The moon - our companion & our guide

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CH'NG Poh Tiong

A lawyer by training, CH’NG Poh Tiong also holds a Postgraduate Certificate with Distinction in Chinese Art from the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London. He is an Honorary Ambassador of TEFAF – The European Fine Art Fair – Maastricht. CH'NG works principally as a wine journalist and is publisher of The Wine Review, the oldest wine publication in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and China since 1991.
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The moon - our companion & our guide

Whether you live in Beijing or Bombay, Manchester or Melbourne, Chinese people throughout the world, our lives are marked by the moon from the moment of our birth.

Image: Chang

Every year, we reaffirm that contact with the beautiful round object when we celebrate the Lunar New Year. We dress in red and offer greetings for good health, long life and prosperity. To make sure the whole world hears about it, we set off firecrackers (unless it happens to be illegal where you are).

But, the best rendezvous with the moon takes place later in the year, not in spring.

For that, we have to wait until the mid-Autumn Festival. On the 15th day of the 8th Lunar month, the most beautiful show on earth takes place.

Defying imagination and impressing everyone lucky enough to be blessed with vision, a huge round oversized moon lights up the entire night sky. Before the day of television and internet, people used to sit outside of their homes just to watch the moon. I promise you it’s better than any TV reality show.

Actually, those of us who live in big cities don’t have the best viewing. The street lights and lighting from buildings compete with the moon. On the other hand, if you are in the countryside where there are few or, better still, no houses whatsoever, the complete darkness all around you will make the mesmerizing beauty of the full moon even more unbearable!

During the mid-Autumn festival, we eat moon cakes and carry lanterns. In so doing, we renew our bonds as Chinese people.

Mother Nature has given birth to many beautiful things. But none is more stunning than the moon.

Everyone wants to go to the moon, America, the old USSR and China in more recent times. Nobody in his right mind would want to go to the sun. You’d be roasted like a Xinjiang leg of lamb even before you reach it.

Actually, thousands of years ago, the Chinese were the first to land on the moon. Remember the legend of Chang E, how she swallowed the elixir of life and floated to the moon? If you look hard enough, you can still see that she is up there.

The moon represents a sense of longing. Looking at it, we feel calm and, at the same time, the brilliant round object can serve as an inspiration.

Did you know that the qin, the musical instrument most associated with being Chinese, all the 13 round markers at the top of the 7 strings are made in mother of pearl? The reason for this is because if someone played the qin at night, they can still see where to press the strings because the moonlight will light up the markers.

In olden China, not only did people used the lunar calendar to mark their lives, they would also regularly be walking through moon gates. And boats would be sailing under arching stone bridges through an opening that when reflected in the water, reminds us of the full moon.

Poets are regularly turning to the moon for inspiration. And the poet who is the most associated with the moon is a Chinese.

The moon features prominently not only in his poems but also his personal life. In fact, it was the last thing Li Bai (701-762) saw before the great poet left us.

Such is the beauty of his words and the moving purity of his thoughts that even kindergarten children are taught his poems. The little toddlers recite them as if singing a song.

When Li Bai looks at the moon, it reminds him of the home he is homesick for:

Still Night Thoughts

Moonlight in front of my bed,
I took it for frost on the ground.
I lift my head, gaze at the moon,
Lower it, and think of home.

Today, we look at photographs in mobile phones, tablets and personal computers to remind us of home.

Back during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), there were no such gadgets available. People had to rely on their imagination. You couldn’t even telephone home to ask how everyone was. In fact, when someone left home to go to another place, there was no certainty that the person might even return.

That’s one of the reasons why when people send family members or friends away, they did so with wine which was mainly a luxury. You wanted to show the person going away that he or she was special and meant a lot to you. And you kan-pei to hide and drown the sadness you feel because of their departure.

In our modern age, when I see people today kan-pei noisily in public to try and get the other person drunk, I find it all very childish.

                          From celebrating the Lunar New Year in spring to carrying lanterns and eating moon cakes during the mid-Autumn festival,
                          Chinese people everywhere in the world are all in love with the moon. This magnificent large pink-enamelled blue and white
                          moon flask was owned by Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795). It was sold on 1 December 2010 in a Christie’s auction
                          in Hong Kong for HK$123,860,000 (US$16,015,135). Photo by courtesy of Christie’s.

Li Bai, the Poet Immortal, is also the Wine Immortal.

Travelling about the country alone, the moon was Li Bai’s most important companion. Even if he had met people along the way, these people came and went as the poet continued his wandering.

Apart from the moon, Li Bai’s other great love, as every Chinese person knows, is wine.

Together, wine and the moon were Li Bai’s best friends. Here’s the first four lines of Drinking Alone by Moonlight where Li Bai ingeniously recruits the moon and his shadow as drinking companions.

Drinking Alone by Moonlight


A pot of wine in the flower bush,
Alone I drink without a friend.
I raise my cup to invite the moon,
And greet my shadow, we’re now three.

China’s best loved poet died in the bosom of the moon.

Legend has it that one night, out drinking on a boat, he saw the reflection of the moon in the river. Li Bai stood up and dived in to grab the bright shining moon.

That was how much the moon meant to him.

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