The Great Mooncake Exchange

It’s Moon Festival today in China.  Below is an essay I wrote about it a couple of years back.  Time for it’s annual re-publication.

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In
colloquial terms, it’s called the Moon Festival, because it’s
celebration coincides with the full moon.  Much like Thanksgiving in
American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather
with their family members.  If that isn’t possible, then people gather
with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and
think of their distant family members who are also gazing at the same
moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems
about the moon, so there’s always a poem to be recited at a gathering.

Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of mooncakes.  It’s
hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped
fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling.
Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  Not being
a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks. 

Making and eating and giving mooncakes has always been part of the
celebration here, but as China’s level of prosperity has increased in
the past number of years, like many other things here, mooncakes have
sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceding Moon Festival, all
the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully
gift-wrapped mooncakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8
mooncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The
more expensive the mooncakes you give, the more face both the giver and
receiver get. 

Mooncakes must be sent to people with whom you do business. Clients
send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Mooncakes are exchanged among
colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers.
Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It’s one giant
mooncake exchange.

And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we
join in.  Last night my professor and his family came to my house for
dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of mooncakes.
I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it’s not polite
to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).  When it was time for
them to leave, I gave them a box of mooncakes.  We all  laughed at the
fact that we were just exchanging boxes of mooncakes.  I always enjoy
my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own
society.  He joked that at the end of the day, mooncakes don’t really
get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where
they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than
welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give
away the box they gave me (which I plan to do).

Like many other things in a society like this that places a high
value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the
mooncake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving
the mooncake is performed. 

Mooncakes, anyone?

And for your reading assignment, here is an article about the festival in a local newspaper:

Mooncakes Acquire a Networking Flavor
:    "Mooncakes, a traditional delicacy gifted to families and friends
during the Mid-Autumn Festival, have become an important ingredient in
maintaining business and work relations.  With the festival falling tomorrow, the reception areas of almost every office building are overflowing with boxes of mooncakes.  The traditional festival has become a Chinese Christmas of sorts, topping other occasions for giving or receiving gifts."