Lanterns, Mooncakes & Legends

by Rosemarie John on September 11, 2011

Annually celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month in the Chinese calendar, the Mid-Autumn Festival is filled with ancients legends, Chinese customs, colourful lanterns and delicious round cakes made from lotus seed, red bean or walnuts and pumpkin seeds. While Singapore is known for its extravagant display of lanterns throughout the city, this unique celebration originates from China dating back 3000 years.

Derived through the custom of moon worshipping during the Shang Dynasty, what was once a festival only celebrated by royalty and rich families soon became a public affair during the reign of the Tang Dynasty that spilled over to the Song, Ming and Qing Dynasties. The rich would place fruit offerings in the middle of the garden on a big table positioned right under the moon, while the common labourer would offer prayers to the moon requesting for a good harvest. The festivities would also be accompanied with brightly lit lanterns, the burning of incense and the merriment of music and dance.

Winding Staircase of the Pagodas

The Chinese Garden located in Jurong East, is one of the best places to visit in Singapore during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Modelled on the northern Chinese imperial style of landscaping and architecture, the Chinese Garden is a serene and tranquil park with majestic pagodas, statues, bonsai gardens and huge colourful lanterns. Many of the lantern decorations found in the Chinese Garden have a legend behind them…

The Story Behind the 12 Chinese Zodiacs

As the Jade Emperor decided to hold a race among the animals of his kingdom to bestow the honour of zodiac animals to the first 12 that make it through, friendships were also broken between the cat and the rat. As the story goes, upon the news of the great race, the cat asked his best friend, the rat to wake him up early on the morning of the race. Instead of doing so, the rat sneaked out on his own eventually winning the race followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit,dragon snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. It is because of this betrayal that cats and rats never get along, as so the legend goes. All 12 zodiac as displayed at the Chinese Garden, located right after the Twin Pagodas.

The Three Deities

The deities of Good Fortune (Fu), Prosperity (Lu) and Longevity (Shou)  each have their own stories. According to legend, the Fu star is associated with the Governor of Daozhou named Yang Cheng who risked his life by writing a memorial to the emperor to save his people from suffering. After his death, he was commemorated with a building of a temple in his honour. Over time he came to be considered the personification of good fortune. The legend further states that with the word ‘lu’ meaning the salary of a government official, it is befittingly referred to as the star of prosperity, rank and influence, while the Shou star on the other hand is the star of the South Pole in Chinese astronomy that is believed to control the life spans of mortals. All three deities are usually depicted as old men. The three deities are located towards the entrance/exit that head to the MRT Station.

The Legend of Ne-Zha

Born with superhuman strength and chosen by the Goddess Nuwu to be the embodiment of justice in the earthly battle between good and evil, Ne-Zha is a famous warrior known as the Conqueror of the Seas. He holds a golden chakram in his hands and wears a red damask around his shoulder. Ne-Zha is located in the middle of the park’s pond.

Locals and travellers alike flock to the Chinese Garden during the Mid-Autumn Festival for a day of fun and an opportunity to learn about Chinese legends. Each lantern display has a  short anecdote next to it to help visitors understand the uniqueness and meaning of each colourful ensemble. There is also a wishing tree where visitors can thrown golden coins tied on red ribbons onto its branches in hope that the Goddess/spirit of the tree will grant them.

After a walk around the garden, make way to the stage area to watch performances made up of magic tricks, dances and a thrilling face mask changing dance. Called Bian Lian, this ancient Chinese dramatic art will have its performers wear brightly coloured costumes and vividly coloured masks which they change in a fraction of a second right in front of your eyes. Watch the short video clip of performances below:

Today, The Mid-Autumn festival is synonymous with mooncakes but it was not always so. The concept of mooncakes emerged during the near end of Yuan Dynasty through the Han people who were under rule of the Mongols. Struggle, famine, and bitterness among the populace was what marked the last years on the great Mongol rule.

In order to create an uprising scheduled to take place on the night of the Mid-Autumn festival amongst the Han military right down to the common man, secret messages on paper were inserted into mooncakes and distributed to every person of Han descent under the pretext as mooncakes being a cure to a disease known to emerge during winter. Outwitting the Mongol military, a huge uprising took place as planned.

It is said that from then on, people eat mooncakes every Mid-Autumn festival to commemorate that very uprising. It is important to note that the intricate details of this historic moment and whether the outcome of the uprising brought about the success of the Ming Dynasty (Han people) are not found in any supporting data and that the story behind the eating of mooncakes may well be a legend passed down from generation to generation.

In modern times, instead of secret messages in the centre of mooncakes, one can find bright yellow egg yolks that provide a salty twang to each sweet bite!

Getting There: Taking the MRT is the easiest way. Alight at EW25 Chinese Garden station and take a short 3 minute walk to the middle entrance of the garden. Entrance to the Chinese Garden is usually free on normal days but during the Mid-Autumn Festival tickets cost SGD$12 for adults and SGD$8 for children.

**The Lantern display at the Chinese Garden goes on from 26 August to 18 September 2011. The park closes at 11pm but access to the pagodas end by 7pm.

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