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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Searching for the Moon Rabbit on Mid Autumn Festival

It’s felt like weeks coming – a bit like the run up to Christmas in the West – with all the supermarkets clearing their shelves to make way for mooncakes as the Chinese prepare for their Mid Autumn Festival. You can’t go anywhere without someone trying to sell you a box of these mooncakes at vastly inflated prices.

The Zhongqiu Festival (中秋节) is one of the four most important Chinese festivals, and mooncakes are regarded as an indispensable delicacy on this occasion, being given between friends and family while celebrating the festival.

Typically, mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 4–5 cm thick. A filling usually made from lotus seed paste is surrounded by a relatively thin crust and often contains yolks from salted duck eggs (to symbolise the full moon). They are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea. If you are on a diet, mooncakes are definitely not for you as each one contains the equivalent of around 1,000kcal.

Nowadays it is customary for businessmen to present them to their clients – in the west we would probably regard them as miniature bribes – though not so miniature when you consider that every employee of the “bribed” company would be expected to receive a box.

Mooncake production is labour-intensive and few people make them at home. Their price usually ranges from 500¥ to 3500¥ (around £5 to £35) for a box of four, although cheaper and more expensive ones can also be found.

One day, over a week before the Festival begins, I am invited up to the HR office where I work to collect a box of my very own mooncakes. Everyone in the company is being given a tin box with 12 inside; and these ones have been made in France, that international hotbed of mooncake manufacture .

What? You didn’t know that the French are famous for their moon cakes? Haven’t you seen the advertisements on the inside of lifts? On street posters? On TV? “France Moon Cake” it reads; “Exploring Great Taste”. And to emphasise the point, there is a small replica of the Eiffel Tower which looks remarkably like the one in Shenzhen (but then, who is going to notice?). Why a French delicacy should be advertised in Chinese and English instead of in Chinese and French, I am not sure. But hey, no worries!

Gratefully clutching my special present I stroll back to my office where one of my colleagues tells me that the festival is intricately linked to the legends of Chang E, the mythical Moon Goddess of Immortality.

Around four thousand years ago, during the reign of the legendary Emperor Yao, the earth had ten suns circling it, each taking its turn to illuminate the earth; but one day there was obviously some supreme cock-up resulting in all ten suns appearing together, scorching the earth with their heat. The earth was saved by a strong and tyrannical archer named Hou Yi, who succeeded in shooting down nine of the suns.

One day, the oh-so-naughty Hou Yi stole the elixir of life from a goddess; but, his beautiful wife Chang E decided to drink it herself in order to save the people from her husband's tyrannical rule (or maybe she just didn’t like those stretch marks and sagging boobs starting to appear on her body? Who knows how a woman’s mind really works!).

Well, after drinking it, she found herself floating all the way to the moon. The dastardly Hou Yi decided that he loved his beautiful wife so much, that he refused to shoot down the moon. Phew! What a relief! Maybe he wasn’t such a rotten cad after all.

Chang E now lives with a Jade Rabbit who pounds medicine for the gods. Apparently you can see this rabbit if you look at the dark areas to the top of the full moon: its ears point to the upper right, while at the left are two large circular areas, representing its head and body.

Anyway, Hou Yi built himself a palace in the sun, representing "Yang" (the male principle), in contrast to Chang E's home on the moon which represents "Yin" (the female principle). Once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Hou Yi visits his wife. And that is the reason why the moon is so full and bright on that night.

Well, call me a sceptic if you like, but I have to admit to having a few nagging doubts about this story. I mean – where will the rabbit get his ration of carrots and lettuce? Not to mention the fact that NASA astronauts have never – to my knowledge – mentioned seeing a rabbit lolloping around the surface of the moon.

What is in less doubt, however, is the fact that mooncakes were used as a medium by the Ming revolutionaries to secretly distribute letters to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China in the Yuan dynasty. A guy called Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) and his advisor Liu Bow’en (劉伯溫), circulated a rumour that a deadly plague was spreading, and the only way to prevent it was to eat special mooncakes. (Huh! A likely story. You’ll probably find his brother was actually a baker who wanted to improve his business.) The wily Zhu realised that the Mongolian upper class didn’t eat mooncakes (thinking of their figures perhaps?). This prompted the quick distribution of mooncakes, which were used to hide a secret message coordinating the Han Chinese revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.

Today, mooncakes are causing just as much controversy. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that the Beijing authorities had decided to impose a tax on mooncakes, as they can be considered a non-cash benefit and therefore are subject to income tax. Unsurprisingly, Global Times reported, this has sparked an outcry in the Chinese capital.

