Melodies and Counterpoints: American Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival

ABSTRACT - This paper analyzes similarities and differences between two harvest celebrationsCAmerican Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival. It uses data from depth interviews, short-term participant observations, Internet descriptions, advertisements, cookbooks, novels, TV programs and poems. The similarities and differences between Thanksgiving and the Moon Festival help us understand American and Chinese cultural traditions. The various data sources complement and supplement each other.


William D. Wells and Qimei Chen (1999) ,"Melodies and Counterpoints: American Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 555-561.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 555-561


William D. Wells, University of Minnesota

Qimei Chen, University of Minnesota


This paper analyzes similarities and differences between two harvest celebrationsCAmerican Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival. It uses data from depth interviews, short-term participant observations, Internet descriptions, advertisements, cookbooks, novels, TV programs and poems. The similarities and differences between Thanksgiving and the Moon Festival help us understand American and Chinese cultural traditions. The various data sources complement and supplement each other.

American Thanksgiving is celebrated on the third Thursday of November. The Chinese Moon Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar. In America and China, crops have ripened in the field. Nothing could be more appropriate than enjoying a huge dinner. We compare these two rituals by answering four questions: How do people celebrate? How do they feel during the celebration? Who will be invited to the feast? How do modern celebrations diffe from traditional? We believe that answers to these questions will yield insights into human nature.


For the study of Thanksgiving, we build upon Wallendorf and Arnould’s (1991) seminal article, "We Gather Together: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day." This article reported depth interviews, surveys, and participant observations of household dinners. It presented an ethnographic analysis of contemporary meanings.

To supplement these findings, we employed 11 TV comedies and dramas that portrayed Thanksgiving celebrations, 38 Internet sites that described Thanksgiving practices and legends, five Thanksgiving cookbooks, and 65 Thanksgiving advertisements from newspapers, magazines, the Internet and television. We regard the TV programs as commentary onCand, in some cases, caricatures ofCcontemporary consumption. We regard the Internet sites, cookbooks and advertisements as manifestations of dominant contemporary values.

To study the Moon Festival, we used 37 depth interviews with Chinese students at American universities; 92 Internet sites that described Moon Festival activities in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; 47 newspaper and magazine clips from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; 29 Moon Festival advertisements from newspapers, magazines, the Internet and television; 21 episodes from Chinese movies about the Moon Festival and 66 ancient poems. All of the above were convenience samples. The interviews with Chinese students paralleled the principle topics of Wallendorf and Arnould’s (1991) article. Like their American counterparts, the Chinese Internet sites, dramatizations, and advertisements are artifacts of the parent culture.

This report will complement and comment on some of Wallendorf and Arnould’s (1991) assertions, make some cross-cultural comparisons, and make some comparisons across time. It will also show how humanistic narrativesCTV comedies and dramas, movies, novels and poems in this caseCcan penetrate persona. Following Jung, we use the term "persona" to signify a role that "one plays in life; it is not authentic since it does not portray what one essentially is" (Mullahy 1948). Many of the most common social science methodsCincluding interviews and short-term participant observationsCtend to focus on persona (Orne 1978). By contrast, part of the enduring appeal of comedies, novels, poems and dramas, is that they unmask truths that tend to be concealed in ordinary social interactions.

Hofstede (1980) also distinguished between surface and internal motives. He compared what people actually desire (desired values) with what they think they ought to desire (desirable values). Though both values are important, they should not be equated; equating them is a "positivistic fallacy." Again, personal interviews and short-term participant observations tend to focus on "desirable values," while comedies and dramas expose aspects of human nature that might otherwise be neglected.

We classify our observations of American Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival as melodies (similarities) and counterpoints (differences) within and between these two harvest rituals.

Melody: Feasting as a Symbol of Abundance

Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) reported that "Thanksgiving commonly is celebrated by eating what participants regard as a traditional feast featuring a whole stuffed turkey as the main meat dish" (p.13). The American TV stories repeat that observation. In Veronica’s Closet (1997/11/20), for example, Ronnie and her maid worked all day to prepare a "perfect Thanksgiving dinner." Their menu included the traditional feastCstuffed turkey, mashed potatoes loaded with butter and topped with gravy and pumpkin pie fordessert, and their table featured a cornucopia. In Soul Man (1997/11/25), Linda declared to Mike "I’m going to cook your family a traditional Thanksgiving dinner." Mike replied, "You’d better make it enough, because I’ll be wearing my pants with the breathable panel."

