Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy September 11th!

Happy? No, of course not, but here in China--this year--it is sandwiched between Teacher's Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. In fact, for me it is already Monday, a national holiday....which I discuss at length in the second half of this post.

While I refuse to discuss Taiwan policy per se, Tibet politics, or Falun Gong (which originated here in Changchun), I did have a fascinating conversation yesterday about propaganda with one of my classes. It seems that a large number of Chinese, of all ages and walks of life, believe that the US government had adequate warning of the planned attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001 and decided to do nothing. These theorists see the orderly collapsing of the buildings in on themselves as evidence of a conspiracy, perhaps providing the US an excuse to go to war with Afghanistan. Why? Because of oil, one student claimed--conflating the strategic goals in Kuwait and Iraq.

The conversation then moved to the idea that Koreans are taught in school that Confucius was Korean. (The root of this tale seems to be that an ancestor of Confucius went to Korea and lived there so he can be said to have a Korean ancestor.)

It seems also to be a universally understood fact that the Koreans want to expropriate "intangible cultural heritage" by claiming the Dragon Boat Festival as theirs. The idea that two nations could have festivals comprising vastly different traditions, but the same name, was unthinkable.

There is a joke about Koreans that every schoolchild in China seems to know. I cited this as an example of subtle propaganda. The joke is that in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, Korea sent a five-person rescue team with two rescue dogs. One of the dogs wandered off so, instead of helping, the team spent the day looking for the dog. The implication of the joke is that the dog was eaten. One of my students told me emphatically that because dog is a specialty dish in Korea it is just common-sense that the Koreans were the first people to eat dog. She was shocked when I revealed that there is evidence that people in certain parts of China people were eating dog 900 years prior to the Koreans.

Finally, it was said that Japanese textbooks assert sovereignty over the Pinnacle Islands (also called Senkaku Shotō by the Japanese and Diàoyútái Qúndǎo by the Chinese) and that this is a serious issue. While this is tangentially a Taiwan issue, what I found stunning was how a complex issue, involving interpretation of a post-WWII treaty, has been boiled down in the minds of most Chinese citizens to a supposedly brazen attempt at brainwashing Japanese children by means of "incorrect" geography textbooks.

More about Today's Moon Festival

Shops selling mooncakes before the festival often
display pictures of Chang'e floating to the moon.
Traditionally on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon, and eat moon cakes and pomelos under the moon together. They honor Chang'e by burning incense. Chang'e is the lady in the moon, who is much like the Western notion of a man in the moon. She is the Chinese goddess of the moon and plays a significant role in Chinese literature, including:

  •  a Chinese TV period drama titled Moon Fairy, starring Singapore actors Fann Wong and Christopher Lee.
  • Chang'e appears in Wu Cheng'en's novel Journey to the West and also TV adaptions of the novel. Her story slightly changed from her going to the Moon on her first try to going to the heavens, and would later be rewarded to live in the Moon after an incident which involved her and Zhu Bajie.
  • Mao Zedong mentions Chang'e in his most famous poem, Broken is the High Column, about his first wife Yang Kaihui, who perished at the hands of the Kuomintang warlord He Jian.
  • The legend of Lady Chang-O plays a prominent role in Amy Tan's children's book, The Moon Lady, retold from her more adult novel The Joy Luck Club.

Accompanying the celebration, there are additional cultural or regional customs, such as:
  • Erect the Mid-Autumn Festival.(树中秋,竖中秋,in China,树 and 竖 are homophones)Traditional people hang lanterns on a bamboo pole and put them on a high point, such as a roof, tree, terrace, etc. It is a custom in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, etc. In fact, they even float them into the air which is a fire hazard that has been banned in many modern cities (though not Changchun, I understand).

  • Collecting dandelion leaves and distributing them evenly among family members, according to Wikipedia, as well as wearing pomelo rinds on their heads, according to CCTV; and 

  • Fire Dragon Dances

The best part of the festival is the moon-cakes. Whole shops crop up for a week and vendors pepper the streets pedaling these sweet concoctions. I have eaten a half dozen different flavors. The most traditional is filled with red beans and pine nuts. I had a corn one and a strawberry one yesterday. Many people don't like them.

I am still on a search for one made with blue-cheese filling. There has got to be a market there!

I will spend the evening with my girlfriend and her family. I may spend a few hours watching them cook and prepare. I will go bearing a pomelo, some mooncakes, and sundry other fruits. It should be great fun.

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