joy sorrow parting reuniting

Zhongqiujie – the Mid-Autumn Festival – is tomorrow.*

The story goes that long, long ago, there were ten suns circling the earth. Normally, each one took its turn to provide heat and light, but one day all ten appeared in the sky at once, scorching the earth and blinding the people.
An archer named Hou Yi managed to shoot down nine of them, thus saving the earth and winning the right to rule as king. He turned out to be a real bastard of a ruler, though, and got so full of himself and crazed with power that he stole some of the elixir of immortality from Heaven.
To save the people from his tyranny, Hou Yi’s wife, Chang E, took the elixir before he could, and floated up to the moon. You can still see her there on Midautumn Night, when the moon is at is fullest.

People eat yuebing – mooncakes – on Midautumn Night. Mooncakes are round, dense affairs, roughly the same size and weight as a large paperweight. They can be filled with all kinds of things – lotus seed, bean paste, nuts, eggs, fruit. At one point in the 14th century, they were filled with paper: Chinese planning to rebel against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty used mooncakes to smuggle messages to one another.

It’s a time to be back with your family and your loved ones. And it occasioned one of my favourite Chinese poems, the Shuidiao Getou* by Su Dongpo.
As an official, Su was always on the road, either at government posts – he was assigned a new one every three or four years – or in exile. One of the most common themes in his poetry is his longing for his brother, Ziyou, and the Shuitiao Getou begins with this comment –

Midautumn Night of the year bing-chen. Drank happily until dawn. In my cups, wrote this while thinking of [my brother] Ziyou.

– and ends with this stanza:

All people have their joys and griefs,*
And the moon will ever wax and wane.
A thing like this was never easy
If only we might live forever —
A thousand miles apart,
Sharing the moonlight…

Comments (6)

  1. Stewart wrote::

    “A thousand miles apart,
    Sharing the moonlight…”

    Is this the same as “A thousand miles apart, we meet under the moon”? That’s what’s written on the AAU t-shirts from the moon festival a couple years ago, right?

    Remember to take pictures, Brendan! And anyone who’s gonna be in Philly, remember to come down to Chinatown tomorrow night for the Moon Festival…there will be fun and merriment all about! Peace.

    Saturday, September 21, 2002 at 1:43 am #
  2. Jacki wrote::

    Just wanted to pop in and say that the Mid-Autumn festival sounds really cool :-) You probably don’t even remember who I am…if it helps any, my AIM name is bwaybound86 :-).

    Saturday, September 21, 2002 at 4:00 am #
  3. Brendan wrote::

    Stewart: Yes, it’s the same, except my translation is more accurate and their translation is more poetic. The line in question is “?????,” for those of you with Chinese support. The first two characters, qian li, mean “A thousand li,” where li is a unit of distance. Next, gong means “share, to hold in common.” It’s the same gong as in gongchan zhuyi, “communism.” Finally, chanjuan is a term in classical Chinese which can mean both “the moon’s beauty” and “a beautiful woman.”

    Jacki – Of course I remember. Hi. And yeah; I like Midautumn.

    Rose: I’ve been having fun, at least. Mostly. Also, your use of “nor” is incorrect; “nor” is only appropriate when used in a negative construction. Had you said “I can make neither head nor tail of it,” it would have been acceptable.

    Saturday, September 21, 2002 at 6:03 am #
  4. Rose wrote::

    Brendan, you asshole… I read your website for the first time in months and it’s something I can’t make head nor tail of. You whore.

    Hope you’re having fun and getting drunk and having lots of sloppy loud gratuitous sex.

    Saturday, September 21, 2002 at 6:28 am #
  5. ron reinoehl wrote::


    Just to thank you for the beautiful poem. The
    moon here – I trust it is the same heavenly body
    you are viewing – was extraordinary, luminous
    pale yellow pumpkin , born in a cowl , then
    wreathed in a coil of vermiculite.


    Ron Reinoehl

    Thursday, September 26, 2002 at 2:03 am #
  6. kendra wrote::

    Hey, thanks for the info on the midautumn festival. Nobody here seemed to know what it’s origins were, though I’ll admit I didn’t actually ask that many people.

    Oh, and I don’t like mooncake(the square kind with the egg yolk in the middle, which is all I’ve run into here), and I had it on three or four seperate occasions. Blech.

    Monday, September 30, 2002 at 10:06 am #