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  Beijing Scene


Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 27, September 24 - 30

Mid-autumn Ayi

Hey Ayi, 
I have asked some of my Chinese colleagues to tell me about Mid-Autumn Festival. They all say the same thing: " Ha, ha! Eat mooncakes!" I know about mooncakes and I don't ever want to eat one of those impossibly dense and oily 
things again. Can you please tell me something else about Mid-Autumn Festival?


Dear Moonshine, 
This year, zhongqiujie (Mid-Autumn Festival) falls on Friday September 24, the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The lunar calendar still provides Chinese peasant farmers with a very accurate guide to sowing and harvesting. In the days before cold storage and those only ended in the '90s in China's Mid-Autumn Festival was a traditional harvest festival and a time of great abundance of fruits and vegetables. Street markets flourished at this time, selling fruit and lucky jade rabbits.

Traditionally, people set up a moon altar in their yard, and spread fruit, mooncakes (sorry, I had to mention them), flowers, radishes, lotuses and watermelons in front of it. Men would kowtow before the altar, but not women who were apparently in tune with the groovier parts of their souls and could commune with the moon directly. If you live on the moon yourself, you will be surprised to learn that we Chinese have a saying about this matter; if you live 
in Beijing you will just nod sagely and say: 

Men don't show their respect to the moon, 
Women don't offer sacrifices to the altar.

After the correct libations, the whole family would get together, drink wine and admire the yin-and-yang-uniting roundness of the full moon. This custom gives Mid-Autumn Festival one of its other names: tuanyuan jie or Reunion Festival. But just when you think you're safe from those pesky balls of heavy dough, this is also when mooncakes are eaten.

You should also know that old Peking was a much more festive place than the public holiday-challenged Beijing of today. Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated on three consecutive days from the 13th to the 15th of the eighth lunar month. Students did not have to attend classes, shops closed and everybody spent the three days feasting.

And what did they eat? You are just going to have to deal with this: they ate mooncakes.P.S. Many Chinese people are as averse to mooncakes as you are. Not only do younger people find chocolate, ice-cream and hamburgers more appealing than mooncakes, but the lunar pastries are even the victims of occasional government campaigns. 

This is because expensive, ostentatiously packaged mooncakes are often given as guanxi-grubbing gifts by cadres and businessmen. Since their companies or work units foot the bill, it is easily apparent that it is really mooncakes, not money, that is the root of all evil. 

I say bring back the spirit of (618-907) Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai: More holidays! More reunions of family and friends! More hard liquor! More poetry!

If you want to impress your Chinese friends on this traditional holiday, memorize the poem 'Silent Night'. It will earn you big cross-cultural brownie points, the fact that it is the only Chinese poem 99.9 percent of laowai ever learn notwithstanding.


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