Episode 85: Mid-Autumn Festival – Jade Rabbit And Chinese Sisyphus

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Today we will keep talk about stories about the Mid-Autumn festival and they are great entertainment for tonight’s moon gazing.

Last night we talked about a beautiful woman called ChangE 嫦娥 flew to the moon after eating the elixir of life. She lives in a palace on the moon 月宫or 广寒宫. In the book YiShi 逸史, it mentions a story of the Emperor XuanZong of Tang 唐玄宗 had a dream of visiting the palace of the moon.

In the book WuJingTongYi 五经 通义, it says, there is a rabbit and a toad on the moon. In the book YueFuShiJi 乐府诗集, it says, the rabbit is pounding medicine for the mortals with a mortar and pestle. Later we call the moon rabbit as Jade Rabbit 玉兔, as a companion of the lonely goddess of the moon ChangE 嫦娥. If you saw the Japanese cartoon Sailor Moon, the main character Sailor Moon’s name is Usagi Tsukino meaning Moon Rabbit. In the book Journey to the West 西游记, the monkey king fought with the Moon Rabbit.


In the book HuaiNaiZi 淮南子 from the Han dynasty 汉朝, it says, there is an osmanthus tree on the moon. The osmanthus tree is native to Asia. The tree flowers during the autumn. The flowers is also know as sweet osmanthus, tea olive, sweet olive and so on. The flowers have a special fragrance and are infused with tea and made into jam.


In the book JiuYangZaZu 酉阳杂 俎from the Tang dynasty 唐朝, it says the osmanthus tree on the moon is 500 zhang 丈, which is around 1500m. There is a person cutting down the tree. This man is called WuGang 吴刚, the Chinese Sisyphus because the tree is self-healing so he has to keep chopping the tree.There are a lot of variations about why Wu Gang is on the moon. In some stories, it says, WuGang murdered his wife’s lover, who is the grandson of Emperor Yan 炎帝 after he found out about the affair. So he was banished to the moon where he would cut down the tree. Some historians think the story of WuGang and the tree was originally from the imagination of the shadows on the moon.


In 2007, China launched its first lunar probe , a spacecraft named ChangE ‘1. Tow other lunar probes in 2010 and 2013 named ChangE ‘2 and ChangE ‘3 in the honor of the goddess of the moon. In 2013, a lunar rover landed on the moon called YuTu 玉兔, Jade Rabbit.

I will finish our episode with part of the conversations between Houston control center and the Apollo 11 crew before the first moon landing in 1969:

  • Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit.
  • Okay . We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.
  • 中秋4



逸史 YiShi

五经 通义WuJingTongYi

乐府诗集 YueFuShiJi

西游记 Journey to the West

淮南子 HuaiNaiZi

酉阳杂 俎 JiuYangZaZu

唐玄宗 Emperor XuanZong of Tang

炎帝 Emperor Yan

Sailor Moon

Episode 76 : Ghost Festival

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It is almost the time of the Ghost Festival and today we will talk about this special day in China. We talked about the Day of Death in our podcast before and it is a little similar to but not quite the same to Ghost Festival. If you want to know more about the Day of Death, please check our episode 38.

The main difference between Day of Death and Ghost Festival for me is that I feel like most ceremonies are held during the day on the Day of Death however most ceremonies held during the night on the Ghost Festival. So when I think of Day of Death, I would think about picnic on a refreshing spring day visiting the cemetery. However when I think of the Ghost Festival, I think about some scary ghosts wondering on the streets during night time.


Ghost Festival 鬼节, is also called ZhongYuan Festival 中元节in Taoism and YuLanPenHui 盂兰 盆会in Buddhism, which is on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. This year it will be on August 25th.

There are different origins about the festival due to the influences of folklore, Taoism and Buddhism. In the folklore, there are two reasons to have a festival on the 15th of the seven month in the lunar calendar. First, it is the end of the summer and the start of the harvest season when it is the time to sacrifice and worship the land. Second, the 15th of month is usually the full month and the moon is a sacred sign in the ancient time.



In Taoism, the festival is called ZhongYuan Festival. Zhong means middle. Yuan means basic or the top. There are three officials in Taoism called SanGuanDaDi 三官大帝 which are TianGuan 天官, the official of heaven, DiGuan 地官, the official of the ground, ShuiGuan 水官, the official of the water. DiGuan is in the middle who is in charge of pardoning sins. The origin of ZhongYuan Festival is said on the birthday of DiGuan, the official of the ground. On this day, the ghost gate in the underworld is open. We talked about the underworld and ghost gate in our episode 12 you can check it if you are interested. The ghosts and spirits have this day to come out to our world and it is kind of like in the movie Coco. If the spirits have families alive, they can visit them.


