The Great Moon Cake Exchange

One last moon cake post..a slightly edited reprise of something I wrote a few years back:

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 moon cakes.  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.  I am not a fan–they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks.

I remember my first Moon Festival celebration in 1984. I was teaching at a small college in Zhengzhou, and in the evening the Foreign Affairs Office of the school hosted a us in the courtyard of our foreign teachers residence. They hauled the picnic table out and piled it high with all manner of round things — oranges, apples, grapes, cookies, and of course, moon cakes.

My dislike of moon cakes was instant and I spent the evening coming up with creative ways to NOT actually eat the ones that were put on my plate by our Chinese hosts. In the end, I cut them into smaller pieces and when the others were distracted — LOOK! THE MOON! — I slipped them into the large pockets of my jacket. When the pockets were full, I would excuse myself to ‘go to the restroom.’ Once in my apartment, I would dump them out on the table, then head back out for round two. I have spent the last 28 years trying to avoid eating moon cakes!

Making and eating and giving moon cakes has always been part of the celebration here, but as China’s level of prosperity has increased in the past decades, like many other things here, moon cakes 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 moon cakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8 moon cakes in a beautiful box can easily cost the equivalent of $100 USD.  The more expensive the moon cakes you give, the more face both the giver and receiver get.

Moon cakes are sent to people with whom you do business. Clients send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Moon cakes 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.  One year around festival time my professor and his family came to my house for dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of moon cakes. 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 moon cakes.  We all  laughed at the fact that we were just exchanging boxes of moon cakes.  I always enjoyed my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own society.  He joked that at the end of the day, moon cakes 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 did).

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

Who have you given moon cakes to this week?

Related Posts:

Moon Cake Traffic

Rumble at the Green Umbrellas (Moon Festival + young men + booze + disaster)

image source:

Moon Cakes or Donkey Meat?

On Thursday, Ms. B, one of the Chinese staff in our office got a phone call asking her to go to the main gate of the school to receive a delivery of gifts for Mid-Autumn Festival. The caller was a representative from the printing company we worked with this past summer.

“Bring a large cart with you to the gate,” he instructed. “I have 16 boxes.”

She obeyed, thinking that she would be picking up 16 boxes of moon cakes.

She was wrong. There were 4 sets of 4 boxes. In other words, there were 4 people in the office (fortunately I was not one of them ) who were each to get 4 boxes of goodies.

And here’s the interesting part….not one of the boxes had any moon cakes. The printer had decided to buck tradition and send gift boxes of other stuff instead.

Box Number One: Preserved Duck Eggs

Box Number 2: Preserved dates

Box Number Three: Jars of Sesame Oil

Box Number 4: Donkey Meat (yes, the printer is from Hebei)

Suddenly, moon cakes are sounding pretty good.





Memorial Cookies

As we were milling around the old Orthodox Church in Harbin on Sunday, an older Chinese woman came out of the church with a small bag of cookies in her hand. She came over to where we were standing and offered some to us.

“It’s been12 years since our last priest passed away,” she said. “Here, please eat a cookie to honor his memory.”

A little puzzled, but also a bit hungry, we each took one. Our Russian friends told us that it is a tradition to eat something in commemoration of the death of special people. In this case the special person was Father Zhu, the last Orthodox priest in China.

In some ways, it seems that his death 12 years ago marked the end of era that began when, according to the website Chinese Orthodoxy, the first Orthodox Church was opened in Peking in 1685. It goes on to say that by 1949, there were 106 Orthodox Churches in China, with approximately 10,000 Orthodox followers. Many of those were actually Russians who had fled to China (settling in what was then called Manchuria, but today called Northeast China) in order to escape Bolshevism. Finding themselves once again under Communist rule, most fled China, leaving behind a small number of Chinese believers.

All of the churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980’s when China’s religious policies changed, this church in Harbin, officially called The Church of the Protection of Our Holy Mother of God, was the only Orthodox Church that was re-opened. From what I have been told, and from what I have read, it seems that itis now the only functioning Orthodox Church in the entire country. There is one on the grounds of the Russian embassy in Beijing, but it is technically on Russian soil, not Chinese.  (To read more on the history of Orthodoxy in China, please visit this site:

I found a section from a book published in 1931 called “Orthodox Churches in Manchuria” that gives quite a bit of information about the church, calling it the Ukranian Parish:

 The Ukrainian parish, together with its church dedicated to the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, was established in 1922, with the authorization and blessing of Archbishop Methodiusof Harbin and Manchuria. […]


At first, the church was actually a house church located at the Ukrainian Residence. When this building was taken away from the Ukrainians, the church moved to a basement at B. Avenue, and thus the need came about for building a proper church. The Property Administration answered the requests of the parish and allocated a spot for free belonging to the Old Cemetery, where on June 1, 1930, a marvelous stone church began to be erected according to the project of the civil engineer Y. P. Zhdanov.


The church building was finished during the same construction season, and it took only six and a half months for that. It was finally consecrated by Metropolitan Methodius on December 14, 1930. […]


At the cemetery many pioneers of the Russian culture lay to rest.

Since it is in the heart of the city today, there is no trace of that cemetery. I do wonder, however, what might have been found when digging for the subway line that is being built underneath the road in front of the church.

