Gatherings & Celebrations: The Moon Festivals of China - #118

The Chinese moon calendar was developed thousands of years ago and based on careful observations of the sky.  The calendar controlled agriculture, and agriculture controlled almost everything else.  Plant and harvest at the right time and everyone has a chance to eat.  Plant and harvest at the wrong time and everyone starves.  There’s an ancient Chinese saying that makes the point: “We must look to heaven for our food.”  The regular arrival of the new moons signaled the busy times and the slow times for farmers.

Eventually the slow periods were marked with gatherings and celebrations.  And we’ve come to the Republic of China to take a look at them -- gatherings and celebrations that are based on the movements of the moon. New Year’s and the Lantern Festival come along when the winter weather made field work difficult. The Dragon Boat Festival comes after the first harvest, and the Mid-Autumn ceremony follows the last harvest.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The moon calendar tells the people of China when to have their celebrations.  But what actually happens at those events is mucb more the result of the traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.  In the west we tend to think of those as organized religions, but in reality they are much more like a general set of instructions to help guide you to a happier life.

Buddhism is based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.  Siddhartha is thought to have been born about 550 B.C. in a small town in Nepal.  He was a local prince and lived in great luxury.  But in his twenties he left his family and their palace in search of spiritual enlightenment.  For years he wandered the countryside, avoiding all material comforts.  At one point he began a long meditation under a tree... and eventually found the enlightenment that he’d been searching for.  From then on he was known as the Buddha... the Enlightened One.  And he traveled about teaching his philosophy. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   His teachings revolved around what are called the Four Basic Truths.  First, all life contains suffering.  Second, desire is the cause of the suffering.  Third, if you can get rid of desire you get rid of suffering, and you end up enlightened.  And fourth, enlightenment is available to everybody.  He did not agree with the difficult life of the ascetic, but he also disliked the idea of the pursuit of pleasure just for the sake of pleasure.  What is recommended is what is called the Middle Way.

Taoism had its beginnings in the ancient Chinese culture that goes back in history for well over 4000 years.  But its formation into a philosophy appears to have taken place during the 6th century B.C., and it’s attributed to a man called Lao Tzu, which literally translates as “the old master.”  He was the keeper of the royal archives in the court of the Chou Dynasty.  Eventually, however, he got fed up with the Government and decided to leave the country.  When he came to the Western border, the guards recognized him as one of the wise men of the court and would not let him pass until he wrote down the sum of his wisdom.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   So the old man sat down, penned a five thousand word manuscript, handed it to the border patrol,  headed off, and was never heard of again.  It’s not a religious text the way we use that phrase in the west; it’s really a short poem about moral philosophy.  It talks about the force which is in each of us, and yet greater than all things put together.

Of all the philosophies that have been developed in China, none has been more powerful than the work of Confucius.  He was born in 551 B.C. during a period of political and moral chaos.  The ruling dynasty was crumbling, and petty factions were at war throughout the country.  Confucius wanted to reestablish the ethical principles that had guided much of China during an earlier time.  And he spent his life trying to teach people that true happiness could only be found in acts of generosity and the promotion of peace and friendship. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   By the time he died at the age of seventy-two, over three thousand students had studied with him.  He also wrote a number of books that told you what the proper behavior was for just about any situation that you would encounter during your lifetime.  He told his students to be tough with themselves but easy-going and benevolent with other people. 

He believed that government was designed for the benefit of the people... not the benefit of other government officials.  From the second century B.C. until 1905, the teachings of Confucius were literally the official body of moral and intellectual information for China.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Gods, ghosts and ancestors play major roles in the festivals of China, and in the most positive ways.  When you pay your respects to an ancestor, you thank them for the life they have given you, but you also help them with the life that they are having in the other world.  It connects you to the past.  And because the same rituals are taught to the children in your family, it connects you to the future.  And it is this sense of connection with the past and the future that is so valuable to the people who take part in these festivals.

Here in the Republic of China, as in Chinese communities around the world, one of the major occasions in the year is the Tomb-Sweeping Festival, which takes place on the 5th of April.  It’s a day when all the members of a family, both young and old, pay their respects to their ancestors.  This is a private Buddhist cemetery just outside of Taipei.  It’s called the North Sea Paradise Treasure Tower.

