The Great Mooncake Exchange
It’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival today in China. Below is an essay I wrote about the holiday a few years back. Time for it’s annual re-publication.
(photo source: mooncakedessert.com)
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.
The Los Angeles Times has a great article today titled “Mooncake Becomes the Fruitcake of China” that confirms my thesis:
“According to custom, one is supposed to eat the cakes under the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which this year falls on Monday. Often extravagantly expensive, they are about the size of a hockey puck and just as dense. Fillings range from red bean with salted egg yolks to cheesecake to Peking duck. Back in the era of scarcity, they were a rare calorie-rich treat to fill the chronically hungry belly. Nowadays, the mooncake has become the Christmas fruitcake of China, passed around and regifted ad infinitum.”
As they say, read the whole thing….