NEW YORK - According to the Lunar Calendar, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month is when the moon is believed to be closest to the earth. This is the time of the year that the Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Koreans celebrate a harvest festival known as the Mid-autumn Festival.

Lanterns for sale along Queen’s Road West in Hong Kong.

Since the beginning of recorded time humankind has always counted on being able to look into the night sky and see the softly lit orb, which has become the center of a myriad of myths. To the Chinese, the moon has always had a spiritual significance and the Mid-autumn festival, also known as the Moon Festival, is one of the oldest Chinese festivals, observed since the Shang dynasty (16th – 10th centuries BC). The festival has its origins in the worship of the moon as a heavenly body, but over the years has absorbed new layers of meaning, becoming associated with longevity, romance, reunion and rebellion.  

Moon Festival celebrations in Beijing.

In the West, there appears the friendly face of the ‘Man in the Moon’ and the distinctive holes of soft, new ‘cheese.’ The moon’s reflected light has also illuminated the passionate romance of countless generations of young couples as they embarked on their traditional ‘honeymoon.’  To the Chinese, the shadows on the moon conjure up images of the jade rabbit using a mortar and jade pestle to create the ‘elixir of longevity.’ The waxing and waning of the moon and its cyclical rejuvenation led to an association with immortality. 

Lot 515, An Imperial Yellow Kesi Twelve-Symbol Semi-Formal Dragon Robe (Jifu), Qing Dynasty, Tongzhi Period. Estimate $100,000–150,000, to be offered in New York, Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, 17th September 2014, with symbols showing the rabbit in the moon and the rooster in the sun.

The jade rabbit is believed to share his home with Chang’e, the goddess of the moon. There are many versions of how Chang’e became goddess of the moon, but generally she is believed to be a goddess who was sent down to earth with her heavenly archer husband Houyi, to solve the problem of ten suns rotating the earth at the same time. Houyi’s solution was to shoot down nine of the suns, leaving only the one we now see in the sky. The ten suns were actually the children of the God of The East, Dongwanggong, who was so angered that Houyi had shot down nine of his children that he banished Houyi and Chang’e to live among the mortals they had served so well. The Queen Mother of the West, Xiwangmu, took pity on the couple and gave them an elixir of immortality.  A portion of the elixir would allow them to live on earth forever.  But Chang’e wanted to return to heaven and took both portions, which made her body grow light and ascend into the sky.  However, as she had been banished, she was not allowed to enter heaven, and unable to face her husband she had left on earth, made her home in the moon.

Lot 426, A Gilt-Lacquered Bronze Six-Armed Figure of Guanyin, Dated Chenghua 22nd Year, Corresponding to 1486. Estimate $50,000–70,000, to be offered in New York, Images of Enlightenment, 17th September 2014. The figure holds discs representing the sun and the moon.

The legend of Chang’e blends her character with that of the original moon goddess, the moon itself.  The sun and moon were both worshipped as heavenly bodies, one ruling over the night, and the other the day.  The moon’s most profound and resonant role was as the sun’s opposite number. The sun was, and is still called taiyang, the Great Yang, and the moon was called Taiyin, the Great Yin. This perception of mutual dependency of the two spheres emerged as the most recognizable symbol of duality - the Daoist yinyang - represented by a circle symbolizing fullness and completeness, half light, half dark, and each half containing an element of the other, to create an inseparable whole.  This remarkably enduring, economical and effective design embodies universal truths of opposing powers; light and dark, life and death, male and female, hot and cold, and on and on that form a duality, mutually complimentary in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Lot 595, A Lobed Cloisonné Enamel Box and Cover, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century. Estimate $6,000–8,000, to be offered in New York, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 17th September 2014.

As mentioned above, the circle represents fullness and completeness, which led to the Moon Festival being a time for family reunion. Families would gather together to share the bounty of the harvest, renew their familial bonds and enjoy moon cakes.

A selection of traditional Cantonese style moon cakes with fillings of dates, beans and lotus seeds. One has a salted duck egg yolk that represents the moon.

During the Yuan dynasty, established by the Mongols, the Chinese took advantage of this festival to organize a rebellion. Since the Mongols did not celebrate the festival, secret messages where hidden inside moon cakes instigating rebellion against the Mongol invaders. The messages asked those supporting the rebellion to hang lanterns outside their homes during the Moon Festival. On the night of the Moon Festival, cities and villages were ablaze with colorful lanterns hung from every Chinese household. Support for the rebellion was overwhelming and shortly after, the Yuan dynasty was overthrown. Lanterns still form an important part of the celebrations today, with their bright colors and fantastic shapes dispelling the darkness of the night.

Lot 146, A Longquan Celadon Table Screen, Ming Dynasty. Estimate $20,000–30,000, to be offered in New York, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 16th September 2014.

Another creature associated with the moon is the mythical xiniu which is depicted with its head lifted gazing at a crescent moon.  According to popular myth the unique crescent-shaped horn of the xiniu is the means by which the beast magically communicates with the sky. The magical powers attributed to the horn may stem from the animal’s origins as a combination of the qilin, a sort of Chinese unicorn, that symbolizes longevity and is associated with the birth of sons, and the rhinoceros whose horn was meant to contain supernatural, medicinal and other valuable properties.

Lot 546, A Finely Carved ‘Tixi’ Lacquer Box and Cover, Ming Dynasty. Estimate $25,000–35,000, to be offered in New York, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 17th September 2014. The base and inside of the cover bear a seal reading Yue Lin (Moon Forest).

The xiniu is of course not the only creature to gaze at the moon. Generations of Chinese artists, poets and literati have been inspired by the moon. Some have used the word for moon in their literary names, other have painted and composed poems about the moon.

Lot 533, A Boxwood Ruyi Scepter, Qing Dynasty, 19th Century. Estimate $7,000–9,000, to be offered in New York, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 16th September 2014.  The handle is inscribed with a poetic couplet mentioning the moon.

The most famous of all poets to compose a poem about the moon is probably Li Bai (701-762)  who lived during the Tang dynasty. One of China’s most renowned and beloved poets, he was famous for the poignant beauty of his words as much as his well-documented love of wine. His poem ‘Thoughts on a Quiet Night’, is one of the first Tang dynasty poems children learn to memorize:

    So bright a gleam at the foot of my bed –
    Could there have been a frost already?
    Lifting myself to look, I found that it was the brilliant moonlight,
    Sinking back again, I thought suddenly of home.

Lot 197, A Set of Four Stone-Inlaid Tielimu Panels, Qing Dynasty, 19th Century. Estimate $5,000–7,000, to be offered in New York, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 17th September 2014.  A detail shows Li Bai in typical fashion with his winepot close by.

Legend recounts that after a long night of drinking he tried to embrace a reflection of the moon while in a boat, and drowned.

Lot 157, A Superb and Rare Finely Carved Celadon-Glazed Moonflask, Yongzheng Seal Mark and Period. Estimate $1,500,000–2,500,000, to be offered in New York, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 16th September 2014. 

The beauty of the full moon is such that it evokes in us all kinds of feelings – longing, nostalgia, peace, and hope, and the shape has come to represent unity, steadfastness. It is therefore not surprising that Chinese potters would try to capture the feeling of embracing the moon in physical form resulting in a particularly elegant shape of vase called a baoyueping, Embracing the Moon, more generally known in English as a moon flask.

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