In China, similarly, a traditional banquet is held among direct family members. This banquet acquires much of its festive character through release from some everyday eating customs (usually those that impose restraint) and exaggeration of others. At a typical Moon Festival banquet, rice is not the center of the meal. The meat and vegetables that serve as side dishes at regular meals become the focus. While everyday Chinese meals are served all at once, a Moon Festival banquet is brought in many successive courses, so as to emphasize generosity, prosperity and the joy of celebration (Chang 1977). These reversals symbolize extrication from the shadow of starvation.

Melody: Fullness as a Symbol of Abundance

According to Wallendorf and Arnould (1991), "An almost universal topic of after-dinner conversation is that everyone has overeaten and is painfully full," and "when the hostess first offers dessert, participants decide to wait because they are 'too full’ " (p.18). These scenes recur in American TV stories. In Fired Up (97/11/24), Gwen and her friend were invited to a neighbor’s house for dessert after the "perfect" Thanksgiving dinner. Gwen replied proudly, "We will try. But after everyone eats my meal, we may not be able to move." Similarly, in Hiller and Diller (1997/11/27), TedClike Mike in Soul ManCwore his "expandable pants" in anticipation of supreme satisfaction.

In the Chinese Moon Festival, rice or grainCwhich is normally so important that every last grain must be consumedCis relegated to the very end of the meal and participants need only to pick at the fan (rice), indicating their fullness. To eat one’s rice at a banquet might hint that the hostess failed to provide enough food (Chen, Chen and Tseng 1983). Our depth interviews reflect this reaction.

Everybody is terribly full after banquet. Therefore, when Mum came with a plate of mooncakes, my younger brother started to shake his head, "Mum," he said with an upset smile, "Although I was eager to devour a cow before dinner, I could hardly eat an ant now. Could we rest our stomach for a moment?" In the following time, we sat ourselves comfortably around table, chatting a little bit. If grandmother was there, she would tell us the story about Chang-ErCthe lady who lives in the palace of the moon. Mum would serve mooncake again after she confirmed the resumption of our appetite.

Since people are too full to consume a whole mooncake alone, family members cut it into even proportions, so that each participant shares the fortune brought along with the mooncake for the next year. Thus, in Thanksgiving and in the Moon Festival, surfeit banishes threats of future famine.

Melody: The Fat of the Land

Fat is repeatedly mentioned by Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) in the form of "butter" and "cream," applied in both main courses and desserts. For instance, "Mashed potatoes are loaded with butter and then topped with gravy... Pie crusts are filled with fruit or flavored custards and topped with whipped cream, ice cream or meringue" (p. 17). Similar themes are found in the "Traditional Thanksgiving Menu" in the new Joy of Cooking (Rombauer, Becker and Becker 1997).

A typical Moon Festival table holds all kinds of special dishesCpreserved eggs, steamed fish with sour sauceCand one could surely smell lard, whichCthough seldom present in ordinary mealsCis quite popularly used in Chinese Moon Festival banquets and evn in the fillings of mooncakes (Eastweek, 1997/9/11). Traditional mooncake advertisements emphasize lard and fine red-bean filling, and lard was repeatedly mentioned in our depth interviews.

My family was fairly poor in my childhood. In the 70’s, we still needed quota to buy meat, and lard was extracted from the fat meat. Usually, the most luxurious food we could get was plain rice mixed with lard and pepper sauce. On Moon Festival, mother would put much more lard into dishes with unusual generosity. To me, richness of lard is one of the most unique features of Moon Festival. Honestly, whenever I recollect those days, the special smell of lard seems floating around me again.

According to Chinese tradition, the richness of lard intimates the autumn harvest, for only in this circumstance would the family have enough spare lard to make mooncake. Compared with soybean oil, which is usually served in daily meals, lard was far more tasteful, yet precious. Therefore, as our depth interview respondent mentioned, traditional Chinese regarded a meal with lard the most luxurious one they could ever get.

Melody: Togetherness

Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) said their informants "think of Thanksgiving Day as a day of family togetherness" (p.20). American TV stories share this symbolism. In Fired Up (97/11/24), for instance, Gwen’s mother had been ignoring her, but suddenly appeared at Thanksgiving dinner. "Yesterday," she explained, "when I came out of Tiffany’s, I suddenly remembered that Thanksgiving is coming and I’d better spend it with my family." In The Promised Land (97/11/27), Laura’s sister and sister-in-law rented a mobile home to make the Thanksgiving journey.

While the TV stories exhibit togetherness, they also reveal a shadow. When we hear that Gwen’s mother "suddenly" remembered Thanksgiving while coming out of Tiffany’s we know that genuine togetherness is not high on her agenda. In The Promised Land (97/11/27), Laura’s joy at reunion with her sister turned to anger and envy when she discovered that her sister was pregnant, while she herself was infertile.

