kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake

As I mentioned last week, today's concept post is a very special one — it's written by my first ever guest poster!

The day after tomorrow is the Mid-Autumn festival, one of the more prominent festivals of the Chinese year. Since I'm not Chinese and have no Chinese ancestry, I don't really want to post about my own perceptions of this, so I asked [personal profile] shuripentu (a.k.a. Cub) if she'd be willing to write something for me. I was very glad that she agreed, and utterly thrilled to see how thoroughly she went into the subject! So, here are some thoughts on the Mid-Autumn Festival, from the point of view of a Chinese-descent cub growing up in Canada.

The (Mythical) Story of the Mid-Autumn Festival as Half-Remembered by a Cub Who Once Performed in a Retelling of It in the Medium of Interpretative Dance

Once upon a time there were ten suns, which was terribly inconvenient. It was far too hot, the land was parched, the crops wouldn't grow, and the people were dehydrated, starving, and dying of heatstroke.

Along came a supernaturally talented archer who pulled out his bow and arrow and shot down nine of the ten suns, leaving one to emit an appropriate quantity of electromagnetic radiation. The people were thrilled with this development, and voted in the archer as Emperor.

Over time, the archer hero-cum-Emperor became corrupted by power and turned into a megalomaniacal despot. (And also got married.) He ordered the royal alchemist to develop an elixir of life and produce two vials of it: one for him, and one for the Empress, so that he could extend his reign indefinitely. After some time, the royal alchemist presented the Emperor with two vials of potion, and instructed him and the Empress to only drink one each: "One will make you immortal, but I don't know what two will do."

The Empress, who was a nice and empathetic sort of person, couldn't bear the thought of her tyrannical husband ruling as Emperor for all eternity, so she snatched up the vials and downed both of them.1 The Emperor, incredibly pissed off by this, grabbed his bow and arrow and started shooting at her, but his archery skills had gotten remarkably rusty over the years and he missed repeatedly as the Empress ran away.

The Empress ran out into the garden, at which point she began floating into the air. She floated all the way up to the moon, where she still lives today among a colony of bunnies.2

1Please join the oral tradition in assuming that only two vials of elixir could ever be made, and ignore the enormous gaping plothole to your right.
2It is a Well-Established FactTM that a colony of bunnies lives on the moon. How they got there and what they do there is another story for another myth.

The (Apocryphal) Story of the Mid-Autumn Festival as Half-Remembered by a Cub Who Was Told It in Chinese School Once

Once upon a time, China was ruled by Evil OverlordsTM. (I don't remember who the Evil Overlords were meant to be — history suggests the Mongols — but all that the story requires is for them to be evil and overlordly and probably foreign.) The people wanted to plan a rebellion, but large gatherings were banned and they were constantly being spied upon by Evil Soldiers, so they couldn't organise themselves effectively.

Then one day, as the Mid-Autumn Festival drew near, a nameless hero struck upon the immensely cunning idea of writing messages onto slips of paper and baking them into cakes which she3 could then innocently distribute among her neighbours, and if any passing Evil Soldier asked her what she was up to, she could just claim that festival cakes were traditional and what could possibly be wrong with giving baked goods to friends?

So the nameless hero wrote a proposed date and time for the rebellion onto little slips of paper and baked them into little cakes which she gave to her neighbours, who presumably did the same for their neighbours, and eventually the message spread through all of China. And so on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival the people finally overthrew the Evil Overlords, hurrah! And ate cake.

3The gender of the nameless hero is not given, but considering the social norms of the time and the fact that cake baking is involved, I have decided that our hero will be female.

Some Notes on Mooncakes from the Point of View of a Cub

The standard issue mooncake is a square brick of lotus seed paste (which is brown and sweet and tasty) encased in some sort of pastry (which is golden brown and almost certainly made with lard and tasty), and deep inside which is lurking at least one salted duck egg yolk (which is bright orange and horrible and vile).

Some mooncakes come with two yolks, in which case your chances of getting a slice without horrible vile yellow bits is rather low. In extreme cases, mooncakes have been known to come with four yolks, which guarantees that every quadrant and hence every slice will contain a yolk, so you had better just find something else to eat. (The number of yolks per cake is not random, by the way — it's stated on the box, and the more yolks there are, the more expensive the cake is.)

There are legends that tell of yolkless mooncakes, but my Elders refuse to have anything to do with them since "it's not worth eating a mooncake if there's no chance of getting a slice with a yolk" so I cannot vouch for the veracity of this myth.

Mooncakes these days can also be found in any number of alternative forms using any number of alternative ingredients, including ice cream mooncakes with different flavours and colours of ice cream to mimic the yolk, paste, and pastry, but the standard issue mooncake is still in my humble opinion the best. So long as you stay away from the yolks.

Other Mid-Autumn Activities

Aside from eating mooncakes, the only other activity I know of that is explicitly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival is the lighting of lanterns. These lanterns are made of thin, brightly coloured paper — usually red, pink, orange, yellow, or green (I've never seen a blue one, probably for good reason, and obviously you'd never ever get a white one) — which fold out accordion-style, with a handle made of wire at the top and a holder for a small candle at the bottom.

You take a standard issue birthday candle, stick it in the holder and light it, optionally wind the wire handle around a chopstick, and then give the lantern to a small child to wave around. I have no idea why we were permitted — nay, encouraged — to engage in something so patently dangerous (consider that the lanterns sell for about 10p each and you have some idea of how rickety and incredibly flammable the construction is) but hey, it's tradition, and I never accidentally set anything on fire. (Although one of my schoolmates did. Their entire dorm room burnt down, along with all their stuff. It kind of sucked.)

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.


December 2012


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