night of moonrise or moonset; ancient mythologies meet hopes and fears for the future.

In his delightfully curmudgeonly article ‘The Form and Meaning of the Festival’ (Asian Ethnology 28:1 (1969): 1-16), A. W. Sadler writes:

[F]estivals involve a bursting of its bounds by the divine presence, an explosion of its territorial confines, and a consequent invasion of profane space by the sacred. There is an outrush of the sacred (both sacred good and sacred bad, both kami and demons) and an invasion of external space by the spirit world. Spirits benevolent and spirits terrifying, ordinarily confined and spatially restrained, are suddenly unleashed on the world and given total freedom of movement. In Japan, the kami emerges from the closet-like confines of the shrine’s holy of holies and takes his wild ride through the town. Even our Hallowe’en, that battered relic of the Celtic New Year, retains its initial meaning as a time when spirits are loosed. In both cases, festival time is a good time for divination, because the spirits are in the midst of the folk and free to assist in the divination. (p. 13)

Certainly, for whatever reason, autumnal festivals often seem to have a scrying, fortune-telling aspect to them. Over the next few weeks, as autumn deepens, I’ll be presenting accounts of some of these divinitory traditions. And since Mid-autumn Festival is this week in China, where I live, I’ll be starting here.

Keep Calm and Make Tea
Keep Calm and Make Tea

There’s an abundance of Mid-autumn Festival traditions I can see just by looking out my window—family picnics, fireworks, paper lanterns, burning spirit money, and a surfeit of mooncakes. But there have been plenty of other, older rituals, including more blatant attempts to cross through liminal spaces. Chao Wei-Pang describes some of these in the article ‘Games at the Mid-Autumn Festival in Kusngtung’ (Asian Ethnology 3:1 (1944): 1-16). The article uses old-fashioned Romanization, of course, and I wonder if ‘games’ is an awkward translation, or a gentrification if you will—‘trance ritual’ seems closer to the mark in most cases. And, truth be told, I don’t know if any of these traditions survive anymore, as games or otherwise.

But it’s hard not to see the conflation of seasonal change, and harvest, and the bursting through of the sacred into the profane in customs like this:

A winnowing fan is dressed like a human figure. Two persons hold it and sing the following song:

‘‘Star of the Seventh Lady, she has seven sisters.

Of seven lotus flowers six bloom;

There is still one flower that will come this night….”

It is said that the song is very long and beautiful, but we only know the first four lines. When the Seventh Lady comes, the figure bows its head. Then the girls ask her their questions one after another about their future marriages and children. She answers by bowing. Thig name, thus described, is played in Weng-yiian. In Ch’ao-chou a similar game is played that is simply called Ch’a-chi-ku ( 插箕姑), namely “Lady of the Winnowing Fan”. When the Goddess has arrived, the girls repeatedly ask her how old they are or how many coins they have in their purse, etc. It is said that she can answer correctly by nodding her head. (pp. 5-6)

The ‘games’ that Chao Wei-Pang recounts seem to be attempts to come to terms with the business of the spirit world. Women are chosen to enter chance and make inquiries about dead relatives, both in heaven and in hell. Other customs concern the future. Chao recounts ‘The Descent into the Garden – Lo Hua-yilan ( 落花園)’, which seems to some kind of fertility ritual:

This drama is performed by girls under fifteen who, it is said, “have not yet left the garden” […] According to legend, in heaven there is a large garden in which each flower represents a girl on earth. During the night of the Mia-autumn Festival the garden is open. If a girl wants to know her future, she may go to see the flower tree which represents her. A white flower indicates that she will give birth to a male child; a red flower, a female child. If there are several flowers she will have several children. (p. 2)

Chao explains that the garden is on the moon, and notes with prim perplexity, ‘We can find no further evidence of the belief that the moon is a garden of girls’ (p. 12). The garden, of course, has long been a symbol of nascent sexuality and knowledge of the world generally; the moon is often seen as maternal, sometimes menarchal, in its tidal influence on the world. The way for the girl to enter the lunar garden is through trance, assisted by her friends:

She covers her eyes with her hands. A stick of incense is placed between her fingers. The chorus, each holding a stick of incense, walk around her to the tune of a melodiously enchanting song until she simulates slumber. Then her soul has ascended to the celestial realms of heaven and forthwith she begins to declare the glories and the beauties of heaven. (p. 1)

The same method of trance can be used during the Mid-autumn festival to enter both heaven and hell. The destination seems to depend on the choice of song, or the fortunes and misfortunes of deceased relatives.

Chao also recounts several children’s games, which combine the uncanny with the delightful:

On a moonlit night during the Mid-autumn Festival a group of boys and girls form themselves in a circle. A quiet child is chosen to be the leader and placed in the center of the circle. He holds a stick of incense with two hands and closes his eyes; the others, each taking a bundle of incense sticks, walk around him and sing a refrain repeatedly. By and by the playing child loses his consciousness and pulls at the others. Whoever he touches likewise lapses into unconsciousness. As soon as there are, thus, several affected, they begin to sing and act together as actors. (p. 10)

Similar rituals—or children’s games, as Chao would have it—involve the child in the middle describing another world, or hopping like a toad, or climbing up a flagpole like a monkey. Perhaps one’s own innate bias about such matters will suggest whether the children really enter into various trance states, or simply the spirit of good fun. Certainly, the cacophanous good cheer of this ritual could either be attributed to the the Lady of the Chopsticks, or clever grandparenting, or both…

A chopstick is stuck in a small bamooo tube or an iron bowl containing rice or ashes; another chopstick is attached horizontally to the top of the first one. A group of children, each taking two pieces of a broken tile or brick in their hands and clashing them together, sing the following song:

“Third Lady of the Chopstick, we invite you to ride on a sedanchair,

To ride on a sedan-chair with open windows.

We invite you to come to (perform) the kuan chu-shen.

The head of the chopstick rises up; the tail of the chopstick wags.

The tail of the chopstick wags to take white rice.

The head of the chopstick rises up to take Kuo-t’iao.

Kuo-t’iao kuo. To divine by the hsin-pei.

Hsin-pei is believable. We jump forward to step on it.

We jump back to kick it.”

This game is played by the boys of Ch’ao-chou. According to one account it is played as above, but according to another, the boys take sticks of incense in their hands in stead of broken tiles and the song is somewhat shorter:

“The head of the chopstick rises up; the tail of the chopstick wags.

The head of the chopstick rises up to take dishes;

The tail of the chopstick wags to take kuo-t’iao.”

After a while the god comes and the horizontal chopstick moves, and gradually it turns around on the other one. (p. 11)

Here, again, is the attempt to break through the liminal spaces and see round the corner of the year, as it were. Such festivals remind the children of the reality of the past and of the potential of unseen, while bearing silent testament to the slow turning of the year.

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