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Autumn Equinox, Moon Festival – Two Cultures

Today (or tonight actually, at 11:09) we in the west mark the Autumnal Equinox, when the length of night and day are exactly equal. Since it is the sun that determines the length of the day we could consider this a solar ‘festival’. The solstices and equinoxes occur at about the same day every year.

In China festivals are calculated by a lunar calendar, which means they are movable feasts, as is the Christian Easter. The most important date in the Chinese calendar is the Spring Festival or New Year celebration which usually occurs sometime between mid January and mid-February. The second most important celebration is the Moon Festival or mid-autumn festival. This year our Equinox and the Moon Festival occur on the same day.

In our modern times the equinox does not merit much of a celebration, but when we lived in China we loved all the excitement around the Moon Festival which mostly involved gazing at the moon and eating fancy, and expensive, round pastries called Moon Cakes, which were sold in fancy red and gold boxes. I have to say, I never developed a taste for Moon Cakes, but I did like the idea of them and even bought a mold for making them in a kitchen supply store on a back street in Beijing.

Wooden Moon Cake Mold

Unfortunately I never figured out how to use the mold which is about an inch deep, nor did I develop an Americanized version of the moon cake that might have fewer than 1000 calories and be filled with things more to my taste than egg yolks or bean or lotus paste. My husband and I often stop to admire the moon in all it’s phases, but have never held an official Moon Viewing Party.

Yesterday on Marketplace, the NPR business program, I learned from Rob Schmitz in Shanghai that there is a big black market in moon cakes, or more specifically, moon cake vouchers. Important business people and public officials could never eat all the expensive moon cakes they recieve as gifts, and this is understood, so people buy and give moon cake vouchers, which the recipients sell on the black market to get the money (bribe?) and those without influence to sell, can buy the moon cakes on the black market, for a price which will fluctuate as the season progresses. After today the vouchers are worthless.

Hou Yi

Of course, if there is a festival, there must be a reason. As usual there are many versions of the story of Chang e, the lady in the moon, but it all begins with Hou Yi, a master archer. The Mother Sun had ten sons and when they travelled above the earth one by one, plants grew and the world was a happy place. One day the ten suns decided to go all at once and soon the earth was a parched desert and people were dying. Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, leaving only one to provide light and warmth.

As a reward the Queen Mother of the West gave Hou Yi a pill of immortality. The single pill was to be cut in half so that he and his wife, Chang e, could both become immortal. Hou Yi kept the pill in a box, and one day he went away. While he was gone Chang e looked in the box, as she was forbidden to do, and suddenly Hou Yi walked in and she was so startled  that she accidentally swallowed the pill.

Chang e and the Jade Rabbit

Because one pill was an overdose she began to float up into the air. Hou Yi could not shoot an arrow to catch her for fear of hurting her and so she floated right up to the moon where she lives today, all alone except for the Jade Rabbit. I’m not sure how the Jade Rabbit got to the moon. But I do know that is why when the Chinese gaze at the moon they see Chang e, not a man in the moon.  Or they might see the Jade Rabbit.

And when they celebrate the Moon Festival they gather with family and friends, and think of lonely Chang e who is forever separated from her husband and all that she loved on earth.

3 comments to Autumn Equinox, Moon Festival – Two Cultures

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    What an interesting myth. I am not surprised that you didn’t develop a taste for those chinese cakes. It seems to me that their version of treats aren’t near as tasty as the western versions. Maybe it is because there is little to no sugar in them? I think they are prettier in most cases though.

  • Pat

    Lisa – Desserts are not really a traditional part of Chinese cuisine, although ‘sweetmeats’ are often mentioned. They are going wild for ice cream in these modern days though.

  • I am not sure about the moon cakes but I love the story of Chang e floating to the moon. Rabbits on the moon! Yikes! Lovely post Pat. I love the idea of a moon party and have attended a few in my life that were memorable.

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