Homesick under mid-autumn moon

By Pauline D Loh/ China Daily Europe / Sept 9, 2016

Poet Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) captured the poignancy of the wanderer pining for home in this famous poem. The feelings he described are truest when the moon is full, but when the mid-autumn moon shines, they can get especially intense.

The Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which is Sept 15 this year.

Symbolic of the mid-autumn season are mooncakes, those round, sweet pastries that reflect the reason for the festivities.

There are various, oft-told tales about mooncakes, but one relatively little-known story related to mid-autumn involves homesick soldiers, a compassionate general, six dice in a porcelain bowl and 63 mooncakes.

It was during the early days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The military remnants of the toppled Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) had retreated to Fujian province, where they looked toward the island of Taiwan as a base and refuge. But first, they had to fight the Dutch, who had occupied the island and named it Formosa.

Zheng Chenggong was the leader of this motley but desperate band and he led his men in a long siege on the Dutch. His fleet eventually wiped out the soldiers from Holland and the island was finally his. That’s the brief background.

But during that long and weary process of laying siege, his men were often homesick and demoralized, especially during traditional festivals.

That was when a general under his command came up with the idea of throwing a party during Mid-Autumn Festival. Well, once you have a party, you had to have food, drink and party games.

And so the mooncake game was invented.

It is called bobing in Chinese, meaning “gaming for mooncakes”. The idea is to have no more than 10 people or no fewer than six gathered around a table where a large porcelain bowl was placed. They all took turns throwing six dice into the bowl, and the winner of each round was rewarded with a certain number of pastries.

The grand prize was an enormous wheel of a mooncake known as the zhuangyuan cake, named after the highest scorer on the old imperial examinations to recruit civil servants.

All in all, there were 63 cakes to be won over several rounds, so everyone at the table could get at least a prize or two to take home. The excitement and rowdiness of the game helped chase away the homesick blues.

In fact, soon after, the war was won and Zheng and his army took over Taiwan, where their descendants flourished. It was not until his grandson’s generation that the Qing army forced them into submission.

In Fujian, Zheng is still a folk hero idolized for his courage and persistence. On the island of Gulangyu just opposite Xiamen city, there is an imposing statue of him glaring across the water toward Taiwan. The locals say he is a guardian god so forceful that he scares away typhoons heading toward Xiamen. Read more…

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