The Mid-Autumn Festival

Chinese traditional moon cakes
Chinese traditional moon cakes

On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, or the full moon between early September and early October, China and Vietnam celebrate the Mid-Autumn Day (sometimes called Moon Cake Festival). In Chinese, the festival is known as 中秋节 (Zhong Qiu Jie), which literally means middle autumn festival. The festival signifies the end of the autumn harvest and is a cultural, and in some places, religious holiday. It’s among the most recognized Chinese holidays, along withDragon Boat Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day and the Chinese Spring Festival. In China, Mid-Autumn festival ranks behind only Chinese Spring Festival in significance.

History

In China, the moon has always been observed carefully, and most important decisions are somehow tied into the moon and its movements. All major holidays are planned according to the lunar calendar, and wedding dates are often chosen by the position and phase of the moon. The moon was thought to have close relationship with how the seasons change, and thereby also affect the agricultural production. So, to express their gratitude, the ancient Chinese would give thanks and celebrate the harvest with sacrifices to the moon on the autumn days. This tradition is said to be as old as the Zhou Dynasty between 1046 and 256 BC.

In recent years, a more romantic story has gained traction. A long time ago, ten suns had risen in the heavens and it was causing hardships for the people. An archer, known only as Yi, shot down nine of the suns, and as a reward he was given an elixir of immortality. However, Yi didn’t consume the elixir because he didn’t want to become immortal without his wife Chang E. One day, when Yi was hunting, Fengmeng broke into his house, and forced Chang E to give up the elixir. When she refused Fengmeng threatened her, so to keep the elixir safe she drank it herself and flew towards the heavens, choosing the moon as her new residence. When Yi came home and heard of what happened, he was inconsolable –  he found the fruits and cakes that his wife loved and put them forward to her. It’s possible this story is actually the origin of the sacrifices to the moon.

Customs

One of the most popular customs around the Mid-Autumn festival is eating moon cakes. Moon cakes come in many shapes and sizes, and with a variety of fillings. Everything from fruits, nuts, bean paste, coffee, chocolate and flowers. The cakes are round, symbolizing the reunion of a family. Eating a round moon cake under a round moon makes the Chinese long for their friends and family. Today, presenting moon cakes to friends and family is a way to wish them a long and happy life.

On this day, Chinese families gather to gaze at the moon, which is rounder than at any other time of the year. They get together and express their yearnings towards the friends and family who live far away.

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By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

The Legend of the Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Jie (端午节) is a National Holiday in China, and is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month following the traditional lunar calendar. This year, the festival falls on June 20th.

The English name “Dragon Boat Festival” translates directly to Longchuan Jie (龙船节) which is also its name on the Chinese mainland. The name Duanwu Jie is more commonly used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The date of the festival, according to the lunar calendar, 5/5 is also the source of its alternative name, the “Double Fifth Festival”.

While there are a few different origin stories for this holiday, in most parts of China the festival is said to commemorate the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (屈原). During the Warring States period of Ancient China, Qu Yuan worked as a minister in the ancient Chinese State of Chu. During this period, there were seven warring states, and Qu Yuan supported the decision to take up arms against the State of Qin, a formidable opponent. However, the King of Chu decided rather than fight and risk defeat, he would ally with the State of Qin.  When Qu Yuan publicly opposed the alliance, he was exiled and accused of treason.

Qu Yuan had such love for his country, that during his exile he wrote countless poems about his home country. Twenty-eight years later, the state of Qin captured Yin–the capital city of the state of Chu–and, in despair Qu Yuan threw himself into the river and drowned himself.

The legend says the local people admired him so much, they raced out in their boats to try to save Qu Yuan, or at least retrieve his body. They couldn’t find his body, so they threw balls of sticky rice into the water with hopes the fish would eat the rice instead of the body of their beloved poet. The race to retrieve his body is said to be the origin of the actual dragon boat races; the sticky rice balls (zongzi, or 粽子) have since become a Chinese delicacy eaten during the holiday. There are varying English names for this traditional Chinese food, including Dragon Dumplings and Glutinous Sticky Rice Balls. They are often wrapped in leaves and sold in supermarkets, on the street, and in specialty stores, where they prepare gourmet zongzi of various tastes and flavors.

In modern-day China, the festival is celebrated in some places by racing dragon boats and eating zongzi. It is also believed to be a time to strengthen your body, cleaning your house, and doing what you can to prevent getting sick during the hot summer. This is done by hanging mugwort leaves and calamus in the house, and wearing small perfume pouches that protect children from evil. In metropolitan cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, you are less likely to see many of these customs and traditions. But they’re still very much alive in more traditional rural cities.

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

Photo credit: Tolbzela (Flickr) | License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

City Profile: Chongqing, Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing (重庆) is regarded as the industrial capital of Southwest China. With a population of just under 30 million people, Chongqing Municipality is the most populous of the four direct-controlled municipalities in China. An ancient regional trade center, Chongqing today is still a major manufacturing and transportation hub. But, don’t let that scare you off—despite being known as an industrial city, Chongqing is extremely pleasant and livable, with parks and green areas all over the city.

Chongqing has a long standing historical background—the city dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period—around 316 BC. At the time the city was known as Jiangzhou; its current name was given to the city in 1189 with the crowning of Prince Zhao Dun, who described his crowning as a “double celebration”, the literal meaning of “Chongqing”.

Regarded as one of the “Four Furnaces” of China, Chongqing has an incredibly hot and humid summer. Temperatures reach the high 30’s and the humidity is often more than 80%. At other times of the year, however, the climate is characterized by mild winters, and warm spring and fall seasons.

