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)

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