In the Chinese Moon Festival, people use the mooncake to enact togetherness. The traditional mooncake is round, which symbolizes the family circle, and its sweet flavor echoes the sweetness of filial ties (McNamara 1996). By cutting and sharing mooncake, the family circle is repeated and the ties of blood are strengthened. In this case too, however, a fictional portrayalCa famous poemCreveals a shadow. This poem, called "Yearnings," says : "Red-bean origins from the South/In spring it grows/Hope thee collect them all/For it means yearnings/" (Wang Wei, 740 AD). As we shall see, yearning is an essential undercurrent of the Moon Festival ritual.

Melody: Inclusion of Unborn Family

Another interesting parallel is that American and Chinese cultures both put salient attention on pregnant women. Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) reported that

...some families make special mention of welcoming a new family member at the meal-opening prayer or toast. Pregnancy assures a sufficient quantity of family members and in this way is connected to the Thanksgiving Day celebration of abundance and togetherness. The pregnant woman is a living cornucopia, a metaphor of continued abundance, the ritual message of Thanksgiving Day (p.18) .

In the traditional Chinese Moon Festival, the person cutting the mooncake must count carefully the number of family members, including those absent. The portions must be even without breaking the angles. If there is a pregnant woman in the family, one additional portion is reserved for the unborn child, intimating extenion of inclusion (Luo 1990).

American TV stories also feature unborn family. They also identify the dark sideCthe possibility of disappointment. In Dharma and Greg (1997/11/25), for instance, all of the family members were in a mixed tension of anxiety and excitement when they were informed that Dharma was possibly pregnant. This tension immediately changed into disappointment when a pregnancy test turned out to be negative. In Veronica’s Closet (1997/11/20), in order to cheer up her dying Grammy, Ronnie and her separated husband pretended to be expecting a baby. At the Thanksgiving table, Grammy slipped her tongue about this news, and the whole feasting group was happily bustled. As in Dharma and Greg, however, initial joy was quenched by subsequent reality.

Gender Role Segregation

Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) observed an exception to the otherwise pervasive theme of togetherness. "Although regarded as a day of rest by men, in most households Thanksgiving Day is a day of both ritual and physical labor for women" (p.25). American television stories echo this dark-side observation. In Fired Up (97/11/24), the feast is prepared by Gwen and her girlfriend. In Friends (1997/11/20), Monica was responsible for all the preparation and all the serving. In Dharma and Greg (1997/11/25), Dharma had to shoulder the responsibility of the Thanksgiving feast even though she was not good at cooking.

Parallel to Wallendorf and Arnould’s (1991) observations, men’s role at most of the TV feasts was "to be served." Their help was "in the form of symbolic labor, such as lifting the cooked turkey from the oven or carving it" (p.25-6). In the few cases where men attempted to prepare the dinner, their punishment was complete failure and abject humiliation. In Hiller and Diller (1997/11/27), Ted voluntarily took his wife’s role. His punishment was turkey burned in the oven.

Our Moon Festival interviews show similar role segregation. Respondents confirmed that it is mum who prepares the mooncakes, who puts lard into dishes, and who serves the dinner. However, there is certain momentCmooncake-cutting, parallel to turkey-curving in ThanksgivingCwhen Chinese males play the leading role. As Yang-Zi Evening Paper (97/09/15) declared, "the boss of the family cuts the mooncake." Chinese Festival Custom (Luo 1990) states that the most respected male must be chosen for the ritual of mooncake-cutting. This role confirms men’s privilege status.

Melody: Universalism and Particularism

Another parallel is that American Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival both combine universalism and particularism. One universal element is nearly unanimous participation. Survey data cited in Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) show that Thanksgiving embraces almost all Americans. Similarly, the Moon Festival is celebrated by Chinese throughout the world, including Chinese students in America.

Both festivals focus on a central foodCturkey in Thanksgiving; mooncake in Moon Festival. Turkey is featured in all of the feasts recorded in Wallendorf and Arnould’s (1991) article and in all of the American TV stories. Without the presence of turkey, the flavor of the festival will be a little bit uneasily altered.

The TV stories highlight turkey’s central role. In Fired Up (97/11/24), for instance, Danny forgot to pick up the turkey. Unbearably, Gwen shouted at him "Where is my turkey? It was supposed to be my perfect Thanksgiving dinner!" Finally, she decided to use chicken as a compensation. "Just think of it as Barbie’s dream turkey," she suggested. "Let’s pretend that the bird is not small, but the peas are giant." Her guests tasted the "turkey" with puzzled expressions.

