On the last day of summer 2018, elementary and middle school students at The New Century School got a very special treat. In honor of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival coming up on Monday, September 24th, they spent Chinese class making the traditional Chinese “mooncake.”
Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival
The Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiū Jié [中秋节]) is a harvest festival, dating back many millennia as far as the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). It is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, thus always on a full (harvest) moon. (Note that, although the day is always the same on the lunar calendar, the date will vary on the Gregorian calendar used in the United States, corresponding to late September or early October.)
TNCS Lead Mandarin teacher Wei Li (“Li Laoshi”) explained that making and sharing mooncakes is one of the most representative and best-loved traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival: “It is a time to be together with your family. We gather to watch the moon and eat special food,” she said.
Her faithful assistant for the day’s cooking session, Qin (known to the TNCS community as “Monica”) Li gave a similar account:
On the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the moon is especially round. A Chinese tradition is to bring mooncakes and sit outside with all the family. Together, they appreciate the round moon and eat mooncakes, which are also round. Circles represent union, so the round mooncakes symbolize family reunion. Most people in China get 3 days off so they have time to return home if they have been away on business. Since I cannot go to China on Monday, I’m going to make mooncakes and eat them with my friends.
Because a round shape symbolizes completeness and reunion in Chinese culture, the mooncake tradition signifies the completeness and unity of the families who enjoy them together.
There are many varieties of mooncakes, including baked or steamed and with all manner of sweet fillings and combinations. TNCS students made a steamed version using the following basic steps:
- Mix flour (wheat, rice, etc.) with water to make dough.
- Shape it into a ball.
- Place in foil and roll it out in a smooth circle.
- Add filling in the center of the flat dough circle.
- Return to a ball shape, keeping the filling inside.
- Stamp with a special, symbolic pattern (see photos below).
- Steam for 30 minutes.
This video shows how Li Laoshi provides instructions in Mandarin, and students follow them easily. During activities such as this, in which students are absorbed mentally and physically (even through their senses), it all comes together, and their fluency increases by leaps and bounds. They comprehend without translating—they are thinking and doing in Mandarin.
Although cooking Chinese dishes—especially the ever-popular dumplings—is fairly common in TNCS Chinese class, this is the first time Li Laoshi has attempted mooncakes with her students. She explains why, this year, she felt it was the right time:
Recently, I was missing my family and felt homesick for China. But I have my students, I have my colleagues, I have my friends, so I feel so happy about that. That’s why I wanted to introduce it to students this year—we have all been enjoying ourselves and this special time together. It has been a lot of fun, and it’s a very meaningful experience.
Monica felt it was important also: “It’s a very special tradition in Chinese culture. I think kids should learn and explore the culture to better understand China.” The beautiful, traditional stamp patterns below indicate what the mooncake is filled with or what it represents.
Students and faculty alike enjoyed their red-bean-paste filled delicacies.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone!