Our Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival Banquet (By Joan Huang, 10/1/2020)

We’re in the middle of heat wave in Altadena, near 100 degree. It’s “Mid-Autumn” on calendar, but feels like “Mid-Summer”. Today is the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, the moon is the roundest and brightest, and I am preparing for a special dinner for this Chinese festival. The story of “Chang’e Flying to the Moon” is not only a well-known story in China, it has now spread all over the world. Recently my niece Huang Leilei (who grew up in the UK) also talked to me about Chang’e. She remembered that when she was a child, one of the bedtime stories I told her was the love story between the moon goddess Chang’e and her archer husband Houyi.  And a  couple weeks ago she introduced me the upcoming animation movie Over the Moon (to be released by Netflix) is about a girl named Feifei who built her own rocket and flew to the moon to meet Chang’e.   The pronunciation of Feifei in the movie and my niece Leilei is very similar. My Shanghai-born niece Leilei has a strong interest in the traditional Chinese customs. I heard that tonight she and her British fiancé are going to her mother’s house to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with her mother (my sister) and her grandma (my mother). They will be eating moon cakes and looking at the moon to commemorate the birthday of her great grandma (my grandma). 

Today is the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (also called Chinese Moon Festival).  It is a very special and memorable day, because my maternal grandmother’s birthday is on Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival on August 15th in the Chinese lunar calendar. Therefore, on every Mid-Autumn Festival, my mother always reminds us not forget to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday even she’s a no longer with us.

My grandmother’s name is Fang Lan Qing, she was from a scholastic family of “Yumizhixiang” (it means “the land of fertility [geographically and culturally]”)  in southern Anhui. Although she grew up in the feudalistic era of the “Three-inch Golden Lotus Foot Binding” , she was educated and was able to write the beautiful cursive calligraphy.

A Family Reunion During the Chinese Moon Festival

the name my great-grandfather gave my grandma is profound and poetic. Lan, in Chinese, means Blue; Qing, in Chinese, means Indigo.  There was a Chinese proverb: “Indigo blue is extract from the indigo plant, but is bluer than the plant it comes from”.  It is metaphorical: meaning students are taught by their teachers, but they are better than teachers.  My grandmother was eclectic, blue and indigo. When we were in Shanghai, every Mid-Autumn Festival was always celebrated at our grandmother’s house. On the one hand, it was to celebrate grandma’s birthday, and on the other hand, it was the temptation for a good feast. Festival banquets were always rare in the era of material poverty.  In addition to the sumptuous Mid-Autumn Festival dinner: soy sauced duck, ginger and scallion crab, lotus root short rib soup, etc., adults also drank sweet-scented osmanthus wine and children ate sweet taros and salted edamame.  Eating mooncakes while watching the bright moon is the finale.  My uncle’s family and our family are reunited at grandma’s house almost every Sunday.  But the Moon Festival for my grandmother’s birthday is even more of a joyous festival to wish her a longevity.

Our Chinese Moon Festival Banquet in the past.

Indeed, every holiday season, I miss my family. I remembered the scene of separation when I left Shanghai 34 years ago: I just got a master’s degree in composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and immediately I was accepted by UCLA as a PhD candidate in composition.  I wouldn’t miss the good opportunity for furthering my education.  I remember vividly that special day, when I left Shanghai for the United States, my grandmother was already in her late 80s and she was blind. Reluctantly, she was helped by the nanny and tremblingly fumbled the stairs down from the third floor to see me off at the gate.  At that time, China was still very poor. In order to facilitate me to go abroad, my parents’ savings over the years were not enough to buy me a ticket to the United States. Thanks to the help of relatives and friends, I was able to fly to the United States as I wished. Of course I understand that time was my farewell to my grandmother. Seeing grandma’s in tears, I couldn’t help crying like a baby. The airplane ticket was so expensive then. My parents almost bankrupted to purchase me a plane ticket. The first time I returned from the United States to visit my family in China was seven years later.  My grandmother had already left the world by then.

