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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Chin

Mid-Autumn: Why on this night?

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Moonlight over Clementi Rail Bridge

Finally, 15th day of the 8th moon – Mid-Autumn Festival.  The moon a beautiful yellow orb. The moon cakes set out with tea. The children traipsing around the garden with their lanterns.

The children want to know why. Why on this night we eat these pastry crusted cakes. Why we walk around with lanterns. Why we sing these silly songs – to the jade rabbit, the lady Chang E?

What do I tell them?

That the cakes and the lanterns commemorate a revolution, blood and war?  That once upon a time, in a place they’ve never been, barbarians ruled and their ancestors suffered? That willing hearts had to be won and lives offered before the invaders could be driven from the land?

Do I point to the baked casings of the ceremonial cakes and show our children how the words and cartoons moulded on the top were messages to send good men to their death? Do I let them know that on the day itself, the citizens poured out onto the streets, their hearts and lanterns afire?  Do I describe how the citadel was stormed? That the streets were slick with blood and the air heavy with the smell of burning flesh?

What’s the moral of this tale? That after we’ve been satiated with blood, there’s the comfort of sugar and lard? That it’s inevitable lives must be sacrified for the greater good?  I’m not sure I agree.

As for the beautiful Lady Chang E and how she ended up there on the moon. Well, as with all good stories, this begins with conflict. The gods were jealous of men, so they sent down ten suns to sear the earth. While the earth was saved by Chang E’s heroic husband Hou Yi, who shot nine of the ten suns down and was awarded a pill of immortality, they don’t live happily ever after.  Jealousy intrudes again, this time in the form of Hou Yi’s apprentice, who hankers after both the pill of immortality and his master’s lovely wife.  Trying to protect the pill, Chang E swallows it, and is miraculously transformed. Her body becomes lighter and lighter, and eventually floats up to the moon. And there she stays, pining for her husband, forever.

In this story, there’s no reward for Hou Yi the heroic, and his faithful wife gets nothing but exile. This is a story about the randomness of fate, how you cannot win unless it’s originally written in the stars. It’s about envy and jealousy, between gods and men, between men and men.  I’d like to believe my gods are less capricious, the world subject to laws of cause and effect.  I’d like to believe life is not just a matter of someone envying me for what I have, beating me down because they don’t have it.

What about the jade rabbit then – that cuddly companion who keeps Lady Chang E’s loneliness at bay.  The jade rabbit was one of a threesome of animals who’d promised to live in love and compassion all their days. But as with fairy tales, there could not be a happily ever after without a miserable before. A deity decides to put them to the test by wandering into their forest home and proclaiming to be extremely hungry.  Of course, no food can be found. The rabbit then asks the deity to build a fire, and offers to hurl himself into it from an overhanging stone, thus sacrificing himself to feed the hungry guest. The deity is so impressed, he installs the rabbit up on the moon permanently as a reward.

I can’t help being suspicious of what this story might encourage young ones to do. To make incredible sacrifices for suspect causes? To jump without considering the consequences? And a part of my thinks resentfully, what say did the poor rabbit have? Did he really want to live on the moon? Mightn’t he be happier down there in his forest with his other friends?

I know, I know, I think too much. I should just chuck these myths, eat my mooncakes, stare at the moon and get on with my poetry. Yes, poetry … food for the soul, ambrosia for the spirit.

On this night, a short classic – Li Bai‘s Thoughts on a still night

Bright moonlight before my bed Seems like frost upon the floor; I raise my head and watch the moon, Then lower it down and think of home (Translated Christopher Evans)

静夜思 Jìng yè sī

床前明月光, Chuáng qián míng yuè, 疑是地上霜。 Yí shì dì shàng shuāng. 举头望明月 Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè, 低头思故乡 Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

Again, this one isn’t easy to translate to children. It has so many layers underneath the obvious, that Li Bai woke up, looked at the frost on the ground, looked at the moon, and thought of home.  There’s the loneliness of Li Bai’s experience as a migrant to the Tang Chinese capital in Chang An from his birthplace in in Xin Jiang on the Western Chinese border. There’s court politices, scholarly competition.  There’s the problem of Li Bai’s alcoholism and louche lifestyle.

The essence of the poem though is simple. We are all travellers. We are all longing for home.  The moon shines on every place, far and near. Regardless of where you or I or our enemy is standing, it is the same moon that shines on us and blesses us, that brings home back to us…

This, I think, I can share with the children.

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