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In Search of 'Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake'

By Sima Yimin| ezhejiang.gov.cn| Updated: September 2, 2022 L M S


A view of West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. [Photo/Zhejiang Daily]

Together with the Spring Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival is regarded as the important festival by the Chinese people. The tradition of appreciating the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival was already recorded in the Book of Tang or the History of Tang. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the act of appreciating the moon on Mid-Autumn Day was quite popular, especially among poets and literati. Indeed, many famous lines of Tang poetry were about the moon, and it was during this period that the Mid-Autumn Day gradually became a commonly celebrated festival.

Zhang Hu (785-849), a Tang poet, described how literati appreciated the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival in his poem Enjoying the Moon in Hangzhou on the Night of Mid-Autumn Day. He wrote: "Over the balustrade they watch the moon again and again, or in groups they walk along the causeway. Return home they will not, for with fog and water, passion and love arrive late at night."

During the Northern Song (960-1127) period, people began to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with special foods, and this was when "small crisp and sugary cakes like the moon" appeared. Dongjing Menghua Lu, or The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor, is a book published at the end of the Northern Song that recorded in detail the life of Kaifang (the East Capital), the Northern Song capital. It stated that on the night of the festival, "rich families decorate their houses and pavilions while common folks throng to restaurants and taverns to watch the moon; music blaring across places can even be heard in the imperial court…children frolic and romp late into night and crowded night markets stay open until daytime."

How did people in the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) spend the day?

Mengliang Lu, or Dreaming Over a Bowl of Millet, a book written at the end of the Southern Song that describes the capital Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou), stated "the moon shines twice brighter on this night than usual…Wealthy families put on feasts for the occasion, and drink merrily to all sorts of music and dancing...and those who are much poorer would rather pawn their clothes for some wine to celebrate the festival. On this night, shops and businesses in the capital stay open all night. Visitors appreciating the moon won’t disperse until in the morning. And on this night, no curfew is imposed."

Similar accounts appeared in Wulin Jiushi, or Ancient Matters from Wulin Garden, another book about the happenings of Lin'an published around the same time as Mengliang Lu. An excerpt from this book read: "On the night of the festival, special stalls would be set up in the imperial court to let people enjoy the moon…music plays deep into the night. Shops in the imperial street sell various goods catered to the day, such as preserved fruit, incense and candles…lamps burn all night until daybreak."

A different description can be found in Xihu Laoren Fansheng Lu, or The Records from the Old Man of West Lake on Lin'an's Prosperous Life: "In the city, parties would be held to appreciate of the moon on the night, which is usually hot; many would stay around the lake and drink, waiting for the moon to rise above the water, when they would sail into the lake, as if in the legendary Moon Palace."

According to several poems, the best location to enjoy the moon on Mid-Autumn Day was on the West Lake.

Wang Wei, a Southern Song poet, wrote a poem titled Pinghu Qiuyue (Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake). He wrote: "Cold light covers ten thousand acres' sky at night, whence travels the moon as not a wisp of cloud is to be seen."

Chen Yunping, another Southern Song poet, composed a Ci poem with a similar title (To the Tune of Qiuji: Ten Arias on the West Lake — Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake), in which he lauded the moon by writing "what a night this vast mortal world is endowed with. We should all laugh at the cramped Moon Palace..."

Ming (1368-1644) poets had a penchant for Pinghu Qiuyue as well. Xu Wei (1521-1593), a famed poet, essayist, calligrapher and painter, penned a poem of the same title. What is remarkable that it is an acrostic poem: the first character of each line spells out the title Ping (Calm) Hu (Lake) Qiu (Autumn) Yue (Moon). One part of the poem reads: "Calm lake reflects ten thousand acres' autumn in a single color, lake light seems endless as water flows. Autumn moon perfectly round is rarely seen in this world, moon in its best state surely comes in autumn."

As one of the Ten Best-Known Sceneries of the West Lake, where exactly is Pinghu Qiuyue, or "Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake"? In fact, there was not a single spot for the scene during the Southern Song, which could be readily discerned from the poetry of Yuan and Ming poets, as they were invariably traveling in a boat on the West Lake to enjoy the moon and the scenery. In the woodcut print version of the Ten Best-Known Sceneries of the West Lake made during the Wanli period of the Ming dynasty, the part of Pinghu Qiuyue or "Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake" also shows that visitors look up at the moon in a boat on the lake.  

Today, the scenic spot is located to the west of the Bai Causeway, facing the lake and with the Solitary Hill at the back. It was due to Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) that the spot became a fixed tourist attraction. In 1689, the 38th year of his reign, Emperor Kangxi came to the spot during one of his southern tours, and wrote down the four characters Ping Hu Qiu Yue. A stone tablet was the set up and "Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake" has turned into what it is today.   

This article was originally published in Cultural Dialogue, a Hangzhou-based bilingual magazine. Reproduced with permission (with slight modification).