In Buddhism, the festival is called YuLanPenHui which is from the Sanskrit word Ullambana from the Ullambana Sutra. Ullambana means being hung upside down in sanskirt meaning the pains in life is like we are hung upside down on the tree. In the sutra, it says Mulian asked the Buddha to relieve the suffering of his past mom as a hungry ghost. His mom had been greedy with money and after death, she was at the realm of the Hungry Ghosts that they could not eat. The Buddha informed him that food offered to the community of monks at the time of their return from the summer retreat will benefit 7 generations of his ancestors. Mulian raised his mom to reincarnate to human by giving food and robes to 500 monks.

Since the Buddhism story is about filial piety which is an important part in Chinese culture including Taoism and Confucianism, the rituals of the festival includes descendants burning incenses, preparing food offerings, burning joss paper for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Different from the Day of the Death, instead of going to the cemeteries, people would burn joss paper just on the streets because the spirits are visiting us. The ceremonies are usually held in the afternoon or at night when the ghosts are released.


Think about how scary it is for a kid thinking about spirits and ghosts are wondering on the streets. I remember after school on the Ghost Festival, I could see a lot of people just burning joss paper on the streets maybe talking to the spirit and the name of their ancestors so they can find families and receive the money. Grow ups would warn us that do not wonder around on the streets that day after school since we would be likely encounter ghosts. Shops closed early that they want to empty the streets for the ghosts. There are some taboos like don’t look back that day if somebody call you or pat on your shoulders. Pat your shoulders, exhale and rub your shoes before you enter home just in case you are haunted by some bad spirits on your body.

Another traditions on the Ghost Festival is float water lanterns usually in the shape of lotus flower on water to direct the spirits and ancestors back to the underworld.



鬼节 Ghost Festival

中元节 ZhongYuan Festival

盂兰 盆会 YuLanPenHui

Ullambana Sutra

Episode 57: Dragon Boat Festival

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It is around the time of DuanWu Festival 端午节, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival. Today we are going to talk about the interesting stories about the festival. DuanWu Festival is on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, around the summer solstice. This year, it is on June 18th.

In the book FengTuJi 风土记, it says “duan” in the name DuanWu Festival means the beginning in ancient Chinese. “Wu” is a earthly branch in the ancient dating system. The fifth month in lunar calendar is the month of Wu. So the name of the festival means the beginning of the fifth month. Coincidentally, five in Chinese “wu 五”  has the same pronunciation as the earthly branch “wu 午”. So you can interpret the name as the fifth day of the month.

In English the festival is called Dragon Boat festival, which a direct translation from another name of the festival LongZhou Festival 龙舟节. There are some other names for the festival related with the climate or customs too I am not going to talk about each of them. Since the festival is around the summer solstice. Can you guess what the festival is for originally?

The earliest customs about the Dragon Boat festival can be dated back to the Spring and Autumn period 春秋时 期, which is around 2500 years ago. Since it is around the summer solstice, the weather is hot and humid. Bugs and insects are active and germs grow fast. People can easily get diseases and infections. In the book XiaXiaoZheng 夏小正,it says the customs during the time around the fifth month in lunar calendar include using mugwort, a kind of aromatic plant in food and decorations for the anti-herpectic effect and cooking bean soup to prevent heat stroke.


During Han Dynasty 汉朝, which is between 202 BC ~ the year 220 , in the book SiMinYueLing 四民月令, it says, people would Chinese medicine during the fifth month for diarrhea and heat stroke and braid silk threads of five colors and wear them on the wrists to keep bad spirits and diseases away. I definitely remembered I was wearing the braided five -colored bracelet as a kid.


During Jin Dynasty 晋代, which is between the year 265~ 420, more customs added to the festival including a game called “Hundred – plants fight斗百草”. Children would find as many plants as possible and tag-a- war with them. Scholars would get as many plants as possible and compete each other with naming the plants in the certain format of Chinese poems.

During Sui and Tang Dynasties, which is between the year 581~ 907, Dragon Boat festival was already an important day. It was popular to give each other clothing and accessories as gifts during the festival like belts, fans especially fans which is a great tool to keep cool in the summer and drive off bugs. People would hang up pictures with the five poisonous animals including snakes, scorpions, toads, lizards and centipedes.