Our Moon Festival depth interviews all said that mooncake plays an indispensable part.

To my family, mooncake is a must on Moon Festival. In my childhood, Moon Festival was the only excuse to eat mooncake. I’m grown-up now; mooncake is a bit too sweet for me. However, eating mooncake is not just for filling stomach, it’s a ritual of celebrating togetherness, and became a label of Moon Festival. Just cannot imagine a Moon Festival without mooncake.

Almost all of the Moon Festival TV programs, movies and novels portray mooncake consumption. In the movie Yue Man Yin Lun (Moonlight over Britain), overseas Chinese hold a Moon Festival celebration in which they carefully cut and share limited mooncakes. In the novel Hu-Die He Mi-Feng De Wu-Hui (Butterfly and Bee’s Party) (Zhang 1995b), the narrator mentions that her mother "cooked lots of dishes on Moon Festival. After dinner, we brought mooncake, river snail, persimmon, and taro to the balcony to watch the moon. Moon was round that night. I was quite depressed, imagining that I couldn’t stay with Xiao-shan (the narrator’s lover), even on Moon Festival." Again, we see a shadow of sadness beneath a festival persona.

Melody: Particularism Reflected in Regional Differences

Particularism, the opposing pattern to universalism (Parsons 1951), is expressive of special individual positions or ties. One of the particularistic elements in the American Thanksgiving celebration is the stuffing of the turkey. According to Wallendorf and Arnould (1991), one family with Eastern roots always has oyster stuffing, while a Southern family has cornbread stuffing. A Western family with a Greek heritage includes pine nuts, and a Korean-American family substitutes rice. Metonymically the turkey represents a universalistic shell filled with ethnic and regional particularism.

Likewise, in Southern China, mooncake uses sugar and flour and is stuffed with bacon, ham, dates, and red-beans. In Eastern China, mooncake uses flour, maltose, and lard and is stuffed with red-beans and ham. In Northern China, mooncake uses flour, sugar, maltose, sesame oil plus alkali and is stuffed with rock candy, sugar, osmanthus, and nuts (Luo 1990). Here too, the custom is universal on the surface and particularistic in the interior.

Melody: Reconstruction

In his theory of selective tradition, Williams (1958) observes that "from the whole possible area of past and present, certain meanings and practices are emphasized and others excluded." In applying this observation to Thanksgiving traditions, Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) noted that Thanksgiving foods tend to be wholesome and simple rather than complexCin conformity with Puritan traditionCwhile the Puritan practice of attending church before Thanksgiving dinner has gradually diminished. Thus, part of the tradition has been kept, and part is being reconstructed.

Similarly, the presentBday Moon Festival keeps some traditions and excludes others. One kept tradition is appreciation of sweet-scented osmanthus. In Die Lian Hua: Da Li Shu-yi, Chairman (and poet) Mao wrote:

Asking Wu-Gang what he got/Wu-Gang presented Osmanthus wine/Lonely Chang-Er waved her long sleeves/Dancing in the vast sky/Welcomed the coming of faithful spirits/ (Mao Ze-Dong, 1957)

Similarly, most people still keep the ancient tradition of having lanterns resembling shapes of fruits and animals, which echo the theme of harvest, and in some places, moon worship is still held as a part of the festival ceremony. Through this worship, men expect prosperity of their career and harmony in their family, while women anticipate everlasting beauty and love (Luo 1990, p.242). In this case, the main theme of the festivalCroundness and fulfillmentCis once again resonated.

h the present-day Moon Festival is simpler than the customs during the Tang, Song Dynasty. Then, rich people would build terraces and decorate pavilions from which to watch the moon. There, they would eat luxurious food, listen to music, and drink alcohol (Luo 1990, p. 235-236). Nowadays, Moon Festival activities are much less extravagant. No one would deliberately start some construction work just for watching the moon.

Some reconstruction reflects technological advances. In America, today’s Thanksgiving feast might include potatoes mashed by an electric mixer instead of the traditional manual masher, the turkey might be cut by an electric knife, and at least some of the side dishes might have come from the freezer. When Dharma was shopping for Thanksgiving dinner ingredients (Dharma and Greg 1997/11/25), she exclaimed delightedly, "All the vegetables we could possibly choose have been frozen for our convenience. No more cleaning, no more chopping....All these modern sciences are really making our lives better!"

Parallel changes have occurred in Moon Festival traditions. Ice cream mooncake is available thanks to the popularity of the refrigerator, and in a recent advertisement, the Dong Fang Hong Corporation guaranteed the superior quality of its mooncake by emphasizing "produced and wrapped by advanced machine" (Eastweek, 1997/9/11). These benefits demonstrate the impact of new technology on ancient customs.

Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) noted several other reconstructions. Few households now serve mince pie, a onetime tradition. The focus on hunting and wild game is reduced (Ramsey 1979) while the emphasis on the bounty of agriculture has increased. Moon Festival traditions change as well. Few Chinese households nowadays make Moon Festival lanterns themselves, but rather buy them from the market. Women used to do knitting under the moon to exhibit their dexterity, but this tradition is no longer kept except in some backward areas (Luo 1990).

For both Thanksgiving and the Moon Festival, one of the most important departures from tradition is healthier eating. In the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking, for example, many recipes call for "moderate" amounts of fat, and some treat meat as a condiment rather than the main focus of the meal. Similarly, Hanke (1989) noted a shift in the editorial content and style of food-related commentary in American metropolitan newspaper and city magazines.

Long-term fads and fashions that have become dietary trends (like the reduced consumption of red meat in favor of chicken or fish) are rationalized in terms of a new 'health consciousness.’ Similarly, the trend towards smaller portions and low-calorie, low-cholesterol, low-fat, low-sodium foods makes visible the conflict between gastronomic values (or 'eating well’) and eating to maintain or improve one’s health or body (through dieting). (Hanke 1989, P.228)

Similar departures affect the Moon Festival menu. "Enough lard & fine red-bean filling," which used to be the evaluation of good mooncakes, is no longer universal. Today more Chinese, especially the younger generation, prefer low oil, low cholesterol mooncake, which proves to be healthier.

In the People’s Republic of China, manufacturers supply sugarless mooncakes with fillings of assorted fruits (peach, melon, etc.), healthy grain, or Chinese herbs (Life Times, 1997/08/21). Similarly in Taiwan, mooncakes are promoted under the slogan of "healthy, natural, and delicious" (Internet "Sheng Bao-Luo" mooncake ads URL Special emphasis is put on "high-fiber, low-calorie, low-sugar and zero cholesterol," and the traditional fillings of lard, red-bean, egg-yolk, and ham are facing competition from "new, healthy" fillings such as pineapple, blueberry, coconut, grape, plum, pumpkin, jasmine, tea and vegetable (Internet, Taiwan Mooncake Website URL In Hog Kong, mooncake manufacturers declare that their mooncake is "100% preservative-free, lard-free and artificial-free" (Eastweek, 1997/9/11 Volume 255, Hong Kong). These changes also reflect economic improvement. Calorie-consciousness could only happen in a society where food is ample. "Plenty of lard" in the traditional mooncake is no longer so necessary. It once expressed the wish of fleeing from the shadow of famine.

Mooncake used to be so large that it was cut into even portions according to the number of the family members and shared by the whole family. Availability of "mini and individually-packed" mooncakes (Yang-Zi Evening Paper, 1997/9/16) intimates the possibility of consumption among single individuals instead of a big family. This change may parallel a decrease in Chinese family size under the "family planning policy," and an increase in the frequency of moving.

Some modern mooncakes are square (Internet, Taiwan Mooncake Website URL or other shapes, such as shapes resembling cartoon figures (Eastweek, 1997/9/11 Volume 255, Hong Kong). The roundness of mooncake once symbolized the family circle and the self-sufficiency of a small-scale peasant economy, which required the unification of the inner part while circling the outside world away from them. The new mooncake shapes hint at the weakening of this tradition.

These reconstructions may reflect a shift from collectivism to individualism (Chen, Meindl and Hunt 1997). When no longer in the predicament of poverty, and when given plenty of options to reveal personal tastes and styles, Chinese consumers are selectively altering ancient traditions.

Counterpoint: Reconciliation Vs. Reunification

Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) discovered "a pervasive theme of disaster solved by family togetherness" (p. 21). They reported that "family cleavages" will usually be "sutured" on Thanksgiving. This point is repeated in several American TV stories. In Fired Up (97/11/24) for instance, Gwen’s mother had a quarrel with Gwen, and reconciled during Thanksgiving dinner. In Friends (1997/11/20), Joey had split with Chandler when the latter stole his girlfriend from him. On Thanksgiving Day, the two made up and became good friends again. However, as we noted earlier, togetherness can be a cause of rift, as well as a cause of reconciliation.

By contrast, Chinese Moon Festival celebrations put less emphasis on reconciliation and more on reunification. In China, some families with relatives in Taiwan reserve seats and prepare chopsticks and bowls for their absent beloved ones. Some of the Chinese TV programs and movies we examined set the climax of family reunification on the Moon Festival. In Yue Sui Ren Gui (Moon Follows Me Home), for example, Ying’s former lover finally returns from Taiwan to reunite with her on Moon Festival Eve after their twenty years’ separation. Moon Festival’s emphasis on reunification reflects the impact of political reality on ancient custom.

