As previous entries show, I have been writing for Left Lion for a while now. However, a recent article, due to no ones fault in particular, wasn’t able to make it onto the website. So, I’ll stick it up here as an aside.
Notes from the Middle Kingdom: Mid-Autumn Mooncakes
This year’s Chinese Mid-Autumn festival falls impertinently on October 4th, thereby awkwardly muscling in on the ‘National Holiday’ week of China. The National Week was explicitly constructed to persuade people to go out and spend some of those hard-earned red 100 RMBs (China’s currency) on such communal activities as climbing the Great Wall in the midst of a gargantuan queue moving at a pace that latter-career Bando would consider insufferably slow, or head into the capital to check out the Forbidden City and generally experiencing what it would be like if personal space was a liberty that you joyously relinquished.
The Mid-Autumn festival is the second largest celebration after the Chinese New Year and one that is celebrated with the giving of obscenely rich cakes and, well, that’s pretty much it. The holiday, like all holidays in China, my wife is quick to remind me, is also associated with family reunions. But at this she rolls her eyes when joining me in trying to track down the actual origin myth behind this holiday in order to explain to you good people here.
upon buying a children’s book of traditional Chinese myths and legends that I brandished it in the street, bearded and crazed, shouting “I’ve found the answers!”
So why is the story so damn difficult to pin down? The legend behind the Mid-Autumn festival is not the only ancient Chinese myth that I’ve struggled to ever receive a clear explanation for. I spent months asking various people why Houyi (a mythical Chinese archer) shot down those pesky other 9 suns that the earth used to have (Dagobah ain’t got shit on us) or why calling someone the number 250 means that they’re dumb. When I finally did get an answer to these fundamentally childish questions my sense of achievement, very much like one of those goddamn suns, would be immediately punctured when the next person I joyfully explained the answer to would tell me that no that’s not it ,but it’s hard to explain… I swear that in the end I could hear my victory deflating like a balloon fart in the wind, and I’m sure that the wind whispered Laowai (foreigner) you will never understand.
This became so ridiculous that I recall upon buying a children’s book of traditional Chinese myths and legends that I brandished it in the street, bearded and crazed, shouting “I’ve found the answers!” So anyway, here goes. The story behind the Mid-Autumn festival is centred around Chang’e, a goddess who lives in the palace on the moon. What Chang’e is doing up there is unclear. In some versions of the story, Chang’e’s husband was unfaithful, so she fled to the moon (sensible enough). In others he’s a power hungry warlord with dynastic ambition. Occasionally she steals magical Chinese medicine (or “magic drug pills”, as my wife refers to them, remember that for later). Occasionally, the husband doesn’t play much of a part, instead Chang’e is driven by her own desires for immortality. Within Taoism, one can ascend to God-like status with enough determination and true grit.
Chang’e is always accompanied by a rabbit, for in China if you look at the moon just right, you can see a bunnyish outline, though the identity of the rabbit changes (we’ll get to that in a minute). Also in some versions they are joined by a fellow called Wu Gang who is forever attempting to chop down a tree. Now, the white rabbit (Jade is white here, not green, stay with me) is in some versions is just Chang’e pet bunny, because you know, bunnies are awesome. Then in other versions he’s possibly for the pot at some point and in others he’s her husband. In a few retellings that I found he’s actually Chang’e, which really throws the whole traditional ‘hero and adorable sidekick’ trope out of the window. What is less unclear is that the rabbit is up there to not only for keep her company but also to make magical Chinese medicine, which he mixes with a mortar and pestle for some reason and not his adorable thumper-like legs. At some times, the bunny also side-lines into Wu Gang’s tree-chopping narrative where Flopsy is sent by Wu Gang’s wife to help him and gets busy stripping the tree of its leaves, which I can only imagine irritates poor old Wu. But this seems more like an unsuccessful spin-off. The rabbit also at times has been known to head down to earth to heal the plague ridden with his magic potion, changing his appearance for each house, hopping (ha!) between that of a young girl, a man and then a woman, because no body’s going to ascribe this little Hazel narrowly-defined gender roles.
