Connected \\ September 26, 2023

Traveling Merchants Come Home: The Mid-Autumn Festival at Yin Yu Tang

On the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, Chinese people celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival — a special day for family reunions and the remembrance of relatives who are traveling or living far away. On this day, the full moon becomes the symbol of perfection and unity. In the rural village of Huang Cun, where the Chinese house Yin Yu Tang was originally built, these annual family gatherings were especially precious to local people because of the distinct history of the region. Stories from local families, like the Huang family of Yin Yu Tang, are full of both happiness and sorrow about being separated from or reunited with their loved ones. The nights of the Mid-Autumn Festival were especially significant to them.

Around 1800, when Yin Yu Tang’s construction was completed, the Huizhou Prefecture in southeast China was known for its “Hui merchants” who did business all over the country. Yin Yu Tang was located in Xiuning County, one of the six counties of this prefecture. In this region, about half the size of Massachusetts, the mountainous terrain meant that local people could not make a living nor feed their families through farming alone. Huizhou-born Hu Shih (1891-1962), one of the most significant Chinese scholars of the 20th century, recalled in his autobiography that the agricultural yield in this region for a whole year could only support the local population for three months.

The geographical characteristics of Huizhou drove local people to mercantile careers. Many boys left home in their early teens to work as apprentices in the businesses of relatives or friends. While the men from Huizhou traveled or worked in other cities, women, children and elders lived in the family home. A local saying characterizes the bitterness of such constant separation: “Being husband and wife for a whole life is just three and half years.”

The difficulty of leaving home for work, especially for young teenagers, and the worry felt by the family at home fill the Huang family’s letters. In the Mid-Autumn Festival of 1912, Huang Zizhi (1883-1934) was struck down by malaria and did not return home. Working in Raozhou, Jiangxi Province (140 miles from his hometown), he received medicine mailed by his mother Madam Cheng (1858-1915) and his brother Zixian (c. 1878-1929). In the same enclosed letter, after asking about Zizhi’s health, Zixian included some medicinal recipes. Twenty years later, when Zizhi’s son Zhenxin was working in a charcoal shop in Shanghai at the age of 16, he sent a letter to his mother for her birthday: “Because I, your son, am [currently] a traveler dwelling in a distant land, I could not express my wishes in person with the others.” In the postscript, he also asked her to send him more shoes. The emotional bond between family members was reinforced by these letters sent across mountains and passed from one generation to another.

Envelopes from two Huang family letters form part of an invaluable source of Huang family history.

Envelopes from two Huang family letters form part of an invaluable source of Huang family history.

Traveling away from home sometimes meant danger, uncertainty and sudden loss. In 1885, at the age of 28, Huang Zizhi’s father Yangxian (b. 1857) was killed on a trip, which abruptly deprived the family of their main source of income. His widow Madame Cheng (1858-1915) took in sewing and washing for neighbors to support the family, and in 1900, sold four rooms of Yin Yu Tang to another branch of the family. In a letter from her son Zixian to his brother Zizhi about 10 years later, Zixian expressed his concern for his mother and his sense of responsibility: “She should rid herself of all worries. Although our family has great worries, we two brothers may encounter good fortune in the future. All our debts should be cleared in three years or so.”

Family separation was a common experience for almost everyone in the Huizhou region. A holiday celebrating family reunion, safety and happiness like the Mid-Autumn Festival was especially meaningful. A festival day would have featured a light, simple breakfast and lunch, making room for a festive dinner of fish, chicken or pork with homecoming family members.

Since the skywell — the home’s open-air central courtyard — was the traditional gathering place for family dinners, the whole family could enjoy a view of the full moon while eating together. In the past, families in Huang Cun also made an offering to the moon by arranging an altar table in the skywell or the outer forecourt or back court, a ritual led by the family matriarch. The altar table featured lit red candles, fruits such as pomegranates and persimmons and the essential dessert of the Mid-Autumn Festival: mooncakes. The appearance and ingredients of this round, stuffed pastry vary throughout China. In Huizhou, people use red bean paste or mung bean paste for mooncakes, wrapping the filling with layers of thin dough.

Offering Table to the Moon Displayed in Yin Yu Tang for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in 2023. Photo taken by Chenguang Zhu.

Offering Table to the Moon Displayed in Yin Yu Tang for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in 2023. Photo taken by Chenguang Zhu.

Festivities also took place outside the home. In an activity called Mo Qiu (literally “grabbing the Autumn”), people would take vegetables like cucumbers or pumpkins from other families’ fields. Instead of taking the “spoils'' home, they would cook them on the spot and enjoy them with others. These collective activities fostered not only the bonds between family members, but also the whole village’s sense of community. For people in Huang Cun, family homes like Yin Yu Tang have always served as an emotional anchor while traveling far away, a tangible haven they return to for reunions like the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Huizhou-Style Mooncakes. Photo taken by Jianping Zhang.

Huizhou-Style Mooncakes. Photo taken by Jianping Zhang.

A woman baking pies

The making of large-size mooncakes in Taoyuan Cun, Qimen County (part of the historical Huizhou region). Photo taken by Jianping Zhang.

Mooncakes baking in a wood fired oven

PEM’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival will take place on Saturday, September 30 as part of our year-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese Home.

I am grateful to Mr. Jianping Zhang and his son Mr. Junxi Zhang in Huangshan, Anhui, China, for their help with this article and for introducing me to the local history and customs of Huang Cun. For more information about the family history of Yin Yu Tang, read Nancy Berliner’s Yin Yu Tang: The Architecture and Daily Life of a Chinese House, available in the PEM Shop. All the quoted letters in this blog post can be found in Berliner’s book.

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