Counterpoint: Who Is To Be Invited?

Who is to be invited to the feast is a question for negotiation in both American and Chinese celebrations. Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) reported that the issue of what to do with boyfriends and girlfriends on Thanksgiving Day is often resolved by including them for part of the dinnerCsuch as the dessertCafter they eat the main course with their own families. If boyfriends and girlfriends have families in different towns, they may elect to go together to the family of one or the other. However, if they have families in the same town, disputes may occur over which family they should join. The negotiation may end with visiting both of the families in turn. Hence, those young couples will have to taste turkey twice.

In China, this dispute is not so apparent. Since the paternal system plays the leading role in his society, married and even engaged couples go back to the husband’s family. Exceptions occur only when the husband is an orphan or his family is too far away to reach. Our depth interviews repeat this consensus:

I was in middle school that year. And my ten-year elder brother got married. The first Moon Festival after their marriage, my brother brought his new wife to join the dinner though they were no longer living together with us at that time... Yes, they did come for every Moon Festival after that.

Chinese Festival Custom (Luo 1990) states the rule. It mentions that married women who are visiting their parents must be dispatched back to their husbands’ families before Moon Festival, so as to guarantee their presence on the very day of celebration.

In many Chinese people’s notion, a daughter counts as a half-child who sooner or later will become a member of her husband’s family. Together with the government’s family planning policy, this helps to explain why so many Chinese are keen on predicting the gender of an unborn child, why there is a deeply ingrained social preference for sons, and why in extreme cases some female infants have been murdered by their parents.

Counterpoint: Gift Exchanges

Because the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is short, lots of preparation for Christmas begins during Thanksgiving, including buying and wrapping of presents. However, the Thanksgiving celebration itself is not a gift occasion. Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) do not associate gift exchanges with Thanksgiving, and gift exchanges do not occur in any of the TV Thanksgiving stories.

By comparison, the Chinese Moon Festival is considered a perfect time for gifts. The earliest record of this custom was in Xi-Hu You-Lan Zhi Yu (Xi-Lake Travel Journal) of the Ming DynastyCAon Moon Festival, mooncake is exchanged among folks." Most of the 1997 Moon Festival advertisements feature mooncake gifts. Hong Kong’s Jia-Ning-Na Corporation advertised their product as "the top-choice present in Moon Festival," and Qi-Hua company stressed that "prestige Qi-Hua Mooncake will save the 'face’ of the gift-giver" (Eastweek, 1997/9/11). Internet sources from Taiwan show the same custom. Many companies put the price, ingredients and pictures of their product on their website to encourage and cater to festival gift exchangers (URL

As the Qi-Hua advertisement suggests, Moon Festival gift exchanges invariably involve "face," a concept that has profound meaning in Chinese society. Lin Yutang (1939)Ca noted modern writerCdefined "face" in this way:

Face is psychological and not physiological. Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It’s not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be 'granted’ and 'lost’ and 'fought for’ and 'presented as a gift’...Abstract and intangible. It is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated....Face cannot be translated or defined. It is like honor and is not honor. It is hollow and is what men fight for and what many women die for. It is invisible and yet by definition exists by being shown to the public. It exists in the ether and yet cannot be heard, and sounds eminently respectable and solid. It is amenable, not to reason but to social convention (p. 199-200).

"Face," in turn, invariably involves guanxi, "a web of an individual person’s blood and/or social connections which defines who s/he is and what s/he is capable of accomplishing without accounting for other resources s/e has available for use" (Ju 1996).

China is a land of guanxi. Nothing can be done without guanxi. Hence, Moon Festival is the best chance to create or enhance guanxi. Subordinates present mooncakes to higher authorities in anticipation of private problem resolution or relationship optimization (social guanxi). Sons-in-law or future sons-in-law present mooncakes to their fathers-in-law or future fathers-in-law in a view toward improving relationships (blood guanxi), strengthening family affiliation, or taking the chance to make a proposal.

Guanxi is part of Chineseness in contemporary China and in Chinese communities everywhere. It is the feeling that binds together many of the basically reciprocal social relations in traditional China (Ju 1996). It is the underlying cause of mooncake gift exchanges.