Unlike most big cities in China, Chongqing is considered to be a sprawling countryside, rather than a city. The lifestyle isn’t as hectic and stressful as coastal mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Unlike many of the Tier I cities, Chongqing has remained affordable to live in. Eating local Chinese food is inexpensive, and a good meal will cost as little as CNY 7 (just over $1). Taxis are also affordable for getting around downtown, and the city’s thirteen districts are well connected by four major subway lines. Access to long distance buses, train stations and the airport are all convenient and cheap. A trip across the city on the subway, will set you back less than CNY 10.

The people in Chongqing don’t usually speak Mandarin, but rather a distinct dialect called 重庆话 (Chongqing hua) or Chongqing Language. It’s a local dialect similar to that spoken in Chengdu and across Sichuan province, also called “Sichuanese”. It’s common for Chinese who speak Mandarin to not fully understand people in Chongqing, and vice versa.

Chongqing is also home to the famous “hot pot” or 火锅 (huǒguō), a selection of sliced meats, fish, and vegetables, typically served in a very spicy (hot) broth. The name hot pot (literally: fire pan) comes from the spicy peppers. While hotpot is the most famous cuisine in Chongqing, you’ll find a lot of interesting and varied food in this mountain city. Their love for spicy food is apparent, but restaurants are nice enough to ask foreigners if they can handle the heat—they’ll prepare a toned-down version of the dish for those who aren’t fond of spice. In Chongqing you’ll also find 小面 “xiǎo miàn or small noodles” and other delicious and spicy foods such as 串串 ” chuàn chuàn” and 干锅 “gān guō or Dry Pot”.

Being a modern city, you’ll also find plenty of western-style restaurants and coffee shops, along with a variety of western supermarkets where you can buy imported food. If you buy a lot of food at once you can go to Metro; plus, one of the biggest IKEA’s in China opened just last year. You can buy Scandinavian furniture for your apartment, or enjoy traditional Swedish meatballs! For shopping and nightlife, most people find their way to Jie Fang Bei or Guan Yin Qiao where you’ll find a myriad of western restaurants, bars and places to kick back and relax.

Chongqing is the kind of city that mixes a little bit of everything. There’s a great mix of business and pleasure within each district, and though some parts feel a bit like a concrete jungle, you can also find quiet parks that overlook the rivers and give you amazing views at night. Chongqing has an eclectic blend of lifestyles—old and new China living side-by-side. It’s common to see business people wearing crisp suits on their morning commute walking alongside the street vendors and 老百姓 “laobaixing, or common people”. It’s a “big, small city”—it has everything without having too much of anything. Chongqing has a friendly spirit and strikes a perfect balance of old and new, making it an amazing city to live, work, and play.

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By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

Hotpot and Xiaomian: Two of Chongqing’s Amazing Foods

Chongqing hotpot
Chongqing hotpot

I don’t normally eat spicy food, so it may seem strange that I moved to Chongqing where the food is mostly full of peppers and fiery. I didn’t move to Chongqing because of the incredible food culture, rather because it was simply where life took me at the time. I have since then experienced the signature mouth-burns that can follow from a Chinese hotpot (火锅) meal and the more subtle and soothing spicy taste of the local xiaomian (小面), which literally translated means “small noodles”.

When I went to my first hot pot restaurant in Chongqing, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I knew the basics about what hot pot is: a big bowl of spicy broth over an open flame—which you put raw vegetables and meat in to boil—then dig out with chopsticks and eat. It’s typically a social and communal meal, meaning that many people will around the same table and eat together. I recall sitting at a grand table with friends all around, everyone snatching food from the pot with their chopsticks. After just one bite, my mouth was on fire.

It’s not just foreigners who suffer from sweats and burns when we eat hot pot, the Chinese can’t always handle it, either. Many hotpot restaurants now offer different grades of spiciness to cater to as many customers as possible. It’s definitely an experience, and a “must try” while in Chongqing, but for the most part I’d rather leave this kind of extreme spice for friends and colleagues with a more adventurous palette than I have.

Another famous local food in Chongqing is xiaomian. Thinking it was a fad, I avoided it at first; everyone wouldn’t stop talking about how delicious it is. Finally, after trying a bowl of “small noodles”, I could taste what all the fuss was about. There is a small kitchen near my school; not quite a restaurant, it’s just a small room with tables and chairs, and a kitchen in the back. It’s become the “go-to” spot for me and my colleagues.

Chongqing xiaomian
Chongqing xiaomian

While hotpot can be a bit pricy by Chinese standards (about CNY 300-400 for four people), a bowl of xiaomian is usually just around CNY 5 (less than $1!). One bowl will completely fill you up, and though the taste is spicy, there’s no lingering burning sensation in your mouth. It’s quick, tastes great, and isn’t completely unhealthy. My colleagues and I have a 2-hour lunch break on weekends—after a bowl of xiaomian we usually have another 90 minutes to sit, talk, relax, or take a nap. It’s perfect.

I do enjoy hotpot occasionally, and believe it or not, the spice is easier to handle if you’re in good company. If there are a few 外国人 (wai guo ren, or foreigners) at the table, the waitress will usually ask how spicy to make the hotpot. We usually aim for something moderate—between drop-dead spicy and plain water. With a nice, cool beverage, and a little sauce to neutralize the spice, hot pot can be a very enjoyable and social meal, even for who don’t like spicy food.

If you ever pass through Chongqing, these are two foods that you absolutely must try. Thankfully that’s easy to do, because you can find hotpot and xiaomian restaurants on nearly every street corner in Chongqing!

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here