A poll conducted by the microblogging service Weibo found that 96 percent of users opposed the tax and many Chinese said they would prefer not to receive mooncakes at all. What a surprise!

Personally I haven’t seen any rioting in the streets over the proposed mooncake tax, but you can imagine my consternation when two days before the festival holiday began I was called upstairs once again by HR to collect yet another box of mooncakes. Why am I receiving a second box, I ask wistfully, thinking all the while about being taxed for benefits in kind. Apparently they were given by some outside company hoping to curry favour with the powers that be where I work. But no one appears to know who the donor company was, and certainly no one seems to care.

Back home, I unwrap the box to find six mooncakes beautifully wrapped inside. There’s even a little box containing plastic forks, which I would have thought spoils the overall effect somewhat.

Eventually the holiday begins and to award myself a special treat, I decide to try one of the French mooncakes with my mid morning cup of the hot and steaming. Although they actually look quite light and delicate, the moment you pick one up you realise that they could each be used as a door stop, or at the very least as a paperweight, should someone be fool enough to leave a window open with a desk full of paperwork.

I bite into my special treat … and wonder why anyone would make a fuss about these things. Inside is a salty round duck egg yolk, around which is wrapped some lotus paste and a plain dough pastry enclosing it all. Not what I would describe in any way as a must-eat-treat.

I gingerly try another bite, reminding myself that I shouldn’t be so rash as to make instant judgements. But my first opinion is redoubled with the second bite and finding myself fast losing the will to live, I leave the remaining half mooncake on the plate and try to wash the taste away with my hot cuppa.

Another mid-Autumn festival delicacy is the hairy crab, otherwise known as the Chinese mitten crab. They say that a dish of steamed hairy crabs is always the highlight of the family reunion dinner.

However, what is popularly regarded as the ultimate in hairy crabs - those from Yangcheng Lake in East China's Jiangsu province, have in the main been absent from the dinner tables this year, since the Yangcheng Lake Crab Association in Suzhou announced that this year's crab fishing season would not start until Sept 17, five days after the Mid-Autumn Festival. Apparently they won’t reach full maturity until then and although some crab fishers may catch a small number of hairy crabs before then to cash in on the holiday, these crabs will not be entitled to be called Yangcheng Lake Crabs.

Hairy crabs are usually sold in a pair, one male and one female. A 125-gram female and a 175-gram male were priced at 80 yuan in 2010. One of the most expensive pairs - a 175-gram female and a 250-gram male - was priced at 200 yuan. The price reached a peak of more than 250 yuan last December. During the holidays, it is customary for each family member to get a pair of hairy crabs.

As I am working over the holiday period, I never get to taste a crab, hairy or otherwise (steamed fish with leek rice and oyster sauce is my call that night). But on the way back from work I look up at the sky to see if I can see the Jade Rabbit in the moon. Unfortunately the cloud cover is too strong, and I never do get to see the rabbit.

Over on TV, CCTV15 have been playing moon-related music for much of the day with Au Claire de Lune, Moonlight Sonata and Blue Moon (sung by Pavarotti) played on more than one occasion.

Meanwhile on CCTV3, the presenters of the various light entertainment shows all take part in a singathon featuring them warbling in front of various moon backdrops (all of which, bar two, feature crescent moons rather than the full moon celebrated at the festival). Reminiscences come to mind of the UK’s Red Nose Day when BBC presenters do wild and stupid things in order to raise money for “good causes”. I mentally make a note that these guys should not for one moment think about giving up their day jobs.

Back at the office, two of my fellow workers come up to me, their eyes flashing happiness and bonhomie. Have a mooncake! they cajole.  It’s chocolate. Sooo yummy. You will like! You will like!

There on a plate lies half a mooncake – chocolate in colour, including the egg “moon” inside. I grin a thank you, hoping they will leave the cake on the plate on my desk and then go off and offer their largess to someone else while I casually slip the proffered offering into the bin below my desk. But for once the gods are not smiling on me. They hover and wait for their “foreign expert” to bite into the morsel so as not to miss the cherished moment, and I have no alternative but to comply and sport one of my well rehearsed, devastating smiles.

Thank you so much, I whimper hoping desperately they won’t take this as an open invitation to offer me a second piece.  But luck is once again back on side and off they go to be generous to someone else.

So now I am in a quandary. Who don’t I like enough to give my 11½ uneaten mooncakes to as a present? Perhaps the dog belonging to the neighbours next door? Or maybe I should auction them off on eBay? After all, they say you can sell anything on eBay. Could this be the ultimate challenge?