Counterpoint: Inclusion of Outsiders

Wallendorf and Arnould talked about the inclusion of those with "nowhere else to go" (p.22). This idea is echoed in the U.S. TV programs. In Veronica’s Closet (1997/11/20) for instance, Ronnie invited her staff to celebrate the first Thanksgiving since her separation from her husband. In Suddenly Susan (1997/11/24), SusanCovercome with Thanksgiving spiritCdecided to spend time with a "completely forgotten and discarded" elderly resident of a nearby retirement home. Similarly, college International Centers report that many American families invite international students to join the Thanksgiving feast so as to demonstrate generosity and abundance by constructing fictive kin for the day, and charity organizations such as the Salvation Army offer free Thanksgiving meals and groceries to needy people (Star Tribune 1997/11/27).

By comparison, Chinese Moon Festival celebrations usually don’t have such vast inclusion. Festival dinner is normally limited to the nuclear family members or, at most, intimate friends. Cultural and economic differences offer possible explanations. Ancient Chinese adapted to a self-supportive small-scale peasant economy which demanded internal integrity and external closure. They believed that "the sky is round and the earth is square," and the four seasonsCspring, summer, autumn and winterCevidenced this closure. Under this social system, the Moon Festival emphasized the clan and provincialism (Luo 1990, p.244), and so was customarily restricted to close family members.

Ideological differences also contribute. In America, philanthropyClove without distinctionCis advocated. The Christian Bible teaches one to love neighbors and even enemies. In China, however, people value love with discrimination. According to this ideology, children should love their parents and relatives more than they love others (Jacobs, Gao and Herbig, 1995). Thus the Moon Festival celebration is restricted to immediate family members.

Counterpoint: Indoor After-Dinner Activity

One indoor after-dinner activity associated with American ThanksgivingCwatching Thanksgiving Day Football gamesCreceived relatively little notice in Wallendorf and Arnould’s (1991) article. However, the American TV stories put much emphasis on it. In Friends (1997/11/20), for instance, after Thanksgiving dinner, three of the main charactersCChandler, Ross, and RachelCstretched comfortably on the couch, watching the football game attentively. In Veronica’s Closet (1997/11/20), Ronnie portrayed her dream Thanksgiving as, "guys in the living room watching the game, women picking at the leftovers..."

After the Moon Festival dinner, the main indoor activity is drinking tea. Chinese believe that tea is the perfect match for mooncake because its bitterness enhances and balances the sweetness and fatness of the cake. One of the advertisements for "Ying-Kee Tea House" for instance, declares that "Delicious mooncakes enlarge your waistline, ur tea will help to reduce fat" (Eastweek, 1997/9/11). Family members have a chat during this moment, guessing riddles, or composing antithetical couplets (Luo 1990).

This difference in indoor activities demonstrates the process of cultural construction. Because Americans value sporting spirit, football plays an important part in many Americans’ lives, even during the festival. By contrast, tea drinking is a consistent Chinese culture marker. It plays an important background role in many Chinese TV stories, movies, plays and novels. In The Dream of Red MansionCa very influential love tragedy (Cao and Gao 1760), for instance, tea drinking is portrayed as the inspiration for creative writing, and legend says that Sun ShiCa famous poet in Song DynastyCasked his servant to get water from the middle reaches of the Yang-zi River to make tea to inspire his poem creating.

Counterpoint: Outdoor After-Dinner Activity

Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) observed that in a number of instances, "after the meal is finished and sometimes before dessert is served, participants decide to take a stroll. When this action is suggested, almost everyone agrees that it would feel good because they are so full" (p.19). They suggested that this affirms participants’ agreement about experiencing satiety.

In the Chinese culture, after the Moon Festival banquet, the whole family also take a walk. However, unlike walking for digestion, the purpose of this walk is to go out to watch the moon. Some people go out to the yard and sit there watching the moon, bracing in the autumn breeze (South Morning Paper, 1997/9/4). Yearning for absent or passed-away family members is aroused in this moment. This custom emphasizes reunificationCa theme that is more salient for Chinese than for Americans.

Counterpoint: Emotional Tone of the Celebration

Though both Thanksgiving and the Moon Festival celebrate abundance and togetherness, they put different weight on these two patterns. American Thanksgiving focuses more on abundance. Since abundance is easily achieved by material plenty in America, the mood in general is cheerful and lighthearted (Wallendorf and Arnould 1991). People sit together, eat, chat and enact togetherness by viewing photographs and through storytelling. All these activities are quite delightful, even when the stories are of bad times, for they capture a pervasive theme of disaster solved by family togetherness. In line with these observations, Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) suggested that Thanksgiving Day is the cultural equivalent of Freud’s oral stage of development in an individual life, which is followed by cultural negotiation of greed and retentiveness (anal stage) on Christmas and hedonic sexual fulfillment (genital stage) on New Year’s Eve.

