“I’ll tell you what I know, but it won’t be historically correct.”
This is how my conversation with Jianjun Wang starts. Despite this, I feel I can rely on what she’s about to say. That’s partly because she seems like a trustworthy person, and mostly because she’s my mother.
I’m trying to find out about the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, or what’s more popularly known as the Mooncake Festival (Zhongqiu Jie), which takes place this Sunday September 27.
Although it has become increasingly visible over time, it’s still seen by many as the lesser-known cousin of Chinese New Year. It lacks, in Melbourne at least, the obvious signs and signifiers: lion dancing, frenetic drum performances, and red packets stuffed with money.
As a child of Chinese and Australian descent, I’ve celebrated the Mooncake Festival every year of my life, but it’s always just been something I turn up for, with the same trimmings as many Chinese celebrations: a table full of food, constant exhortations to eat more, and collections of aggressively generous relatives and family friends. What traditions does it involve, and why do they matter? How has the event translated from China to Australia?
The most obvious sign of the festival is probably the eponymous mooncake. Typically round (although occasionally square), they are famously dense – one can easily be shared between three or four people. Jianjun suggests you can find three major varieties in Australia. The ones filled with red bean paste (hong dou yue bing) are the most common. You can also find five-seed mooncakes (wu ren yue bing), which are filled with an assortment of sesame, watermelon, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, as well as pine nuts, and peanuts – contents can vary significantly. Finally, lotus paste mooncakes (lian rong yue bing) are also popular. They are “symbolic of children and continuing generations. Eating a lotus mooncake is a wish for generations to come”.
The range of mooncakes is more extensive in China, according to my mum: “Nowadays people have begun to make mooncakes out of healthy alternatives: sweet potato, yam, nuts, things like that. In China, it’s almost like there’s a type of mooncake for every taste, including seaweed”.
The fillings are not the only parts of these cakes imbued with meaning. The patterns on top, in addition to providing a label, may represent, “the traditional symbol of health. Sometimes there is Double Happiness (shuangxi), symbolic of love and happiness”. The roundness of the cake represents, of course, the moon itself – the festival always coincides with a full moon – but also represents family union.
From Jianjun’s perspective, this is the most important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival. As a child, she remembers that the festival revolved around eating mooncakes, “Because they’d only be available once a year. It was a specialty”. Her parents always “made a big fuss about the day. “It was about family reunion, and children would make an effort to return home.” Even after she moved to Australia from Nanjing in 1983, Jianjun made the effort to return to China for the festival, “to visit mum and dad”.
The festival is also a night for lovers. “After dinner, lovers would meet, usually in a park, and [pregnant pause] you know … ‘talk’ about love.” Ignoring my keen and, to be frank, invasive questions, Jianjun goes on to explain that “lovers going for a walk and eating mooncakes is symbolic of their happy life ahead … it is a wish for a happy, long-lasting relationship or marriage”.
Although the romantic aspects of the festival never quite made it to Melbourne, Jianjun stresses that the familial aspects of the celebration definitely have. “Mooncake Festival to me, especially in the last 20 years or so, has been a significant part of my life. The meaning it has for me, I always cherish it. Since you moved out of home I probably cherish it more.”
The festival now represents the opportunity to carry on a set of traditions that would otherwise be set aside and forgotten. It focuses on “the value of family, and a specific tangible thing that we can actually do to say, ‘family is important’,” says Jianjun. “Instead of saying it, we can actually do this thing – getting together, having a meal, making a tradition.”
The increasing presence of the festival in Melbourne is something she appreciates. “It’s nice to have that familiarity. Thirty years ago I never ever thought it would happen in Melbourne.” Importantly, however, it brings together public demonstration with personal celebration. For my mother’s generation, there is a fear that traditions will be lost, that “you won’t experience this as something that’s very important, and there won’t be much chance of you doing it with your children.” Customs and traditions like this serve as the foundation of cultural identity, giving meaning and significance to aspects of life that might otherwise be forgotten.
Mooncakes, uniform in size and famously dense, are perhaps the ideal building blocks for this act of preservation.