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Celebration of Family Reunion

On a Mid-Autumn Festival night in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1266), intoxicated by the bright glow of a ripe, full moon and taste of fine rice wine, this ancient Chinese writer, Su Shi, composed a famous poem in commem-oration of the night when the moon is the biggest, roundest, and brightest of the year.

Thousands of years have passed since Su wrote his immortal words, but the enthusiasm for the full-moon special mid-autumn night has become ever high.

The Mid-Autumn Festival which falls on Monday this year, and also known as the Harvest Moon Festival, remains one of the most widely celebrated festivals for Chinese throughout the world because of deep-rooted family ties.

Though the origins of the festival are lost in the mists of time, a favorite legend is that of Chang'e, the fairy on the moon. As every Chinese child knows, Chang'e swallowed an elixir of immortality and ascended the moon.

The costs she paid is the everlasting separation from her husband, the legendary hero archer Yi who shot down nine of the 10 suns to save the land from being scotched. It is believed that Yi staying behind on earth can see Chang'e and her rabbit on the moon when it was at its brightest at Mid-Autumn Festival, on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.

The round moon thus serves as a symbol of family reunions, and the festival is an occasion for families to gather together around round dining tables to enjoy a feast and gaze the moon above their heads afterwards.

Dessert, of course, is mooncakes.

The mooncakes, which are such an integral part of the Mid-Autumn Festival, have a legend all their own - but unlike Chang'e, this is a tale of revolution, not of love between fairies and mortals.

It's said that during the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368), when China was ruled by the Mongols, nobles from the preceding Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1280), defiant to Mongols' rule, set about coordinating an undercover rebellion. The leaders of the rebellion, knowing that Mid-Autumn Festival was drawing near, decided to create special cakes with a message of the outline of the attack attached to the back of each cake.

On the night of the festival, the rebels successfully attacked and overthrew the government. What followed was the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and a mooncake tradition was born.

Mooncakes used to be homemade, using wooden moulds. Making the mooncakes was an important part of the festival. The moon cakes were filled with sweet pastes of nuts, mashed red beans, lotus-seed paste or Chinese dates. They were wrapped in pastry, sometimes enhanced with boiled egg yolk.

These days, even the elderly, who know how to make mooncakes, are reluctant to do so.

"It is just too much trouble to make mooncakes myself," says Cai Yanxia, a 76-year-old retiree. I would rather buy it at the supermarket."

Also, the tradition of moon cakes is falling out of favor with the younger generation.

"Moon cakes? No, thank you," says 25-year-old Dai Jia, a Dong Hua University postgraduate. "They're too sweet and oily and I'm on a diet."

Tong Chenjie, third-place winner in last year's Shanghai International Model Competition, feels the same.

"I would love to have a taste. But, you know, it is a forbidden food for us," she says.

Nor will 45-year-old Song Jia eat them."I used to eat mooncakes every year," she says, "But I am a diabetic and the doctor says that I can't eat them any longer."

Fan Jiangao, vice director of the Digestive Department of the Shanghai No.1 People's Hospital, says Song is correct.

Mooncakes are not the best food for those with compromised health, Jian says.

"People with diabetes, and pancreatitis shouldn't eat mooncakes at all. Those with high cholesterol, cholecystitis or chronic enterogastritis should really eat no more than one piece of mooncake each day, and generally eat less food after having mooncakes," he says.

Mooncake manufacturers haven't given up, though, and there are plenty of innovations to tempt even the most trendy taste buds.

Those who eschew traditional moon cakes may still enjoy Haagen Dazs' mini mooncake or Starbucks' cheese mooncakes, or even the Seagram mooncake, featuring the original taste of Seagram's liquor.

"We're trying to mix the very Chinese-style moon cake with the very Western-style of Seagram's wine together to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival and traditional family reunion. You know, the world is one big family in our mind," says the marketing director of the Seagram Co Ltd Shanghai.

This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on October 1, later than previous years because of leap lunar month in 2001. October 1 is also China's National Day, reason for a unique double celebration.

(Eastday.com 09/28/2001)

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