During Song Dynasty 宋朝, which is between the year 960 ~ 1279, things got more delicate and complicated. Food wise, there were more well-made deserts. Accessory wise, there were little silk made bag with various aromatic plants inside to wear. There were tiger shaped decorations using different plants. The must have food for Dragon Boat Festival today is Zongzi 粽子, which was popular since that time. If you have seen the Japanese cartoon movie called My Neighbor Totoro, you would know it. It is made of sticky rice with different fillings like dates and beans or meat and salted egg yolk wrapped with different kinds of leaves like leaves of lotus and reed. It is usually boiled or steamed kind of like the Mexican food tamales.


During Ming Dynasty 明朝, which is between the year 1368 ~1644, dragon boats started to get popular. There were dragon boats races and there were some sacrifice ceremonies on the boats as well. Some people would use the water in the dragon boat afterwards and shower with it and some plants to keep away from bad spirits.


So origin of the festival is related with the climate of the time of the year. However, it is well known today that the festival is related with a scholar called Qu Yuan 屈原, a Chinese poet and minster from around the 340 BC~ 278 BC during the Warring States period 战国时期. He was patriotic however committed to suicide in the river to protect his life principles when feeling despair to to politics of his motherland. It is said he committed to suicide on the fifth day of the fifth month which was the same day of Dragon Boat Festival. That’s why people carry zongzi and boats to the rivers to save Qu Yuan from being eaten by fish in the river. This explanation actually was made like 50 years ago by some Confucianism scholars in modern China who tried to promote the patriotism in China. And it seems to work really well that everyone today knows the Dragon Boat Festival is about Qu Yuan.



龙舟节/端午节Dragon Boat Festival/ DuanWu Festival

屈原Qu Yuan

风土记 FengTuJi


四民月令 SiMinYueLing

Episode 38: Day Of The Dead

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The Pixar movie Coco won a lot of laughs and tears from audiences last year. Because it is about family and death which are the two most sentimental topics for everyone. Birth and death. Where did we come and where are we going. Day of death is the Mexican festival Dia de los Muertos, however, a lot of details reminds me of QingMing Festival 清明节in China.

Qing means clear ming means bright. It is on the first day of the fifth month in lunar calendar usually on either 4th or 5th April every year. In the book LiShu历书, it says the 15th day after ChunFen 春分, a solar term in China, which refers to the day when the sun at the celestial longitude of 0 degree, everything in the nature is clean and bright. It is clear to see the world. The name of the festival came from here. So it is in the beginning of the Spring, people start to go outdoors doing picnic and visit ancestors after a long winter.


The festival originally is from Hanshijie 寒食节, Cold Food Festival which is to memorize JieZiTui 介子推, a general from the Spring and Autumn period 春秋时 期. The Prince ChongEr 重耳of State of Jin 晋国 exiled during a revolution in the year 655 BC. JieZiTui was with him. One day, the prince was so hungry and had nothing to eat, JieZiTui cut a piece of flesh from his thigh for his lord. In 636 BC, after 19 years, Prince ChongEr became the Duke JinWen 晋文公 and generously rewarded to those who helped him during his exile, but he forgot about JieZiTui who offered his own flesh. JieZiTui didn’t say anything and asked for retirement. He lived in Mountain Mian 绵山 with his elderly mother. Until the duke realized his neglect and wanted to invite him back. Mountain Mian was hard to climb so somebody suggested to set a fire in order to force JieZiTui out. JieZiTui was so determined not to see the duke and died with his mom under a tree.

The duke was so regret and made a pair of shoes out of the burned wood and decided that day as Cold Food festival, when nobody in the country was allowed to set a fire. People usually eat cold deli and do tomb sweeping on the festival. Since Cold Food Festival is close to the time of QingMing 清明, another solar term in China, they became one festival QingMing Festival. I remember when I was a kid in China, it was the annual day to visit my past grandparents in the cemetery. We would bring all kinds of food and drinks and worshiped them on the tomb and share some of food with family there together. I do admire the way the Mexican people treat death that they dance and celebrate and have comics making jokes about death. I mean death is kind of a forbidden topic in China which is always related with sadness and separation in Chinese culture. People try to avoid talking about it instead of facing it even before dying. That’s why the tomb sweeping day is kind of the only time family are together to talk about death and communicate with past ancestors.


