Cakes and the moon
Yesterday evening C. V. came home from work with his full book bag and a variety of other parcels dangling from one handlebar and a square box swinging on the other -- a cake box covered with a beautiful old-fashioned picture of a moon goddess such as we have not seen for years. Here is a great square of blue sky with curly white clouds, the top left-hand quarter of which is filled with a huge yellow moon. Figured in gold in the moon is the moon palace. The moon goddess herself is flying across the blue sky to the palace. She's charming, with her blue black hair piled high and pinned with golden butterflies. In her hand she holds a short gold wand with a white tassel on it. And down among the clouds in the left-hand quarter are four gold Chinese characters: Mid-Autumn Moon Cakes.
If anyone had painted pictures like this even two years ago they would have had to go through endless Criticism Meetings and write self-criticism articles ad nauseum.m
The 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar year (September 16 this year) is called the Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the five big festivals in China. Everyone has a family dinner party that evening, and after dinner they eat moon cakes and "enjoy the bright moon." Before the Liberation even the poorest people would try to make some sweet cakes for their children as mooncakes. It dates right back to the Sung Dynasty and the 10th century, and we still think that the Mid-Autumn Festival moon looks the biggest and brightest in the year. It's like a huge golden penny with a palace engraved on it, speeding across the sky.
These days when you see people going out after work with their boxes of moon cakes and baskets of fruit you know they're visiting relatives or friends. Never have we seen such long queues at the best confectioners and never have we seen such mountains of mooncakes in all the bakers' and confectioners' shops! And the quality this year is especially good. We buy ours from the Muhammedan bakers, and they are delicious. You can choose from at least 50 varieties, and each year the bakers invent new kinds of fillings. The outside may be light flaky pastry (that's Suzhou style) or ordinary brown pastry imprinted with the four Chinese characters: Mid-Autumn Moon Cake, or characters indicating the filling in the cake. That is the Cantonese style moon cake.
How can I make you taste them all? The nonsweet variety may have chopped ham stuffing, or minced pork or duck, or egg yolk, or sausage. The sweet ones are of all kinds of fruit and nuts, some red bean fillings, some date, some sesame seed, melon or rose petals and sugar. The shops are selling them by the thousand, fresh and hot each day, and they melt in the mouth. As a rule, we cut them into quarters and eat a rule, we cut them into quarters and eat a quarter each. It is not the custom to eat much at a time.
If you really wish to savor the Autumn Moon the place to go is Hangzhou -- lovely hangzhou, which dates back to the 11th century BC. First we sit by the lake in the Paviloin of the Calm Lake and Autumn Moon on the Pai Chu-I Causeway. there we have a bowl of hot lotus-root jelly seasoned with sugar and kuei-hua flowers and eat some moon cakes. Then we walk on along the north shore of the lake and take a boat across to San Tan Yin Yueh -- Three Pools that Mirror the Lake, the biggest and most beautiful of the islands in the lake. We walk across the island over the lovely Bridge of Nine Turnings and through enchanting pavilions, and on the south side we see three stone pagodas with round holes in them standing in the lake. It was the custom to light fires in these pagodas on calm nights so as to make many moons appear on the surface of the lake.
But best of all is the climb up the Phoenix hill to the southeast of the West Lake, for there is a Moon Rock with a hole in it through which the moon passes on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival -- or so the leg-end goes.
But this does not finish the festivities. Three nights later, we go to the Chientang river to see the world-famous hangchow bore, which occurs on the 18th of the eighth moon of the Chinese lunar year. It is the best viewed in the bright moonlight, a great wave of water reaching 26 feet high, like "ten thousand cavalrymen riding at full gallop and shouting at the top of their voices."