Today is the 15th day of the 8th month, a very full moon, and the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Cake Festival or Lantern Festival, one of the big days in the holiday calendar. Two activities are required. The first is the gifting of “moon cakes,” hockey pucks of pastry with various fillings — dense fruits, nuts, red bean paste, or duck eggs. These are given in sixes and eights in very elaborate boxes. Each one is wrapped, boxed, nestled in satin, boxed again, and slipped into a glossy gift bag. These can get quite expensive, but are required to maintain one’s guanxi, “connections” or “relationships.” (Wikipedia calls guanxi “the basic dynamic in personalized networks of influence.” Guanxi, beginning with family and radiating far, is essential to get anything done in China.) Moon cakes, the tokens of guanxi, have been stacked to the ceiling in every shop in Tianjin for the last month, including bakeries, supermarkets, convenience stores, and liquor/cigarette stores. Ironically, no one actually likes moon cakes very much. Tomorrow, then, what will folks do with all these treats? I estimate that there are a billion in circulation; in a single stack they would reach to the moon and back. In the absence of mooncake public works (edible Great Walls and the like), they will probably be shelved for regifting next year. Like love and learning, quanxi and mooncakes are not diminished by sharing.
As foreigners, we are mainly exempt from Mid-Autumn obligations. Our guanxi network consists of our “ayi”, who cleans the apartment daily, the administrators in the foreign affairs office who broker our intricate relationship with the People’s Republic, Cheryl’s faculty sponsor and a few student helpers, our ex-pat mentor Paul, and (most important) Shen, who drives the girls to and from school every day. Also, as has happened during other foreign sojourns, we find that we kind of like the local ritual food — we haven’t been eating it since the age of two. The pastry part is like a digestive biscuit, and the fillings something like fruitcake or a fig newton. We’ll see if our tastes change, since we have about forty moon cakes, enough to make a small ottoman.
The second activity of the holiday is to join your family and friends tonight in admiring the full moon. We did this by taking a ride on the “Tianjin Eye,” a giant Ferris wheel that spans the river, similar in height to its London counterpart. As the evening darkened, we watched a marvelous ancient custom of launching red good luck lanterns into the sky. These are made of thin tissue with a candle at the bottom, closed at the top, glowing hot air balloons lofted all over the city. The stars tonight are all red, rising and marching west in morphing twinkling constellations.
Families will gather, if they can. But the festival acknowledges that families are often scattered. Mid-autumn togetherness is the knowledge that we are all gazing at the moon together, and thinking loving thoughts of one another. If you awoke early this morning to a setting full moon, that was our moon too, the moon we watched rising from the Eye. The moon you gaze on tonight will shine on Shen and the girls as they drive to school at dawn tomorrow. Zàijiàn!