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Homesick under mid-autumn moon

By Pauline D Loh | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-09-11 14:53

 Homesick under mid-autumn moon

Mooncakes are symbolic of the mid-autumn season. Photos by Chai Shijue / For China Daily

Editor's note: To understand China, sit down to eat. Food is the indestructible bond that holds the whole social fabric together and it is also one of the last strong visages of community and culture.

Moonlight on the bedstead

Lights up like frost on the ground

Lifting my head at the moon

I drop my chin and think of home.

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.

He has also left another lasting legacy.

The mooncake game is still played in Fujian today and has become an intangible cultural heritage.

My grandfather left Fujian almost a century ago and emigrated to Singapore. Perhaps it is also to assuage his own homesickness, but I remember him bringing me to the clan association to play bobing during mid-autumn.

I was too young to understand the meaning or how the game was played, but I do remember gaping at the size of the largest mooncake I had ever seen.

During the turbulent decades that followed the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the mooncake game almost all but disappeared in China, being part of the "obsolete customs" that were to be so determinedly abolished.

In the past few years, however, it has reclaimed its rightful place in the rich cultural landscape of the region and now even major hotels in Xiamen offer special banquets for mooncake games during the festive period, from the first day of the eighth lunar month until the full moon on the 15th day.

A soldiers' game. A general's brilliant idea to cheer up his troops. This is definitely more inspiring and meaningful than other seasonal stories like the fairytale of a moon maiden and her rabbit, or the unproven tale of mooncakes being used to pass secret messages of rebellion.

The mooncake game and how it's played

All the rewards in the game are divided into categories that correspond to the grades of the old imperial examinations.

The single top prize is named after the zhuangyuan, the top scholar.

There are two second prizes, four third prizes, eight fourth prizes, 16 fifth prizes, and finally 32 consolation prizes, adding up to a total of 63 prizes in all.

The game is now modernized to make it more exciting, with gifts for players instead of just mooncakes. But the gifts' value is still graded, just like the mooncakes of old.

Specific numbers reflect the old Chinese obsession with rank and rule. The number 63 is associated with a tribal chief, an honor conferred on Zheng Chenggong by his old boss, the Ming emperor.

Rules of the game:

First, a player, usually the most elderly or respected at the table, is elected to throw the first two dice. The total number on the dice, such as eight, indicates that the eighth person to his right will start the game.

Once this player has thrown his six dice, the game continues counterclockwise until everyone has had a turn. Then the points are tabulated to decide who wins this round, and the prize he gets.

Should someone throw a die so hard it bounces out of the bowl, he has to forfeit his turn until the next round.

Points are awarded according to how many fours are thrown.

One four-point die gets a consolation prize until all 32 are given out. Two four-points will get one of the 16 fifth prizes, three four-points get one of eight fourth prizes and so on.

The person who throws the first four four-point dice out of six usually gets the scholar prize, unless someone beats him to it with a higher score.

Of course, the whole idea is to have fun, to enjoy the full moon with family and friends and to add just a little competition and excitement to a meal that celebrates reunion.

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