11 am, UK time, 13th September, in China it’s already early evening. Mrs. Tong (59), one of my research participants in Shanghai, sent me a WeChat animated sticker of a bright full moon surrounded by three joyful bouncing bunnies, saying ‘Happy Mid-autumn day!’ (fig. 1) This is just one of hundreds of stickers, emoji, short videos, or animated albums to do with the full moon or moon cakes that circulated among friends and family members on WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China (fig. 2) on the day of Chinese mid-autumn festival.
Falling on the 15th of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the mid-autumn festival, or the ‘moon festival’, happened to be 13th September this year. Untouched by ‘western’ superstition surrounding Friday 13th, my WeChat profile ushered in the warmest greetings and festival wishes from a wide range of WeChat contacts from China many from my Shanghai field site which I left this June.
Mid-autumn festival is said to be second important national festival next to the Chinese New Year. Traditionally, on the festival day, family members gather to offer sacrifice (e.g. moon cakes) to the moon, appreciate the bright full moon at night, eat moon cakes, and express affection and sentiment of missing toward family members and friends who live afar.
Well, ‘live afar’ probably will be redefined as Mr. Huang (75), another research participant in Shanghai, said as a goodbye wish: “Even living in the same city, friends meet on WeChat. Live near or afar, it matters much less once you are on WeChat. So see you on WeChat.” Mr. Huang is indeed right. Three months after leaving the field work, I still feel deeply involved in the loop of neighbours’ gossips or the troublesome relationship of mother and daughter-in-law. I constantly get updates about the daily quarrels between the cat living on the 15th floor and the dog on the 20th floor, the routine exercises and activities in the old people’s home 5,700 miles away from London, all thanks to WeChat.
Back in London, my colleague Marilia asked me whether it was difficult to leave the field site. I shook my head: it is not difficult, it is simply IMPOSSIBLE. It may very well be the same case for other anthropologists in the age of smartphone: we meet people on social media, be it WeChat, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, so that even if there is an end to the field work, there will be no full stop to the constant connection with people from the field site online.
“How long will the full moon appear? Wine cup in hand, I ask the sky… Why then when people part, is the moon often full and bright? People have sorrow and joy; they part and meet again. The moon is bright or dim; it waxes and wanes. Nothing in history has ever been perfect.” Those melancholy words written on a mid-autumn festival 900 years ago by the great poet Su Shi, still influence nowadays Chinese people’s interpretation and aesthetic appreciation of the moon.
Every year, on this particular night, the bright full moon conjures the collective hallucination of ‘togetherness’ among Chinese people: no matter where you are, we are looking at the same moon, and we are bathing in the same moonlight together. Almost millennium ago, clever ancient Chinese have created the ‘mega-symbol’ moon to visualize and mediate the affections in long distance. Problem solved.
Alas, the perfect solution doesn’t work in the face of ‘time difference’ caused by really long distance in the ‘global village’. When my Chinese friends admired the full moon at night, I hadn’t even finished the first coffee during the day. However, before I saw the full moon on the sky, I had been bathing in the moonlight on WeChat during the day. One tends to think the full moon in the sky is more ‘real’ than the full moon on WeChat, but, is it? Would the moon in the sky be the same moon had it not been wrapped with the poetic imagination of ‘togetherness’ from generation to generation in China? If it is all about the shared imagination within the specific group of population, then the moon on WeChat shared among Chinese people is definitely more ‘real’ than the moon in the sky of the unlucky Friday the 13th.
Sometimes I am wondering, had poet Su Shi lived in today’s world, on the grand mid-autumn festival, whether he would still ask the sky for the full moon, holding the wine cup high, or, would he be equally satisfied by sending the full moon on WeChat, holding the smartphone tight.