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Happy Mid-Autumn Festival
September 15, 2016
I would like to begin my almost annual missive about the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōng qiū jié 中秋节) with a shout out to our beloved, veteran FSA Co-chair Rose Valencia-Tow. Wednesday morning, Rose and I were discussing the FSA sponsored Back to School Potluck/Mid-Autumn Moon Festival extravaganza coming up this Saturday. I was saying to Rose that over the years, I had written just about everything I could think of about the Mid-Autumn Festival, and I was out of ideas. Rose said she thought there was still a desire and need for information about the meaning of the holiday. I thought: Rose is right, I probably shouldn’t assume that simply because I sent an email blast in 2012 talking about the harvest and mooncakes that it had somehow become part of our shared body of knowledge. Duh, Jeff! This is what I sometimes call a BFO—a blinding flash of the obvious. So thanks, Rose, for setting me on the best course. It isn’t the first time and (I hope) it won’t be the last.
Most everyone likes recycling. Reuse is even better. So I am going to indulge my inner lazy person and recycle some of the things I’ve written over the past years that best explains my understanding of the Mid-Autumn Festival. I would also suggest, as I often do, that one of the best and most heartfelt sources of information about this and other cultural traditions is our own community; we have hundreds (literally) of families and staff members at CAIS who have personal memories of celebrating the festival with their families and friends. Consult a local expert! If you are a local expert, then share stories with someone who isn’t, or even with someone who is—everyone’s experience is unique. Our community is an awesome resource.
Here is an excerpt of what I wrote in in 2012. I kept it pretty traditional:
The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, like American Thanksgiving, is held in part to celebrate the harvest. There are different variations of the story behind this festival, most of which involve the mythical archer Houyi 后羿 visiting his beautiful wife Chang’e 嫦娥, the Goddess of the Moon once a year on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full. As with Thanksgiving, families try to reunite on this day, and there is much symbolism surrounding the full moon. The moon is round, and the circle it forms is symbolic of the family uniting together for a meal called tuán yuán fàn 团圆饭 or “reunion dinner.” The three Chinese characters literally mean “round circular meal,” evoking the image of the moon. Families sit around round tables and eat moon cakes, which are also round (although nowadays you can find square ones, and ones made of ice cream). If the circle is incomplete (i.e., if a family member is away) then families say that they can at least look at the same round moon and think of their distant family members, who are looking at the same moon-and then the circle is completed. Nowadays, Chinese exchange billions (literally) of lyrical text messages on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, all expressing wishes that they could be together with their distant friends and family. I’ve received hundreds of such messages from friends, all displaying clever uses of Chinese characters expressing “circle,” “round,” and “completion.”
If you are interested in reading the entire missive from 2012, click here.
In 2013, I got all literary and shared a poem.
The experience of the distant family member is captured in the poem “Thoughts on a Quiet Night” (Jìng yè sī 静夜思) by Tang 唐Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762). Li Bai is easily the most famous poet in Chinese literary history, and “Thoughts on a Quiet Night” is easily his most famous poem—there is not a school child in China who cannot recite it. Here it is in Chinese, pinyin and English:
Jìng yè sī
Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,
Yí shì dì shàng shuāng，
Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè，
Dĭ tóu sī gù xiāng
Thoughts on a Quiet Night
Before my bed the moon shines brightly,
I suspect there is frost on the ground,
I raise my head and gaze at the moon,
I lower my head and think longingly of my home.
The whole of the 2013 communication can be found here.
Then, in 2014, I must have been tired of ancient cultural reference and decided to take a decidedly more contemporary approach. I wrote about youth culture, the internet, consumerism, and politics. Here is just a slice:
Speaking of moderation, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambitious anti-corruption campaign is playing a role in the way people celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. In recent years, expensive and elaborately packaged moon cakes—often purchased by civil servants with public money—have become a kind of currency, gifted by people with the expectation that political favors would be granted in the future. But no more. In 2014, Xi Jinping has drawn the line, discouraging the production and gifting of high end moon cakes. There is even a “special tip off window” on the official website of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, where whistleblowers can anonymously report public officials misusing government funds to buy moon cakes. Woe to the public official who ventures into a Starbucks or Häagen Daz store in broad daylight.
For more musings of a more contemporary nature, check out the entire 2014 post here.
There must have been some pushback against the blatantly contemporary (spoiler alert: get used to it! Contemporary China is super dynamic and relevant), because in 2015 I veered back to old poetry.
When family members cannot return home for the feast, it is common to say that no matter how far away they are, they can look at the same moon and remember one another. One of the most well-known and eloquent expression of this sentiment is in a poem written by the Song Dynasty scholar Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101 CE). Su wrote the poem to express how much he missed his brother on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The last lines of the poem read:
Dàn yuàn rén cháng jiŭ
Qiān lĭ gong chán juān
I hope we are blessed with longevity
And although thousands of miles apart, we we may still share the moon’s beauty
The remainder of this 2015 letter to the community may be found here.
So there you have it—my recycled/reused view of the Mid-Autumn Festival over four years. I hope you find it re-useful. Please know, that as I pull my recycling bin out to the curb tonight, I will look at the moon and think of you all.
See you at the FSA Back to School Potluck/Mid-Autumn Moon Festival extravaganza this Saturday, September 17 from 3:00-6:00 p.m. at the 888 Campus on Turk Street!