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Happy Moon Festival!

September 16, 2016

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Parents with kids in Mandarin immersion programs probably noticed that this week involved a lot of talk about the Moon Festival, moon cakes and probably some poetry.

For folks who didn’t grow up in families that celebrated what’s properly called the Mid-Autumn Festival, here’s a little background on what your little darlings have been up to.

The Moon Festival is a traditional celebration held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest of the year.

Here are some notes from my friend Jeff Bissell, the head of the Chinese American International School in San Francisco:

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, like American Thanksgiving, is held in part to celebrate the harvest. There are different variations of the story behind this festival, most of which involve the mythical archer Houyi后羿visiting his beautiful wife Chang’e嫦娥, the Goddess of the Moon once a year on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full. As with Thanksgiving, families try to reunite on this day, and there is much symbolism surrounding the full moon. The moon is round, and the circle it forms is symbolic of the family uniting together for a meal called tuán yuán fàn 团圆饭or “reunion dinner.” The three Chinese characters literally mean “round circular meal,” evoking the image of the moon. Families sit around round tables and eat moon cakes, which are also round (although nowadays you can find square ones, and ones made of ice cream). If the circle is incomplete (i.e., if a family member is away) then families say that they can at least look at the same round moon and think of their distant family members, who are looking at the same moon-and then the circle is completed.

Nowadays, Chinese exchange billions (literally) of lyrical text messages on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, all expressing wishes that they could be together with their distant friends and family. I’ve received hundreds of such messages from friends, all displaying clever uses of Chinese characters expressing “circle,” “round,” and “completion.”

The other part of the Moon Festival is the giving and eating of moon cakes. These are hockey puck-sized treats that consist of a thin pastry coating over a disk of (generally) sweet red bean paste or lotus seed paste. Lotus seed paste is very sweet and something like the Chinese equivalent of marzipan. Inside most moon cake is a single, hard-cooked, salted yolk from a duck egg. The saltiness of the yolk contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the filling, or at least it does for me. Some moon cakes feature two yolks, which seems like too much for me but your taste may vary. But perhaps more importantly in a culture enamored of symbolism in food, the egg yolk is thought to look like the full, round moon. Moon cakes are cut into thin wedges and typically served with tea.

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You can watch a nice video about them being made by hand on Slate, here.

and here are some fun videos of machine-made moon cakes

 

 

Moon cakes have become an important present to give during the weeks around the Moon Festival. Go into any Asian supermarket and you’ll find the front of the store piled high with stacks of different types and price points, depending on the quality and how fancy the packaging is. While sweet red bean paste and lotus seed paste are the most common, you’ll also find nut-filled, pineapple and melon (these are vile, I’m just warning you.) There are also smaller silver dollar-sized moon cakes that are more single serving.

Sometimes instead of handing out boxes of moon cakes people will give gift certificates for a box out instead. Last year when we were having work done on our house by a Chinese contractor he gave us these, the first time I’d run into it but I’m now told it’s pretty common.

The Moon Festival has been celebrated at least as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). In a culture that still reveres poetry and the ability to memorize and recite it, one of the best-known poems of all is a poem about just that. At some point in your child’s Chinese career they will memorize some Tang Dynasty poems (a high point for poetry) and one or more of them will be by the famous poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762). In fact maybe they already have learned this one, ask!

“Thoughts on a Quiet Night” (Jìng yè sī 静夜思)

静夜思

床前明月光,

疑是地上霜,

举头望明月,

低头思故乡

 

Jìng yè sī

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

Yí shì dì shàng shuāng

Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè

Dĭ tóu sī gù xiāng

 

Thoughts on a Quiet Night

Before my bed the moon shines brightly,

I suspect there is frost on the ground,

I raise my head and gaze at the moon,

I lower my head and think longingly of my home.

 

Here’s another bit of poetry from Jeff Bissell:

When family members cannot return home for the feast, it is common to say that no matter how far away they are, they can look at the same moon and remember one another. One of the most well-known and eloquent expression of this sentiment is in a poem written by the Song Dynasty scholar Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101 CE). Su wrote the poem to express how much he missed his brother on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The last lines of the poem read:

但愿人长久

千里共婵娟

Dàn yuàn rén cháng jiŭ

Qiān lĭ gong chán juān

I hope we are blessed with longevity

And although thousands of miles apart, we may still share the moon’s beauty

In 2016 the fullest moon fell on September 15. But people will be celebrating all weekend as they gather with family and friends to sip tea and eat moon cakes. Join them in this more than thousand year old tradition and celebrate with your family.

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