Tag Archives: mid-autumn festival

Mid-Autumn Festival and Moon Cakes

Mid-Autumn Festival and Moon Cakes    —by Jinny Batterson

This past weekend in China, people celebrated “Mid-Autumn Festival,”  whose closest U.S. equivalents may be various localized harvest moon celebrations.  The Chinese festival falls at the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Mid-Autumn Festival is a time when families will reunite whenever practical. As if to help encourage the custom, the Chinese expressions for “round” (yuan) and “reunion” (tuanyuan) sound similar and share their main character.

At Mid-Autumn Festival time, I’ve sometimes gotten gifts of “moon cakes” from Chinese students or colleagues.  The recipes for these mostly round confections vary from place to place.  All the ones I’ve tasted have been greasy, heavy, and sweet.  Commercially made moon cakes are most often sold in decorative boxes with elaborate wrappings, eight or twelve or even twenty to a box. Moon cakes frequently have decorations or sayings stamped into their tops, with fillings of sweet bean paste, green tea paste, or fruit preserves. They remind me a little of the traditional dense fruit-and-nut-laden cakes that sometimes accompany U.S. family gatherings at Christmas time. People are reluctant to discontinue the tradition, but may be just as reluctant to eat large portions of the rich cakes. An anecdote I heard during one China stay was that gifting boxes of moon cakes to co-workers used to be nearly obligatory, but that “regifting” was widespread as well—people told me of one Shanghai office worker who placed an inconspicuous marker on a box of cakes before giving it to a colleague.  Sure enough, several days and giftees later, the marked box made its way back to him.

Various stories and myths are associated with the holiday. Historians trace the offering of moon cakes during the festival to the beginnings of the Yuan Dynasty, whose army was victorious during the 13th century in part because it passed secret messages back and forth imbedded in moon-shaped cakes. One popular legend tells of ancient hero Hou Yi and his lovely wife Chang E.  Chang E was forced by the queen of heaven to drink an elixir that caused her to leave earth for the heavens beyond. Because she loved her husband and did not want to leave him, Chang E stopped at the nearest heavenly body to earth, the moon. When the moon was full and round, Hou Yi could sometimes see an image of his wife in the patterns on the moon’s surface. He began offering Chang E’s favorite foods as a sacrifice at a local shrine. The custom was later taken up by others, who offered sacrifices of moon cakes at Mid-Autumn amid prayers for peace and good fortune.

The one time I was in China and paying attention at the Mid-Autumn holiday, I missed an invitation to some students’ moon viewing party because I wasn’t fluent in “QQ,” a widely used social networking tool in China.  Students later consoled me for missing their gathering—it had been impossible to see the moon, anyway, they said, that misty evening in Ya’an, Sichuan. At a recent mid-autumn gathering in the U.S., I saw a video of a traditional Chinese family Mid-Autumn festival evening. The hostess for the extended family gathering had made a homemade moon cake about the size of a large pie. She carefully cut the cake into enough pieces for everyone, offering the first slice to the oldest family member. At Mid-Autumn celebrations, someone often recites the Su Shi poem, “Shui Diao Ge Tou,” or performs its musical version.  It tells of the poet’s longing to be reunited with his faraway brother.

In this season when nostalgia comes easily, as summer’s heat gives way to the occasional chill, as the first frost looms, we can all remember family, friends and loved ones, even those separated from us by great distances. All of us can view the same moon.

Music and Friendship

Music and Friendship  —by Jinny Batterson

Poets and writers have long proclaimed music a universal language.  Whenever I’ve taught in China, I’ve incorporated music into my English lessons and programs.  But learning goes both ways—some of the first Chinese words I learned, beyond the very basic “ni hao,” “zai jian,” and “xie xie,” (hello, goodbye, and thank you), came through a song.

In 2002, during a short teaching stint in Zhengzhou, Henan, I was presenting a lesson about Chinese immigration to the United States. The first large-scale Chinese settlement in America came in the wake of the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Several thousand Chinese young men, mostly from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, crossed the Pacific then in search of “gold mountain.” China was undergoing hardship and turmoil—it seemed a good time to leave in search of a better life. I used simple tools to supplement my lecture and to connect the students to these adventuresome ancestors of theirs. First I drew a rough outline map of the U.S., pointing out where California was. Then I wrote on the chalk board some lyrics of the folk song “Clementine,” honing in on vocabulary about “miners” and “49ers.”  After more explanation and a couple of solos of the lyric, I tried to get the students to sing along—many did.

At that time, most Chinese students were still shy about asking questions in class, especially outside major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. The school where I taught this lesson was a large public junior middle school (roughly equivalent to U.S. grades 7-9) in a mid-sized provincial capital. At the end of our singing, I saw several students looking puzzled. I was resigned to not knowing what had intrigued them. I expected them just to sit quietly, waiting to see what the strange foreign teacher would do next. They surprised me. One of the bolder students raised his hand.

“Excuse me, teacher,” he began.  “We all know that tune, but it has different words.”

He and several of his cohorts then proceeded to teach me the Chinese “Happy New Year” song—“Xinnian Hao,” whose tune seems to have crossed the Pacific, possibly in both directions.

A bit later in my China travels, I was exposed to a classical Chinese lyric that has haunted me ever since:  “Dan Yuan Ren Chang Jiu,” loosely translatable as “Wishing We Last Forever.”  In the year 1076, Song dynasty poet Su Shi  composed the verse. At Mid-Autumn Festival (honoring the harvest moon, plus family and lovers’ reunions, occurring in September or early October by the Chinese lunar calendar), he spent the night drinking wine, looking at the full moon, and missing his long-lost brother. Toward morning, he wrote the characters of one of his best-known poems. With a modernized tune, the lyric was recorded in 1983 by Taiwanese singer Theresa Teng (Deng LiJun).  I first heard the song in 2007. At the end of my year’s teaching in 2009, my students sang me the song karaoke-style in farewell.  I’ve tried an Americanized adaptation below about long-distance friendships.  Click here for a link to the Theresa Teng Chinese version.

(To Friendship   —adapted by Jinny Batterson)

How bright the round moon shines—
Wine soaks this sorrow of mine,
How I long to see you,
Friends, just one more time.

The moon first waxes, then wanes,
‘Til just a sliver remains,
Riding high, cold, distant,
In the pre-dawn sky, just as lonesome as I.

Oceans may divide us,
Mountain ranges hide us,
Friendship’s still there.
Whether by pale moonlight
Or by noonday sunlight
We stay aware
Of others who care.

People have joys, sorrows, fears,
Journeys range both far and near.
Though we stay continents apart
And never meet again, treasured memories remain.