The Mid-Autumn Festival, also commonly known as the Moon Festival or Lantern Festival around the world, was last Wednesday (4th October) and from my own childhood memory it had been a fun time. I would go down to the park on Eastern Street at Sai Ying Pun with my cheap factory made plastic lantern during the evening, there all the kids would run around in the darkness lit up by the lanterns all giggling and having fun. Nowadays, that scene is growing to be few and far in between as Hong Kong falls further into a nanny state and a police state, and within this setting, the meanings for the Mid-Autumn Festival faces oblivion.
Mid-Autumn was an agricultural society’s celebration of the end of the harvest, when the day grows shorter and the night longer, and when winter is about to set in; this is that brief time between the back-breaking farm work and the dead cold winter when families can actually enjoy life and spend time with the children. The Mid-Autumn Festival is second only to the Winter Solstice celebration in terms of importance for the family, while the Lunar New Year celebrations (it’s LUNAR New Year and NOT Chinese New Year) is more about reaching out to more extended relatives and friends. In Hong Kong, Mid-Autumn is really the only time for kids to be kids.
On the show Good Morning Hong Kong, hosted by Passion Times, its founder Wong Yeungtat noted that the Mid-Autumn Festival for the average families had been where kids learnt the fun and danger of fire. Kids in his day didn’t yet have plastic electric lanterns to run around with, it was still the traditional paper lanterns surrounding an actual lit flame, and children in Hong Kong back then had to learn not to turn their lanterns into a ball of flame and burn themselves, or they would deliberately let their lantern burn for the heck of it. For older kids, the ultimate fun was burning wax in the leftover moon cake tin box, turning the wax into a fluid, molten wax and then spray water – or pee – onto it and watches it hiss and spit without getting hurt. Later on, the paper lanterns gave way to plastic, electric lanterns and fluorescent glow sticks.
However, as the pro-China forces gain ascendancy, Hong Kong began sliding towards a nanny state where the government used safety as the pretext to rob Hong Kongers of what makes life fun. For example, the wax burning has been progressively discouraged and banned citing physical safety for children, the paper lantern was phased out for fear of accidents, and glow sticks were discouraged as environmentally damaging. In the end, Hong Kong kids are robbed of the fun with fire in a controlled environment; robbed of learning how to handle fire with care through fun activities; robbed of learning that some fun comes with painful dangers; and robbed of desiring to know about the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s not just during the Mid-Autumn Festival but throughout their childhood they experience Hong Kong as a nanny state; in such a suffocating and supposedly over-protective environment, is it any wonder that many Hong Kong children lost their innate human nature to learn to protect themselves, relying instead on an outside power to do it for them (which is surely what the government hope for), and for the independent minded kids to kill themselves in order to escape the overwhelming suffocation?
The lost of Mid-Autumns’ political meaning
For the adults in Hong Kong, there is another loss of meaning for the Mid-Autumn Festival, namely its political meaning in its mythological and historical contexts. Many current young adult Hong Kongers know the mythology behind the Mid-Autumn Festival, or think they do, as they are were taught about how Sheung Ngor (Chang Er) fled to the moon after taking the pills of immortality from the tyrant Hau Ngai (Hou Yi) at school. Yet, that myth carries a political meaning that most people hardly mention.
Hau Ngai was once the legendary hero that shot down nine of the ten suns which suddenly appeared in unison in the sky, scorching the Earth and killing all life in the world, and for that heroism he was bequeathed the pills of immortality by the Queen Mother of the West. The people praised him and elected him as sovereign and lord, but as the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the people’s exaltation went to his head. His consort, Sheung Ngor, could no longer tolerate his tyranny and took his pills of immortality to deny him everlasting life, fleeing to the moon to live on her own forever. The myth was supposed to remind us that personality worship usually ends in dictatorship, and that it is natural to want to flee from such tyrants and declare our independence, but in this day and age this meaning behind the story is down played for a good reason: stop reminding us that we alone hold our fate in our own hands and not some other person or power, all the more better for those in power to hold people in subjugation.
Historically, the Mid-Autumn also harkens back to the era just prior to the end of the Mongol dominion over the Sino civilisation, again it carries the meaning of overthrowing one’s oppressor and declare our own independence. For after decades of Mongol rule and treated as low castes in the Mongolian political system, the Han people decided to revolt. In order to deny them the opportunity to congregate and strategise the Mongol imperial court decreed that a Mongol guard lives with every Han household to watch for any treasonous behaviour. The revolutionary forces decided to communicate with every Han household right under the Mongols’ noses by using a very cultural icon. The precursor of the moon cake had been around for a while by that era, so the revolutionary army hid a note inside every moon cake they distributed to Han households, marked by a lantern at the front of their residence, where the note alerted the household that on a given date they are to kill the Mongol guard in their residence then take up arms and fight the Mongols. Like the Jewish story of the first Passover, the historical Mid-Autumn myth is also about being free from tyranny and subjugation.
In a cultural celebration pregnant with meanings of independence and overthrowing the yoke of tyrants, is it any wonder that China and its goons in Hong Kong would try to distract Hong Kongers from remembering the various traditions behind Mid-Autumn, instead turning it into just another commercial gimmick to sell more moon cakes?