"Mom!" my son exclaimed over the phone. "Today is my luckiest day!" Why? I asked, hoping the workers in the next cubicle couldn't hear him. "Because my Dad bought me moon cakes!" But the Moon Festival is two weeks away, I said. It's too early to eat Moon Cakes.
The full moon will rise and the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival, will occur on Tuesday, September 28. Called Zhong Qiu Jie in Chinese, the Moon Festival is one of many traditions Chinese people have acquired in thousands of years of history. These include two others I like to celebrate with my family and friends: the Chinese New Year (Xin Nian) and the Pure Brightness Festival (Qing Ming Jie). Each festival has its own traditional celebrations and poems, foods and moods.
The Moon Festival comes from the Tang dynasty (618 A.D.) and follows the Chinese lunar calendar. At the full moon, on the 15th lunar day of the 8th lunar month, the harvest is in and there is a time of plenty. When I was growing up in Shang-xi Province, northern China, my family at this season would sit among chrysanthemum and osmanthus, while eating pomegranates and other citrus fruits, such as pommelo or shaddock. But the traditional dessert I loved was a sweet pastry called a moon cake. You can buy them here as I do in a Chinese grocery. Varieties of these cakes may include mixed nuts, lotus roots, sweetened bean paste or one or two whole egg yolks.
The first moon cakes were an act of rebellion. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered the Chinese and ended the Sung dynasty in 1279, so throughout the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) China was ruled by Mongolians. In order to expel the foreign rulers, a plot was communicated through messages baked into moon cakes. The plot succeeded and the Ming Dynasty was established.
As Moon Festival night approaches, we gather to watch the full moon. We talk, eat moon cakes and retell the familiar legends. In fact, if you watch that magical moon closely, you will begin to see a beautiful woman in a long-sleeved garment, a man cutting a cassia tree, and a jade rabbit. These are the three legends of the Moon Festival.
About 2300 BC, ten suns illuminated the earth, each in turn. One day, all ten suns appeared in the sky at once, scorching the crops, boiling the rivers and prostrating the people. The emperor Yao asked for help from Hou-Yi, a legendary archer, and he was loaned to Yao by the immortals. With his mighty bow, Hou-Yi shot nine of the ten suns out of the sky.
The beautiful Chang-Er had given up immortality when she followed her husband to earth. Being a good husband, Hou-Yi stole an elixir of immortality to make Chang-Er happy. Before Hou-Yi could drink his share, however, Chang-Er drank it all and floated to the moon. You can still see Chang-Er there, in her long-sleeved dress.
If you look again at this moon, you will see Wu Kang. Not being able to endure tedious apprenticeships, Wu Kang flitted from one to another. Finally he decided to become an immortal and asked an immortal to guide him. The immortal tried to teach him healing herbs, chess, and the study of immortality, but each time Wu Kang became bored. The immortal then sentenced the shiftless youth to the Moon Palace. Wu Kang had but one task to complete: before he may return to earth he must cut down a huge cassia tree. But the tree healed with each hack of his axe! You can still see Wu Kang in the moon, chopping away, to this day.
If you noticed a pale rabbit in the face of the full moon, you've discovered the third legend. Three wise old men decided to test the generosity of a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. Transforming themselves into beggars, they sought food from each animal. The fox and the monkey were both willing to part with some food. But the rabbit, having nothing to share with the sages, offered his own self for their food, and jumped into an open fire for their meal. So impressed were the old men with the rabbit's sacrifice, they let him live in the Moon Palace. The Jade Rabbit lives there still.
As we searched the moon for these legends, talked, and ate moon cakes, we would also wish: for fulfilling relationships, for reunion with loved ones, or for whatever we desired. I particularly like the mood of the Moon Festival: peace, harmony and sweetness. The moon at this time is the biggest, roundest and brightest of the year. It inspired the Chinese poet Su Shi (1037-1101). Here are the final words from that well-known poem (my translation):
The moon can be cloudy or clear, or faultless or flawed or a pall A wish under this particular moon will come true. This Moon Festival my son will make a wish. If you wish it, this could be your luckiest day.
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