Another important tradition on Qing Ming Festival is to burn joss paper. Joss paper in Chinese called ZhiQian 纸钱 or MingBi 冥币also is known as ghost money. It is paper or paper crafts made for burning as offerings to the ancestors. Chinese people believe that when you burn these things while saying ancestors’ names they could receive in another world. Since burning paper crafts are acceptable, you can find anything literally anything made of paper in shops nowadays like Iphones, beautiful ladies, mahjong 麻将 and etc.


In the Taoist rituals, the practice of burning joss paper is acceptable however some Buddhist groups and some environmental activists discourage it out of concern for the environment. Maybe in the future instead of burning real paper, people can send money to their ancestors through apps on their phones or even bitcoins.



Dia de los Muertos/ Day of the dead

清明节 QingMing Festival

寒食节 Cold Food Festival

春分 ChunFen

清明 QingMing

介子推 JieZiTui

晋文公 Duke JinWen

麻将 mahjong

纸钱/冥币 joss paper

Episode 21: Chinese Valentine’s Day

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It’s around the Valentine’s Festival and I am in the mood of telling more love stories recently. I know Valentine’s Day is a western festival, however, there is Chinese Valentine’s Day too. It is on the 7th day of the seventh month in lunar calendar. We call it QiXi Festival七夕节 which means the seventh night festival or QiQiao Festival 乞巧节which means the begging for being clever festival. Being clever doesn’t mean having a high IQ here. This festival was actually a day for girls begging to be good at crafting like weaving. This tradition can be dated to Han Dynasty 汉代 , which was tween 206 BC to 220 AD. Traditionally, on this night, girls would get together at night like a girl’s night and do some DIY like weaving, threading and crafty and make food to show and worship to ZhiNv 织女, who is our main character in the love story. ZhiNv means the Weaver Girl. There are a lot of variations of the story. The earliest reference dated back to a poem in ShiJing 诗经,back to 2600 years ago.

In the book QiYueLing 七月令, it says ZhiNv lived in the east of the Heaven River and she was the daughter of the Emperor of the heaven. She was a master of weaving and worked really hard day and night. Her father the Emperor thought she had been alone for too long and married her to NiuNang 牛郎 in HeXi 河西. NiuNang was not a deity but a normal guy cause NiuNang basically means cowherd. Yes he was a cowherd and a farmer. However, since they really loved each other and had a lot of fun, both of them abandoned their work. The emperor got raged and separated them only allowing them to date once a year, which became the same day of QiXi Festival now. A Chinese Romeo and Juliet story.

In the folktale version, it was more dramatic and related with astrology. ZhiNv was the granddaughter of WangMuNiangNiang王母娘娘, which is the most powerful goddess in Chinese mythology and we will talk about her in our future episodes. It says ZhiNv and other young goddess liked to take showers in the river Beautiful young ladies taking showers is definitely what people like to add in a story right? NiuNang, the cowherd was a poor orphan who was mistreated by his brother and brother in law. One day he was kicked out of the house with only an old cow. As told by the cow, yes , the cow could talk for some reason, NiuNang should go to the river to steal ZhiNv’s clothes when she was showering. Since he stole the clothes, ZhiNv couldn’t go back and got to be his wife. I know this part sounds ridiculous today cause it is totally a sexual harassment like a lot Greek mythology too. But anyways, they turned to love each other really much and had a boy and a girl until the Heaven Emperor found out and brought ZhiNv back to the heaven leaving NiuNang and the kids on the earth. They were both so devastated. WangMuNiangNiang separated them with her head pin which became the Milky Way. Every year on the 7th day of 7th month, the family reunite on the bridge formed by the birds magpies.


ZhiNv symbolized the star Vega and NiuNang symbolized the star Altair. Vega is a blue super giant and Altair is a red super giant. Vega is also mentioned in Contact by Carl Sagan who was inspired this story. Today I don’t think young girls still worship ZhiNv cause weaving is not women’s main job now and instead they might go on dates like the Valentine’s Day in the west. People still talk about Vega and Altair and try to find the starts in the sky since they are super bright and close to each other on the Chinese Valentine’s Day.


织女 ZhiNv

牛郎 NiuNang

七夕节 QiXi Festival

乞巧节 QiQiao Festival

诗经 ShiJing

七月令 QiYueLing

王母娘娘 WangMuNiangNiang

Vega and Altair

Contact by Carl Sagan