I haven’t found any specific information about the bell, though. This past week I have been corresponding with someone I knew in the 1980’s who worked in Harbin and occasionally attended services there. He told me that he once even heard the bell being rung.

Oh… and back to those memorial cookies. It reminded me of the tradition that my family started a few years ago of gathering at a Dairy Queen on the anniversary of my father’s death, where we all raise a Dilly Bar in his honor. That man loved his ice cream!

I also found a website that has old photos of the church from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Taken from the same spot as my photo above.

This one shows the church set in the cemetery, with the large monument. The steeple down the road was the Lutheran Church. Today it is the Nangang Protestant Church.

There are lots more photos of the church here. (Don’t you just love the internet?)

Living Well

Marilyn Gardner, who I knew as a kid growing up in Pakistan has a wonderful blog called Communicating Across Boundaries. This week I wrote a guest post for her called Living Well Where You Don’t Belong, in which I give 8 tips for doing just that.

Here they are in bullet point form, but please click on over to her site to read them in full.

1. Tolerate ambiguity

2. Remember that change is up to you.

3. Leave your sense of entitlement at home.

4. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

5. View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.

6. Only ask one ‘why’ question per day.

7. Modify your behavior.

8. Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’


A Russian Bell in Harbin

We spotted the bell in the tower from the street on Saturday as we walked around the church. It was locked up tight and looked like it had been locked up tight for decades. We trained our telephoto lenses on the bell, snapping at a distance, figuring that was as close as we were likely to get.

We were wrong.

By noon on Sunday, we, along with our new Russian friends were climbing up into the tower to see the bell.

An American friend had introduced us to some Russians who worship at the church and know the man in charge. They agreed to meet us there on Sunday morning. When the services were done at 11:30, they set about trying to get permission to go up in the tower. Since they were the ones with a relationship to the leaders of the church, we were content to hang out off to the side and let them do the talking.

It wasn’t an easy task—convincing the man to let these strangers (Americans and Protestants, to boot) climb up to see the bell.

After awhile our Russian friends called me in to make a final appeal, directly and in Chinese.

I told him that I viewed the bell as a symbol of God’s love for the Chinese Church and that I wanted to tell that story. Upon hearing that, he asked me to write down my contact information, then got out his keys and opened the door to the  tower.

Up we went!

Even though the inscriptions on the bell were in Old Russian, our friends were able to tell us that it had been made in Moscow, and weighs 784kg. According to this website, it was made in 1899. There are some differing stories as to what happened to the bell during the Cultural Revolution, which I’m still trying to sort out.

Of course we were thrilled to have gotten up to see the bell, but our Russian friends felt it even more since it was THEIR cultural heritage we were glimpsing. They were also happy to meet a couple of nutty Americans who were interested in learning about and telling the story of that heritage.

After seeing the bell, we all went out to lunch to celebrate.  As we enjoyed a wonderful meal together — with Chinese as the common language among us — I couldn’t help thinking that, given the unique circumstances of our seeing it, the message that this bell rings forth is the message from the great hymn “In Christ There is No East or West.”

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

I will save the story of the church itself for the next post.

A Panic Attack

The Xinhua News Agency announced today that a bridge collapse in the northeastern city of Harbin was caused by too many overloaded vehicles on the bridge.

Overloaded vehicles were confirmed to have caused the collapse of a ramp leading to a bridge in Harbin in Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province in August, the investigation team said Wednesday.

The investigation and evidence show that overloaded trucks caused the Yangmingtan Bridge on-ramp collapse that left three dead and five others injured early in the morning of August 24, according to the team that investigated the accident.

Four trucks fell about 30 meters to the ground.

The ramp was constructed within a period of 90 days at a cost of 7.09 million yuan ($1.13 million).

This, my friends is the reason that I was on the verge of a panic attack on Sunday evening. The van I was in was stuck in dead-stop traffic on a freeway bridge perched 100 feet (or more) above a mountain ravine outside of Beijing.


The other thing that about sent me over the edge (so to speak) was the fact that this was the highway (although not the stretch) which last year had experienced a 5-day traffic jam.

The thought of being stuck on the bridge for ten minutes was bad enough…..but five days!!

Fortunately, it ended up just being the ten minutes.


Please Don’t Smash My Car

Yesterday while sitting in stop-and-go traffic on one of Beijing’s many freeways, I spotted this on the back of a Nissan SUV. It’s a home-made sticker, covering up the Nissan logo.  It says:

“The Diaoyu Islands belong to China! This car belongs to me!”


No doubt the driver was hoping to avoid the fate of some other owners of Japanese cars over the weekend.

In case you missed it, there were violent demonstrations all over China this weekend related to a dispute between China and Japan over the ownership of some pieces of rock in the ocean.

There”s a good write-up of the action in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Six days of sanctioned anti-Japanese protests – which escalated Sunday into a nationwide day of rage that saw Japanese businesses and diplomatic missions attacked – have whipped up hatred and created a situation that leaves the Chinese leadership little room to compromise in a showdown over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is on the verge of calling an election that will see him challenged from the nationalist right, similarly has little room to negotiate.

Never a dull moment in Beijing, that’s for sure.

(2nd image source: National Post)