Plague is actually an odd but rather fitting segue into the major event of the Mid-Autumn festival, and that is the giving and eating of mooncakes. Mooncakes are the traditional gift for the festival and though they come with different exciting fillings, exterior wise they are all usually round, hockey puck looking things about four inches in diameter and two inches thick. A sweet pasty crust is filled with anything from the chestnut-fed pork of Yunnan, to the diabetic-inducing sweetness of a Suzhou mooncake. Cantonese mooncakes are traditionally the sweeter ones, often including lotus seeds, peanut oil and golden syrup to form the gummy, sugary filling. Oh, and there’s usually a preserved, salted duck yolk in the middle, the yellowish orb of course representing the moon. Now on average your 7cm mooncake carries with it a good 1000 calories, about roughly the same as 3 McChicken sandwiches. Though if this isn’t appealing enough, modern global commerce has the answer, what with Haagen-Dazs, Dairy Queen and Starbucks all producing their own ice-cream filled mooncakes with such enticing flavours as Columbia coffee blueberry macadamia (yes that’s one flavour,) and banana hazelnut chocolate crunch, which read like a 6 year old got left just to screw with the breakfast leftovers.
one that simply read “Be responsible” I wish that all of my confectionary pleasures gave such sage advice. When has Greggs and Confucianism ever come so close to sharing common ground?
Be careful when selecting your mooncake though. In 2014 gutter oil was found to having been used in the production of mooncakes (gutter oil is a fairly common practice in which unscrupulous vendors open up the sewers nearby busy restaurants and scoop up the sludge from underneath and then sift through it and redistill the oil, selling it on at a fraction of the price). Every few years a story breaks about the re-packaging and selling of expired, recycled cakes. That said, even if your mooncake is top notch, you might still come a cropper, for moon cakes are not allowed to pass through many international borders, the UK included, due to the risk of avian ‘flu given that tasty little preserved, but never officially ‘cooked’, duck egg.
Even domestically, mooncakes can be troublesome. Since president Xi Jingping began his widely publicized anti-corruption crackdown, the purchase of mooncakes (via public funds) as gift giving between public officials has been banned. The cost of the packaging of a designer mooncake can often be 50% more than the cost of the cake itself and when you consider that these little snacks can come adorned with abalone, truffles and solid gold reaching prices of up to 42,900 RMB (approximately £4,089) not including an additional pretty little bow of a Rolex watch, their use as instruments of bribery becomes a little clearer. What your budding bureaucrat does is accept the delicious delicacy and then return it a week later, taking in the receipt for cash. Tasty.
Some mooncakes, however, are more patriotic. Alongside the more modern pastry designs of Internet memes (we found a sad frog mooncake and wept with joy) you can also buy mooncakes where the message in short crust pastry reads, “Listen to the Party” or “Be Loyal to the Party.” My own personal favourite, just because of its conciseness, was one that simply read “Be responsible” I wish that all of my confectionary pleasures gave such sage advice. When has Greggs and Confucianism ever come so close to sharing common ground?
So what the hell were you talking about, jumping from plagues to pastries? Well, when defeating the invading Mongol horde of the Yuan, General Chu Yuan Chang managed to recapture an essential town by entering in disguise and handing out mooncakes to the masses. He then spread a rumour that plague had entered the city and the only cure was to eat the sugary treats, kind of like saying a share-sized pack of Krispy Kreme’s is the only sure-fire prescription for your arthritis. But the populace believed him and in slicing open their cakes they found hidden inside instructions on how to let the Ming army into the city to defeat the invaders, heralding the beginning of the rule of Ming, or as I now think of it, the diabetic dynasty
If bricks of calorific terror aren’t your thing, then you can also offer Chang’e gifts of beauty lotions or bath salts. Many head down to the banks of the Qiantang river in Zhejiang province to marvel at the epic tidal surges brought on by the moon. Given that it routinely injures some twenty people each year, this is some real dedication to wave-watching. Though traditionally revellers light lanterns by the river, recently in Hong Kong people have turned to the more eco-friendly option of glow sticks, one source citing that a good 40K were cast into the rivers last year during a celebration titled Fly me to the moon, which adds an element of Sinatra kitsch to the whole escapade.
One festival activity that I must admit I indulge in, is the southern tradition of wearing a pomelo (think giant grapefruit) rind on your head like a gnome’s cap so that Chang’e can spot you from the moon and bless your family (pomelo in Chinese is 柚子 youzi, which sounds similar to ‘have a son’). I also like to put the pomelo hats on my dog and goad my wife into taking pictures of her (the pup). I’m not ashamed of what I do.
So why is this festival right for the revellers of Nottingham, especially now in the middle of this brutal autumn? Well, let’s do a little detective work and collect some of the facts scattered amongst what I’ve said. There is a white rabbit (You can go with Carroll here or Jefferson Airplane, they both lead down the same hole, just don’t mention the goddamn Matrix), who mixes up “magic drug pills” (I quote my wife) and then dresses in a manor of expressive clothing and heads down to the earth to cure us of our suffering. People collect bath salts and throw glow sticks into the air while exchanging gifts that are not allowed to pass through international borders. Can you see where I’m going with all of this?
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival Nottingham! Have a mooncake on me won’t you?