inside thoughts on China and beyond

The Mooncake Myth

MooncakeIt all started long, long ago.   And by that I really mean long ago: when the earth still had 10 suns and many goddesses and immortals flying around. The world was a hot place to be. Too hot, for most. An early day global warming was about to set in and a savior was needed. Jesus could not come for another 2000 years, and thus, China came to our rescue.

As it still does, for us enslaved Tibetans, penniless Europeans, hopeless Africans and dreamy spending Americans. Not much has changed in all those years, it seems. They keep on saving the world and soon also the poor islanders on the Spratly Islands. Anyway, it must be clear that the world as we know it would not have been, was it not for the relief coming from China.

Back to the story. A tyrant turned hero (or a hero soon to turn into a tyrant, depending on which story you like best) called Hou Yi took his arrows and shot 9 suns out of the sky. Just like that. Leaving one. (Just making sure!) Everybody happy… but only for a short while. You see, his success brought on his downfall, as it so often does. He now thought he was It and in his almighty arrogance stole the elixir of life from a goddess. Quite impressive, I must admit, I know I would never be able to do that! But his wife, Chang’er, thought otherwise. She stole the juice from him, drank it and floated to the moon. Just like that. (And we always though that the American Armstrong was the first; ha!) Might as well, for she was a beautiful young dear and although he loved her dearly, he was in for the kill.

Once on the moon, she ordered the hare (I know; what is a hare doing on the moon? Well, it’s another long story for which you and I have no time now so let’s just believe that the hare was there.) As I was saying, she ordered the hare to reproduce the elixir pill to help her return to the earth and to her husband. Well, he is still working on it. In the meantime, Hou Yi was promoted and build himself a nice mansion in the sun. Still loving his wife against all odds, he visits Chang’er once a year, still waiting for her pills, on the moon. That’s why, when Yin and Yang joining forces on that night, the full moon can be seen bright and clear. That is, of course, if you can find a place without smoggy pollution. Ever since, mooncakes are made to give away and to give us long and happy lives.

And that’s what is celebrated on Zhongqiujie, Mid-Autumn Festival. Mooncakes are one of the ways to get lucky. The idea is, however, that you give them away. You give them to your bosses and other relations that can improve or break your life (these must be of superior quality and price); to your colleagues and friends (as long as they look good, no worries about the taste) and family (depending on the status quo of your relations, they can be poisonous). Billions of yuan are spend each year on mooncakes. So much so, that the government has put a limit to the price of it. A simple mooncake could cost up to 10,000 US$ and still taste bad –not just for the giver. But, as the Guardian so nicely put it, China’s centuries-long love affair with the mooncake is unstoppable and a clear sign of the country’s embrace of consumerism, reaching new heights of luxury and exoticism.

Truth is, it’s all about the outside; a golden box with silk lining or an oak wood chest with wisdom engraved into it. And with all that money spend on mooncakes, you reckon China must be a very very lucky country. But it is a little more complicated than that. As I mentioned earlier, it is not just what you give, but to who you give. You see, a mooncake is not just a cake; it is a statement. A statement of authenticity is reflected by handmade mooncakes; a statement of prosperity by the golden box that surrounds the cakes and a political statement by  anti-Japanese phrases like “Bite Little Japan to death!” printed on the cakes.

But whatever mooncake, I’m still not sure what to do with all those I received. I really only like the handmade ones. But not surprisingly, those are rare: how can you make enough handmade mooncakes for one-sixth of the world population? So I (and most likely many others too) end up with a dozen beautiful useless boxes with inedible cakes inside. I can just hope that Chang’er will return anytime soon with the extra elixir of life pills  and be done with mooncakes. Who knows, maybe next year?


2 responses

  1. cyberscriber2world

    Very educational history, reflective of cultural incentives, and ceremony. Well told story. More familiar with Greek/Roman/Persian Mythology, I really liked the data, told with a western perspective. A happy Zhongqiujie festival / season to you and your family. 🙂

    October 7, 2012 at 12:37 am

  2. I’m disgusted with how many mooncakes I ate this past holiday. The school administration and several of my students gave me more than any one person should be able to eat, but I did it. I was trying to decipher if I even like them or not and, to be honest, a few belly aches later, I’m still unsure. Thanks for the history!

    October 16, 2012 at 8:11 am