Since I came to the United States, in order to remembered my grandma, I almost celebrated the Moon Festival every year.  Even in the poorest and most lonely days of my school days, I would take a bite of a mooncake to dream the reunion with my family in China.  

The following is the video of Chinese country chef Ziqi Li who makes moon cakes:

Ziqi Li is making Chinese Moon Cake.

The following video was about celebrating Chinese Mid-Moon Festival, sung by Mr. Jiang Yuequan and Ms. Zhu Huizhen in 1961. Mr. Jiang was the founder of the famous Pingtan master “Jiang Tunes”.  The characteristics of Pingtan include gentle “wuyu” (a Suzhou dialect) and highly embellished melodies.  It is sung by a vocalist accompanying himself or herself with either a “sanxian” or a “pipa” (both are plucked instruments).  

During my childhood in Shanghai, we shared the kitchen and the bathroom with Mr. Jiang’s family in an alley in the French Concession.   Mr. Jiang’s 3 granddaughters used to be my playmates, now they are among my best friends.

An Alley in Old Shanghai.

The breeze and the moon are free, and it has brought endless imaginations to impoverished Chinese poets of the past dynasties.  How many poems of moon inspired poems are there in the Chinese literature history?  Hundreds and thousand.  One of the most famous poems was written by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi’s “Shui Diao Ge Tou” (1076).  This poem has been 944 years and passed from one generation to another generation for centuries.  I learned this poem when I was a child, I can still recite it in Chinese by heart:

“When did the bright moon first appear?
One raises a cup and asks the blue sky.
One does not know, in the celestial palaces,
what year it is this evening.

I wish to ride the wind and return there,
yet fear the jade towers;
in a high dwelling one cannot bear the cold.
Starting to dance with one's clear shadow -
what else resembles the mortal world?

Revolving around the red pavilion,
lowering to a silk-work door,
it shines upon the sleepless.
It should not have resentment;
why is it always full at times of separation?

People have sorrows, joys, parting and reunions,
the moon is dark, bright, waxes or wanes;
these problems have have been this way since ancient times.
Yet one hopes for longevity;
a thousand miles apart, 
together seeing the moon's beauty.”

I found a symphonic work by Qigang Chen (the French modern composer Olivier Messian’s student) on Youtube, the piece was based on this very Su Shi’s we’ll-known poem. 

There is another version of Su Shi’s Shui Diao Ge Tou, a popular song version sung by the Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng:

In 1994, my Legend of Chang’e (for violin and marimba), which I was inspired by the Moon Festival, won the first prize in the “1994 Marimolin International Composition Competition”, premiered by the marvelous Sharan Leventhal and Nancy Zeltsman.  

Here’s the description about my piece:

The Legend of Chang-e is based on an ancient Chinese story which tells about the goddess of the moon named Chang-e. She was the wife of the archer Hou Yi, who had received the elixir of immortality from Xi-wang-mu who was the “Queen Mother” and lived in the legendary Kunlun Mountains. When Hou Yi was away, his wife swallowed the elixir and became immortal. Then she flew to the moon, where she resided in a place called today the “Palace of the Far-reaching Cold”. Hou Yi tried to follow Chang-e, but he failed. Then he took residence in the sun. Until today, every family in China holds reunions on the night of Mid- autumn Festival each year, tasting moon cakes, watching the bright full moon and thinking of Chang-e. 

