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…