This is the time of the year when the Chinese visit their family tombs and make ritual offerings.  Most often they burn incense and sacrificial paper money. This is not the real stuff, but a special printed form that is believed to turn into real money as the smoke from it passes up into the heavens.  It’s the ultimate technique for the transfer of funds.  The family cleans up the graveside.  The area is swept and manicured, fresh flowers are set in place, and sometimes a new bush is planted.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Very often an entire meal is placed on a tray and offered to the ancestors.  The specific dishes on the tray are usually chosen because they were great favorites of the dearly departed. One of the nice things about gods and spirit ancestors is they don’t actually eat the food.  They inhale the aroma.  And they expect you to take the leftovers home and make them part of your meal.  They feel that your eating of the remaining foods is actually an additional tribute to their memory.  Works out nicely for everybody.

The ceremonies are usually performed before dawn or during the early morning hours. The spirits of the departed are thought to sleep during the night and therefore “be at home.” And you want to catch them with your offering before they set out for the day.

It’s a time to remember those who have passed on and yet be able to take pleasure in the continuance of the relationships.  To stop and think about the essential aspects of life and death, and at the same time enjoy the simple elements of a family outing. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   There’s nothing morbid about these events.  They’re actually designed to connect the present generation with their past in a warm and tender way.  Everybody gets involved in a series of tasks, and by caring for their ancestors in the other world, they also express their hope that their spirit ancestors will care for them while they are in this world.

I asked Chef Ip at the Grand Formosa Regent to put together an example of a typical family meal... the kind of meal that would be enjoyed by all the members of the family, and yet also be a mark of respect to their ancestors.

The first dish is minced seafood on leaves of lettuce.  The recipe starts with one cup of oil going into a heated wok.  As soon as the oil is hot, in goes a cup each of minced shrimp and minced scallops.  There’s a minute of cooking, after which the seafood is drained away from the oil and held aside.  The wok is cleaned and reheated.  Then in goes a half cup each of minced mushrooms, celery, and water chestnuts, plus a half cup of pre-cooked sausage meat.  A minute of stir-frying and the seafood is returned to the wok.  A cup of minced bamboo shoots go in.  Another minute of stir-frying.  A half teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of cornstarch are added.  Then two tablespoons of soy sauce and two tablespoons of oyster sauce.  As you can see, the chef measures with the tip of his spatula so all the amounts that I’m giving you are really just my best guesses.  A minute more of stirring, at which point the mixture is divided onto six iceberg lettuce leaves that have been trimmed into neat circles.  A garnish of chopped macadamia nuts and they are ready to be eaten out of hand. 

The remaining lettuce is used to prepare stir-fried lettuce, which will be served at the meal as a side dish.  A wok is heated.  A half cup of chicken stock goes in.  Then two tablespoons of oil, and a head of lettuce that has been cut into two-inch pieces.  A half teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of cornstarch are added.  Everything is stir-fried for a minute, or until the lettuce is cooked through but still firm to the bite.  Then the lettuce is drained from the cooking liquid, placed on a plate and flavored with a little soy sauce.

Chicken fried rice is one of those traditional Chinese dishes that makes a little meat go a long way.  The chef starts by heating his wok and pouring in a cup of oil.  As soon as the oil is hot, which means a temperature of about 360 degrees Fahrenheit, in goes a cup of chicken cut into pieces that are about a half-inch by a half-inch.  They’re stir-fried for thirty seconds and then drained away from the oil.  The wok is cleaned out and three eggs are scrambled on the hot surface.  Three cups of pre-cooked white rice go in. The rice for this recipe is usually cooked a day or so earlier and kept in the refrigerator.  It’s actually still cool when it goes into the wok.  The rice is stirred up and heated.  Then the chicken goes back on.  A half cup of cooked peas.  A half teaspoon of cornstarch and a half teaspoon of salt are added.  A teaspoon of soy sauce in mixed in.  And finally a cup of thinly sliced lettuce.  A little more stirring... and as soon as everything is warm, it’s onto the plate.

And this is a very interesting dish of beef with ginger and bell peppers.  The cooking starts with a half cup of chicken stock being heated in a wok.  Then in go red, yellow and green bell peppers, each of which has been seeded and sliced into one-inch cubes.  Then ten pieces of marinated ginger. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The ginger that he’s using is the standard fresh ginger, which has been soaking in a mixture of five parts white vinegar to one part sugar.  Has a great sweet taste.

