The Great Mooncake Exchange

It's Moon Festival today in China.  Below is an essay I wrote
about it a number of years ago.  It's time for the 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 that marks the midway point of Fall (as determined by the Chinese lunar calendar).  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.  Not being
a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks. 

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 number of years, 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
moo-ncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The
more expensive the moon-cakes you give, the more face both the giver and
receiver get. 

Moon-cakes must be 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
moon-cake 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 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 enjoy
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 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
moon-cake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving
the moon-cake is performed. 

Moon-cakes, anyone?

UPDATE:  Three quick moon-cake stories from this year….

1.  It's time for me to now admit in a public forum that I really can't stand moon-cakes, and that I haven't actually eaten on in close to twenty years.  I have my avoidance techniques, which are a closely guarded secret.  Yesterday, while at a friend's tea house with some visitors from the US, we were served moon-cakes.  I thought my streak might come to and, but I pulled out my top strategy and was able to keep it in-tact.  My visitors, however, had to eat away!!

2.  I met a friend this afternoon, and instead of giving her a box of moon-cakes I gave her a box of cookies from a local bakery.  When I gave them to her, I told her that, since I didn't really like moon-cakes I decided not to give them to her, but wanted to give her cookies instead.  She was thrilled. "I can't stand moon-cakes, either!!"

3.  I did receive one very special box of moon-cakes this year from a Chinese friend. Inside were nine moon-cakes, one for each of the fruits of the spirit!