By comparison, the Chinese Moon Festival puts more emphasis on family reunification. Traditional mooncake is round, which symbolizes the family circle, and its sweet flavor echoes the sweetness of filial ties. White or red lotus seeds in the filling symbolize luck (since lotus seedCLianziCis pronounced the same as "giving birth to sons"); while red jujube or red-bean paste symbolize yearning for absent family members; and egg yolks, in their yellow splendor, represent the moon (McNamara, 1996).

The moon itself is an especially influential feature. Historically, the moon was a timepiece. Ancient Chinese planted and harvested by the moon. They believed that the moon on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month is the brightest of the whole year, and therefore set the harvest celebration on that day.

Throughout Chinese history, the phases of the moon have had special significance. Westerners often speak of the "inconstant moon." To the Chinese, however, the moon is a symbol of constancy. Therefore, by celebrating under the full moon while eating mooncake, Chinese hope "The beloved ones could achiev eternity, and the affection could keep unchanged." (Su Shi, 1076 AD Song Dynasty)

However, as reality is usually crueler than imagination, the "constancy" of love, fortune and health are only persona, and the constancy of the moon only underlines the shadow. Hence, despite a superficial happy theme of reunification, the inner tone of Moon Festival narratives is nostalgic and melancholic. For instance, the novel Yue Yuan Zhi Ye (Night of Round Moon) (Zhang 1995a) describes a love tragedy that happened on Moon Festival Eve:

He-Li and Chen-Xin were lovers. Unfortunately, they met in a wrong time (Chinese Cultural Revolution), and a wrong place (a remote village where both were exiled). Even worse, He-Li was pregnant, which was a huge humiliation because it happened before marriage, contrary to Chinese traditional values. Since they had no way to go (abortion was forbidden for single women at that time), they chose to commit suicide together on Moon Festival, so that they could spiritually stay together forever.

Ancient Chinese poems reflect similar emotions. In Zhe Gu Tian: Zhong Yuan Qianxi Zai Fang Xuan-Wu Hu (Moon Festival on Xue-wu Lake) Ding Ning (1951) wrote,

Pasts shattered as dirt and dreams. / Lake widened as broad as the sky. / Floating back with moonlights and songs, / I sigh in the darkness for the whitening of my hair. /

Similarly, Li Bai (701-762 AD), one of the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty, described his homesickness in Moon Festival:

The bright moon rays in front of my bed / seemed like frost on the ground / I lifted my head and regarded the moon / I lowered my head and thought of my old home / (Li Bai, 755 AD).

Chinese Moon poems (and prose) always embody incorrigible romanticism and persistent nostalgiaCthe recollection of happy pasts, memories of old friends, longing for the faraway beloved, and the incompetence of preventing aging.

Compared with Thanksgiving, which features "Thanks" for what one already has and "Giving" help to the needy, the Moon Festival puts less emphasis on present prosperity and more on fulfillment in the future. In Chinese tradition, fulfillment is symbolized by "roundness." "Roundness (Yuan)" in Chinese could refer to reunification of family members (Tuan Yuan), to success of career (Yuan Man), to cultivation of "face" (Yuan Mian Zi), or to consummation of love (Yuan Fang). All these "roundness" are the ideal state of human life people pray for under the full moon. Thus, the Moon Festival is not to thank for blessings already attained, but to hope for blessings yet to be given. Since some blessings are too ideal to be attained, unfulfilled longings become the root of pessimism. In a most famous Moon Festival poem, the poet complained:

Does the moon show hatred toward mundane people? / Otherwise, why does it sarcastically reah roundness / in my departure with my beloved ones? / (Su Shi 1076 AD, Song Dynasty)

Thus, the emotional tone of American Thanksgiving reflects the abundance of an outgoing and currently prosperous society, while the emotional tone of the Moon FestivalCespecially of Moon Festival narrativesCreflects yearnings within people who hope for good fortune in an uncertain future.


American Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival are similar in some respects and different in others. The similarities show common responses to common circumstances. The differences show separate reactions to separate circumstances, and abiding gaps in custom and culture.

The interviews and short-term participant observations Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) used to study ThanksgivingCand the interviews, advertisements and Internet sites we used to study the Moon FestivalCplaced relatively more emphasis on values and responses that constitute the persona. The narrative accountsCTV stories, movies, novels and poemsCplaced relatively more emphasis on values and responses that lurk in the shadow. Together, these two biases help offset each other.


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William D. Wells, University of Minnesota
Qimei Chen, University of Minnesota


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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