All that stir-fries for two minutes.  Then everything is drained from the cooking liquid and placed into a dry wok, where it is stir-fried for a minute.  Then the ingredients are taken out of the wok and a half cup of oil goes in.  As soon as the oil is hot, two cups of beef are added.  They’ve been marinating for a half hour in a mixture of two eggs, a quarter of a tablespoon of cornstarch, and a half cup of oil.  The beef is cooked for two minutes and then removed from the wok and drained away from the cooking oil.  The beef is then returned to the empty wok.  A quarter of a cup of Chinese vinegar is added.  Then a quarter of a teaspoon of cornstarch that has been dissolved in a quarter of a cup of water.  A half cup of chicken stock is added.  A moment of cooking.  Then the beef goes onto a serving plate, followed by the peppers and the ginger.

All of this cooking took place in the Grand Formosa Regent, which is one of the outstanding hotels in Asia.  It’s smack in the middle of Taipei, which makes it very convenient for its guests. The central core of the building is an atrium lounge.  The hotel is particularly famous for its restaurants, which have become popular with the residents of Taiwan.  It’s usually not easy for a hotel to get the locals as regular customers, but the chefs at the Regent are some of the most talented cooks in the city.  It’s a perfect home base if you’re visiting Taiwan for the Moon Festivals.

The fifth day of the fifth lunar month -- usually June or July -- is the date for the Dragon Boat Festival, which is one of the most colorful celebrations in the Chinese year.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   And it comes with a great story.  During the Warring States Period, which was around 300 B.C., there was a great poet who was much beloved by the people.  He was also an adviser to the Emperor by whom he was not so much beloved.  At one point he became so depressed over the state of his country that he clasped a giant rock to his chest and threw himself in the river.  The local people jumped into their boats and rushed out to save him, or at the very least to find his body and give him a proper burial.  When they couldn’t find him, they began throwing rice into the river, in the hope that the sea creatures would eat the rice and not their beloved poet.

The custom of eating filled dumplings made with glutinous rice and wrapped in bamboo leaves is a reminder of the rice that was thrown into the river. Originally, only rice was cast into the water, but about two hundred years later a ghost arrived and identified himself as the great poet. The ghost expressed his appreciation for the annual offering of the rice, but pointed out that very often the rice was stolen by the monster who caused floods.  The ghost asked that the rice be wrapped in leaves and tied with five-colored string, both of which were not on the monster’s diet. 

The dragon boat races that take place on this day commemorate the search to save the great poet. They also demonstrate the Chinese devotion to cooperation and teamwork. Each boat has a helmsman, a drummer, twenty-two oarsmen and a flag catcher.  Two boats compete in each race. A process of elimination eventually produces a winner.  And teams comes from all over the world to take part in the races.

The dragon is the most important creature in Chinese mythology. It controls the fall of rain and all the waters on Earth which are essential to the survival of life.  The dragon heads and tails only go on the boats for the races. Once they are set in place, a Taoist priest brings them to life by burning incense, setting off firecrackers, dotting the eyes of the dragons with paint, and burning sacrificial paper money.  Some folks also believe that all the noise and the confusion caused by the boat races scare off any evil spirits in the river.

Like many important festivals throughout the world, the particular date for the events on Earth coincide with things that are happening in the heavens.  The story of the great poet’s death takes place at the same time as the summer solstice, the day of the year with the most amount of sunlight... which gives everyone a chance to add in some additional ritual.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The summer solstice is the hottest time of the year in China; it’s considered to be a period when life is out of balance and therefore dangerous.  As a result, over the centuries an assortment of protective customs have been developed.

At night, paper lanterns float down the rivers, symbolically releasing wandering spirits from Buddhist purgatory. The Dragon Festival is only a single celebration, but it kills off many evil spirits. The Chinese have always made a little go a long way.

The summer departs and autumn arrives... autumn which brings with it one of the biggest full moons of the year.

The ancient Greeks thought that marriages that took place at the time of the full moon would last and be prosperous.  For centuries, the English believed that insanity was a permanent condition, but lunacy only occurred during a full moon.  Almost every early culture has a collection of mythic stories that center on the spirits of the moon.  Most of our oldest calendars are based on the movements of the moon.  And the Chinese lunar calendar is still at the heart of their most important gatherings and celebrations.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Ancient Chinese legends tell us that the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the birthday of the Earth God.  The growing season has come to an end and the harvest is about to begin.  People take this time to thank the God Of The Moon and the God Of The Earth for the good things that have happened to them during the past twelve months. Of all of the festivals in China, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the most nostalgic and the most poetic.  And many of the stories that surround it deal with the rabbit in the moon. The Chinese, like the early Europeans, saw a rabbit in the moon, not a man.