In this duet, I try to translate the quality and the sense of Chinese music by applying great variety in articulation and dynamics, constant change of instrumental colors, diverse kinds of tone inflections, asymmetrical rhythmic patterns and other imitations of characteristic of Chinese traditional music. In order to describe the dramatic features of the legend, my effort is to make two instruments cast two contrasting images, ——the beautiful and delicate Chang-e (represented by the violin) and the heroic and robust Hou Yi (represented by the marimba). For example, a turmoil with clamorous sounds in section A are suddenly thrust into a peaceful pentatonic melody with an oriental atmosphere in section B. The harmonic language of the piece is based on the vertical collections of the horizontal pentatonic modes. Bi-modality between two instruments is used to create rich textures and complex sonorities. Therefore the simplicity of the horizontal lines contrasts with the complexity of the vertical combinations. “

Joan Huang: The Legend of Chang-e (1994): At the beginning of this piece it described the intense scene of Hou Yi (the archer) shooting down 9 Suns on the earth with a bow and arrow. Then, gradually, the beautiful Chang’e appeared…

Later, until I got married in the United States, I had my own home to practice my skills in culinary art.  It is natural to celebrate all Chinese Festivals.  Every Mid-Autumn Festival, we always invited family members, relatives and friends to our home to share the banquets, to watch the moon while eating moon cakes.

Table Setting for Our Chinese Mid-Moon Festival

This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival is different from previous years. The Gengzi Year (in Chinese superstitious ideology) is a really a disaster year: the first wave of the epidemic has not yet subsided, and the second wave, coupled with the spread of mountain fires and frequent earthquakes, is indeed “the moon is dark, bright, waxes or wanes” as Su Shi described in his famous poem. I feel like have become the Chang’e in the Moon Palace. Our dog Gigi acts like the Jade Rabbit to accompany me by. my side. I’m spending this special holiday with Bill alone at home, enjoy the happiness and excitement in solitude. The United States is a multi-ethnic country, and the holidays are recurrent one after another, which add a lot of fun in a lengthy “social-distancing” periods. The internet is the “GOD” which connects our emotions with families friends all over the world.

I browsed the Internet casually, for the local availabilities, I chose the “Maya Legend”s recipes and I’m going to vary a little bit.

1) Crab sautéed rice cakes: California’s fat crabs are well-known, and they are definitely not inferior to Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs in China.

2) Cumin lamb chops: Costco sells Australian lamb chops, with cumin and rosemary and other condiments, baked in the oven, the flavor is excellent!

3) Roast duck: I just go to the local “San Woo BBQ” to buy ready-made roast duck, it is Bill’s favorite.

4) Eggplant Braised with TriColored Sweet Peppers: purple Japanese eggplants and sweet peppers are in season in our vegetable garden, with red, green, yellow and sweet.

5) Colorful miscellaneous mushroom soup: a soup made from various mushrooms, and the eyebrows are also lost.

6) Maxim’s Icy Mooncakes: Although it’s autumn, our Southern California is plenty hot, feel like summer, and the Icy mooncakes are refreshing and soothing.

Today is another beautiful day when the moon is full and flowers are blooming. There are abundant varieties of moon cakes displayed in the “99 Supermarket” in Arcadia. Osmanthus flowers are in full bloom, densely thronged, they’re yellow as gold, and the unique fragrant smell dilutes the residual bad smell of Bobcat Wildfire which has burned for more than 3 weeks. Sitting in the garden, a bright and round moon appeared among dense towering palm trees and orange trees in the east. We drank chrysanthemum tea and ate moon cakes facing the moon, as if we saw my beloved grandma, and also saw the images of Chang’e’s elegant dancing, Jade Rabbit’s pounding medicine with a mortal and pestle, Wu Gang’s chopping the osmanthus tree with endless toil on the moon.  These images are all from the folklore I learned when I was child…Autumn Moon is the roundest and brightest…Facing the moon, I got the inspiration: I’m going to start my next Autumn Composition: Bobcat Inferno……

Lastly, here’s another clip about the family reunion dinner at the Mid-Autumn Festival in the coming movie Over the Moon, I use it to end my blog.

Hope the brightest and roundest moon of the year will bring us luck on November 3rd!🙏🙏🙏

Published by Joan Huang

I'm a freelance composer living in bucolic Altadena, the suburb of Los Angeles. Besides music making, I love cooking, drinking wines with friends, gardening, hiking and traveling.

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