Saturday, September 13, 2008

Happy Mooncake Gambling!

Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiūjié 中秋节), aka Moon Festival, on the 15th day of the 8th Luny month, is Xiàmén’s most festive occasion, thanks in part to our unique Mooncake Game.
You should know that the first person on the moon was not a man but a woman--not Neil Armstrong but Chang-O, a Chinese beauty who fled earth during to the Xià Dynasty (2205-1766 BC). During Moon Festival, worshippers of this Moon Goddess offer her moon-cakes, tea and fruit, and Hell money.

Before Moon Festival, people present mooncakes to family, friends, co-workers and bosses. In Táiwān’s private schools, teachers give mooncakes to students, and students reciprocate with a cash-stuffed Red Envelope—a practice XMU should adopt.

Girls used to believe that the later they went to sleep on Moon Festival Eve, the longer their mother would live, so many girls stayed up all night (I think I’d start worrying if my daughter yawned and turned in early that night).

Wealthy but unmarried girls past their prime used to throw an embroidered ball out their window into a crowd of single men who happened to be loitering about. She could choose whom to throw the ball to, and if he caught it he had to marry her.

If he didn’t live happily ever after, he at least had a ball.

In the evening, families reunite to eat mooncakes, drink wine, guess riddles, and in Southern Fújiàn and Táiwān, play the “mooncake game” that some say Koxinga invented to keep his homesick troops occupied after they kicked the Dutch out of Táiwān.

Moon-Cake Game players take turns tossing 6 mahjong dice into a bowl, taking care that none bounce out (or they lose a turn).

Prizes range from tiny cookies to medium and large mooncakes, with each representing an official position won in the ancient imperial exams. The one grand prize, Zhuàngyuán (状元), represents #1 scholar; Duìtáng (对堂) is #2 scholar; Sānhóng (三红) is #3 scholar, etc.

The green bean and egg and fruit stuffed mooncakes are not the tastiest concoctions but they are traditional, kind of like fruitcakes back home, which are more or less edible but serve better as doorstops, paperweights and hand weapons. Nowadays, many Chinese are replacing mooncakes with fruits, food, or practical items like towels, toothpaste, and detergent. Our family wins enough toothpaste each year to last out the year. If we ever miss Moon Festival, our dentist will be first to know.

The mooncake game is fun, even addicting. When our sons were small, they played all year, competing for cakes they had carefully drawn and cut from cardboard.

They were probably just as tasty as the real thing.

Mooncake game rules can be confusing. For example, even if you win the Zhuàngyuán, someone else can abscond with it by throwing a higher winning combination. But not to worry. The game is really a piece of cake. Just study the rules I provide on the next page and you can learn the ropes before your Chinese hosts hang you with them.

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