The Cakes That Saved China . . . and Launched a Dynasty

2013-09-18 — Good Characters (Leave a message)

Traditional Chinese Holiday: Mid-Autumn Festival (Thursday, September 19, 2013)

Pronounced joong chee-yoo, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the Moon Festival. It is celebrated not only in China and Taiwan, but also in Japan (月見), Korea (추석), and Vietnam (Tết Trung Thu).

Characters: Mid-autumn (joong chee-yoo)

You can celebrate it in your town by going to your favorite Chinese restaurant and enjoying a feast! It’s also a great time to have an evening BBQ under the bright full moon. It’s a time for get-togethers (月圓人團圓) with family and friends.

The Legend of the Mooncake [Festival]

In the 13th century, the Mongol Empire (蒙古帝國) stretched across China, central Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe all the way to Vienna. This was the time of the fabled Genghis Khan (成吉思汗) and his grandson Kublai Khan (忽必烈). Mongol domination brought great wealth and splendor to China, as reported by Marco Polo (馬可波羅). But it also brought cruelty and death. The Khans considered the Chinese the lowest class in their empire and controlled them with an iron fist. Groups of 10 Chinese households were assigned to serve one Mongol family. And each group of 10 households was to share only one kitchen knife, which was guarded by the Mongols. During the first 50 years of the 100-year Mongol occupation, China lost 60 million people, half its population.

Deliverance came from the most unlikely sources: a peasant boy, a middle-aged hermit, and moon cakes.

The peasant was Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋). Zhu, orphaned and homeless at age 17, became a beggar, moving from town to town. At age 24, he joined a rebel group opposed to Mongol occupation. His years of struggle had made him strong and determined. He rose rapidly and within three years was the leader of the group.

The middle aged man was Liu Bowen (劉伯溫). He was a brilliant scholar who had worked for the Mongol government. He dreamed of serving his people, but his talent had gone unrecognized. Frustrated, he retired early to a mountain retreat, resigned to fade into oblivion along with his unfulfilled dream.

Moon cakes are the traditional food of the Chinese festival honoring the moon god. They are eaten on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is always a full moon.

The three sources converged when the young Zhu found Liu and asked him to serve as his military strategist to fight against the Mongols. Observing that the Mongols did not eat moon cakes, Liu came up with a strategy to distribute secret messages throughout China in the traditional sweets. They baked hundreds of cakes and placed a secret message in the center of each: “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month.” To make sure people would see the message, they circulated a rumor that a deadly plague was spreading and the only way to prevent it was to eat the special moon cakes.
The plan worked. In many areas, all on the same day, people rose against their oppressors. The power of the Mongol government was broken.

In less than 10 years, Zhu’s army drove the Mongols out of China and founded the Ming dynasty. The uneducated, homeless peasant became the founding emperor of the 276-year-long Ming dynasty before age 40. Liu fulfilled his dream of serving his people and was recognized as one of the most accomplished military strategists in Chinese history. And the moon cake earned a special place in the heart of the Chinese.

When families gather on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (in 2013, September 16th), they eat moon cakes and tell the story of the people and the cake that helped the Chinese overcome a great challenge and save their people.

The story doesn’t end here. The Chinese have a saying: “Serving the emperor is like serving the tiger: You never know when you’ll be eaten.” Such was the case with Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and the military genius who helped him gain power, Liu Bowen.

Characters: Serving the Tiger (bàn jūn rú bàn hǔ)

Saviors are not always kind rulers. The Chinese have a saying: “Serving the emperor is like serving the tiger: You never know when you’ll be eaten.” Such was the case with Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and the military genius who helped him gain power, Liu Bowen.

Within a few years of becoming emperor, Zhu turned on those who had helped him overthrow the Mongols. Gratitude for their service was outweighed by the desire to secure the throne for his own sons. Zhu had all his top commanders killed together with their families, relatives, and friends—an estimated 45,000 people.

Liu, however, was not only a brilliant military strategist, but also a wise man. He knew better than to serve in the government of the man he had helped put in power. To prove that he had no political ambition, he retired and moved to the country. One of his sons remained in the capital as a “hostage.” At age 65, Liu caught a cold, took medicine prescribed by the royal doctor, and died. Two years later, his oldest son was forced to kill himself by jumping into a well. His second son was arrested and committed suicide in jail.

The dynasty Zhu began replaced the brutal Mongol rule but unleashed its own turmoil on its people. The once progressive Chinese civilization began to lag behind the West. But the Ming dynasty continued for 276 years, from 1368 to 1644.

If saviors can be cruel, history sometimes has a way of setting the record straight. The 10th Ming emperor reinstated Liu and others who fought with him to places of honor for their service to the dynasty. Chinese today recognize and honor him for his service to China.

Characters: Happy Mid-Autumn Festival (zhōng qiū jié kuài lè)

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