The commercial ovens in one Winona State University (WSU) kitchen will fire up to bake an unusual treat this weekend: hundreds of ornately molded, bean- or fruit-filled pastries called moon cakes, which are the icon of the Chinese Moon Festival. A group of Chinese students from WSU and Saint Mary's University will host the feast and present cultural performances for the holiday.
Photo by Chris Rogers
. Members of the WSU Chinese Club tried on traditional clothes while preparing for the group's Moon Festival event this Saturday. Traditional food, ancient stories, and modern performances are intermingled in the so-called "Chinese Thanksgiving."
Chinese-Americans often equate the Moon Festival to Thanksgiving in explaining it to people in the U.S. The holiday, which is also celebrated in Vietnam and the South Pacific, is part family gathering, part harvest celebration, part ancient legend, and part American Idol.
"The Moon Festival is about families getting together," explained WSU international student Xuanyuan Zhang. As a boy, celebrating the festival with his family in China "was always exciting," Zhang continued. "I had an uncle who lived far away and the Moon Festival was the only time I would see him." Families have a big feast, eat moon cakes, and then watch television or live performances similar to American variety shows. WSU Chinese Club members practiced dance routines in a small rehearsal space on campus, preparing for live performances to follow the Moon Festival feast.
For international students from China, celebrating the Moon Festival is an opportunity to bring a piece of home to Winona and to proudly showcase their heritage. The Moon Festival is all about getting together with family, "but international students do not have family," so it is really meaningful for Chinese students to celebrate the holiday together, Zhang said.
"Since we are far away from home we are a little bit homesick," explained WSU junior Yujie Wang. It makes us feel better and reminds us of home to celebrate.
"This is important in Chinese culture," and it feels good "to make other American students aware of our culture," said WSU sophomore Yanwen Shun.
The legend of Chang'e
The festival is also about "appreciating the moon" and its role in traditional Chinese culture, Shun explained. The Moon Festival traces its origins to the ancient story of Chang'e.
There are several different retellings of the story of Chang'e, the peasant wife turned moon goddess, all of which involve tragic self-sacrifice by Chang'e and her husband's saving the world
Once upon a time, as WSU students retold the legend, there was a beautiful woman, Chang'e, and her husband, Hou Yi, who was a great archer. The river god lusted after Chang'e, and when she snubbed him, he flew into a rage and created nine extra suns to circle the earth. The suns burned up crops in fields and nearly killed everyone. The only way to save his people, Hou Yi decided, was to shoot out the extra suns with his bow. So everyday, Hou Yi struggled to practice his cosmic archery. Then, as a taunt, the river god sent Hou Yi an exilir that would make him immortal. "You will never be able to shoot out the suns, but you could drink this elixir and escape this miserable planet to live alone forever on the moon," the river god sneered.
Hou Yi was very discouraged, and Chang'e decided she was a distraction from her husband's important task. In order to let her husband focus on archery, according to the legend, she drank the elixir and became a moon goddess. Inspired by his wife's sacrifice and apparently more focused, Hou Yi succeeded in shooting down the nine suns and saving humanity.
The gods are so moved they agree to let Hou Yi and Chang'e reunite once a year, on the Moon Festival, when all the people celebrate with a feast in Chang'e's honor.
The WSU Chinese Club's Moon Festival is at 7 p.m. on Saturday in the East Hall of Kryzsko Commons. A feast of Chinese food and moon cakes will be followed by a variety show. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.