The most important Chinese folk story about the moon is said to have taken place about 4,000 years ago. Hou Yih was a skilled archer and a master architect. One day, ten suns appeared in the sky. The emperor called on Hou Yih to shoot down the nine additional suns, which he promptly did. As a result, his fame came to the attention of the Goddess of the Western Heaven,  who commissioned him to build a jade palace for her. He did such a magnificent job that the goddess rewarded him with a pill that would give him everlasting life.  But she warned him not to take the pill until he had completed a year of prayer and fasting. Hou Yih returned home, hid the pill and began his prayers.  Hou was married to a woman whose incredible beauty was matched only by her awesome curiosity. When she discovered the pill, she swallowed it -- and was immediately drawn up to the moon. The legend states that her beauty is greatest on the night of the Moon Festival. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   If you feel that the story is a little bit too much like Eve in the Garden of Eden, and you’d like to have something where the woman was not the cause of the problem, there’s a second version.  In that one, Hou is an evil and demonic ruler who gets his hands on a bunch of pills that will give him eternal life. The queen saves the kingdom by taking all of the pills, but that sends her to the moon.  She was a devoted and sacrificial person.  At any rate, you do get the Moon God as the patron god of family happiness and good will, and autumn is always marked by families looking at the moon.

It’s also a time for lovers to be together and to pray for continued togetherness.  The moon becomes a symbol of their desire for unity.   The food associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival is the moon cake.  A round pastry stuffed with a sweet filling, they are a symbol for the togetherness of the family.  It is a common practice to give moon cakes to friends and relatives.  In ancient China, this custom was once utilized to start a revolution. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   During the 1200’s the Mongols were able to take control of most of China.  A Chinese warrior, however, by the name of Chu Yuan-chang decided to start a revolt against them.  He sent the secret message as to when the revolt was to begin by hiding it inside moon cakes.  And it worked.  The Mongol invaders were overthrown and the moon cakes became more popular than ever.

It is also the day for eating pomelo or grapefruit.  The Chinese word for grapefruit is yu, which sounds like the Chinese word that means protection.  The hope is that the Moon God will protect the family. 

Food is always an important part of a festival. In the Republic of China it’s so important that it has been given its own celebration: The Taipei Chinese Food Festival, an annual event that brings together the stars of Chinese gastronomy. The idea of a food festival goes back for thousands of years.  They began as annual street fairs where farmers, merchants, producers and traders displayed their products in the hope of getting new customers. These days it’s a major social event where the skills of master chefs are put on display.

Chang Hung Yu is one of Taipei’s leading chefs, and he’s demonstrating the Chinese technique for making noodles by hand. He holds the world’s record in this event, having made eight thousand one hundred and ninety-two strands of noodles in four minutes.  His noodles are so thin that he is actually able to thread one through the eye of a needle.

The Taipei Food Festival always includes a series of competitive events designed to test the talents of the young chefs.  The contest that draws the biggest audience is the hour-long ice-carving classic.  Each team gets a uniform block of ice and sixty minutes to do their thing.  Electric chain saws are used to cut the block into the general shape of the sculpture.  Once a basic outline has been formed, the artist gets into the detail using the traditional tools of a woodcarver.  They prepare for the event by designing the work and cutting a prototype.  Once they have the major pattern, they practice the sculpture over and over again, so they can reproduce it within the time limit. They constantly readjust the form to get the best results for the time allowed.  It’s a chilling challenge, with the prospect of success often melting away right before your eyes.

The Festival also conducts a competition in napkin folding.  The fashion for napkins in fancy shapes started in the 1500’s.  It was considered an art form, and the people who did it were paid big bucks.  The more elaborate the folding, the more impressive the table.  Napkins are folded into birds and flowers and boats.

Of all the cultures on our planet, the Chinese are probably the most preoccupied with eating and drinking. The great Chinese scholar Lin Yutang once wrote that “in China no food is really enjoyed unless it is keenly anticipated, discussed, eaten, and then commented upon.  Long before we have any special food, we think about it, rotate it in our minds, and anticipate it as a special pleasure to be shared with some of our closest friends.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And I thank you for sharing your time with me as we took a look at some of the great festivals in Chinese culture.  And I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.