Confucius said: The essence of knowledge is, having it, to use it.
The Mid-Autumn Festival started about 3000 years ago. It was a way to celebrate the harvest. Families would get together on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar at full moon. It was a time when people were looking forward to the sun’s heat again and women who wanted babies would send out those wishes at this time. All these wishes were represented by the lanterns that the Chinese would traditionally hang all over at this time of the year. Over time this cultural celebration has gone through many changes.
Today in Taiwan 24 September is a public holiday and families get together to say thanks for their blessings. Mooncakes are traditionally eaten now. That is a cake that is round, like the moon. The round shape represents union, reunion and to be complete.
Lanterns have also always been a very important part of this festival. In Pingxi area, ages ago, people will flee into the mountains when the marauding enemies were around. When all was safe to return lanterns were sent onto the sky as a sign that the coast was clear. Then people wrote riddles on the lanterns and others had to guess the answers. Later people started writing their wishes on the lanterns so that the lantern could carry them up to the gods. This is still done today.
This festival has become a way to attract tourists thanks to many high profile media outlets like CNN, Forbes and Discovery Channel giving this festival the thumbs up. However, when you speak to locals about it there is not much enthusiasm. Initially I thought it was just my co-workers who were not keen to support it. My co-workers’ concerns are for the environment. “What goes up, must come down and where does it come down? We live on an island with many rivers. The bamboo and paper will degrade but the metal wire won’t. Its going to end up in the sea.” “While we wait for the bamboo and paper to disappear we have to look at these colourful blotches stuck in trees in the high mountains around Pingxi. Its ugly and we do not like that.” These are some of the comments I heard.
I have mentioned in a previous blog that the Taiwanese will travel if there is the slightest excuse for it. So I braced myself for this trip to Pingxi which is in the north and many hours on public transport away from where I live. But I was very surprised at how few locals turned up for the event. Its very well organised. There are free busses travelling between Taipei and Pingxi every few minutes and yet they were virtually empty. I spent the whole day exploring the beautiful areas around Pingxi and I never felt claustrophobic due to the crowds.
During the day many families who come to Pingxi would send off lanterns but the main event is in the evening after sunset. Everyone who wanted to send off a lantern was corralled into groups of 100 at a time. I was in group 2 but because there were not enough people in group 1 a lot of us were moved into group 1. When I left the organisers were still asking people to join group 4. So that means they sent off less than 400 lanterns that evening. Group 1 was made up mostly of tourists and expats.
Through the ages Taiwanese have made changes to their cultural activities and I can see they are not afraid to do it again. Ordinary people are thinking about this and are showing they are not willing to support it in its current format. The Ten Drum Cultural Village in Rende area was a sugar refinery and it has a very high chimney on the site. At this site you can send off your lanterns knowing they will not go further than the top where they are caught and just fall down again. You still get the full experience of writing on your lantern, sending it off and watching many lanterns float high up into the dark. And you have the bonus that your lantern is not going to pollute the island.