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The origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival and the significance of mooncakes

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the Lunar Calendar during a full moon. Based on the Gregorian calendar, the festival usually lands itself in September or early October. The celebration today is an occasion to gather as a family to share a meal, light lanterns, and gaze at the moon. Oh, and one more thing – eat mooncakes.

While it is almost certain for you to find one specialty food that represents a traditional festival in Chinese culture, the Mid-Autumn Festival is not just about eating mooncakes.

The Mid-Autumn festival, or also know as ‘zhongqiu jie’ traditionally marks the end of the autumn harvest which dated back to the Zhou dynasty, the longest Chinese reign between 1046 to 256 B.C. It is a time to offer gratitude to the lunar deity, Chang-Er, the moon goddess of immortality. But why celebrate the moon?

The legend of the Moon Goddess, Chang-Er.

According to Chinese folklore, the Jade Emperor who once ruled the world had 10 sons. They transformed themselves into 10 suns, and began scorching the earth relentlessly; killing crops and causing agony to the people. The Jade Emperor summoned the famous archer, Hou Yi who successfully brought down nine of the suns. He was granted the elixir of immortality for his gallantry. But instead of consuming it, he gave it to his wife, Chang-Er for safekeeping.

When one of Hou Yi’s disciples tried to steal the elixir, Chang-Er made a quick decision to swallow the potion and floated to the moon. She was unable to descend back to Earth and remained on the moon as one of the heavenly deities, although different versions suggested that she would return to earth once every year during the Mid-Autumn day to reunite with her husband.

Hou Yi, distraught at the loss of his wife, burned incense and made food offerings to the moon. Touched by this love story, the practice of worshipping the moon and lighting lanterns in her honour to see her in the beautiful night sky has since evolved into a tradition that spread across China.

Chinese people in ancient times would worship the moon as a symbol of thanksgiving for good harvest.

During the festival, women would set up an altar with statues of the moon rabbit, melons and pomegranates to symbolise fertility. 13 mooncakes will also be displayed to represent the 13 months of the Chinese lunar.

But how did the Chinese end up celebrating the festival by giving out and eating mooncakes? Fables and folktales have different stories on the origin of this customary practice.

More than just cakes
One of the most popular stories talked about how mooncakes were used as a plotting mechanism against the Mongol rule at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. Rebel leader Zhu Yuan Zhang distributed thousands of mooncakes to the Chinese people in Mongol capital to ‘celebrate’ the Mongol ruler.

Messages that read, “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month” were concealed inside mooncakes as a way to organise a rebellion. The revolt was a success and the Mongol government overthrown, marking the creation of the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

There are various types of mooncakes according to its origins. (Credit: Getty Images)

Historically, the association of round cakes with the Mid-Autumn Festival began during the Tang dynasty (618AD-907AD). Emperor Xizong who reigned between 873AD-888AD presented round cakes and red silk during the festival to scholars who excelled their imperial tests.

But it was during the Song dynasty (960AD-1279) that mooncakes became a de rigueur custom to the festival. However, a scripture from the Song period once described mooncakes as “soft, flat cakes that were steamed and had no filling” – nothing like the baked types we see today.

By the early 19th century, cities along the Yangtze River Delta (Suzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou) began creating mooncakes filled with walnuts and a soft sweetened paste. The lotus seed paste that has been a classic favourite is just one of many types of mooncake fillings across China, which include seeds, dried fruit, assorted beans and even ham.

The mooncake industry is a billion-dollar business in China alone. (Credit: Getty Images)

Types of mooncakes
Traditionally, the most well-known mooncakes hail from southern China. Recognisable renditions known as Cantonese-style mooncakes — typically baked with an elaborate stamp on the top depicting elements iconic to the festival including peonies, butterflies and auspicious Chinese characters. They are filled with lotus seed paste and a salted duck egg yolk centre to represent the moon.

In Chinese culture, the round shape also symbolises wholeness and unity. A full moon represents prosperity and unity for the whole family. And in a typical Chinese family where a reunion is held as one of the most important tradition even in modern times, Mid-Autumn Festival is highly revered as a day of obligation for family members to come together for a meal and eating mooncakes. These sweet and savoury treats must be shared, with the round cakes being sliced into eight pieces for obvious reasons – the number 8 is auspicious for the Chinese.

Different parts of China also have their own version with different shapes and filling. Some are larger and flatter while others are savoury (filled with salted mung bean paste or yam) depending on its origins. For instance, Shanghai mooncakes are usually shaped like a ball, with no intricate stamps on the top – generally just egg wash and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. The Beijing-style mooncakes tend to be spherical, with a sweet and crispy outer crust.

Yunnan-style mooncakes are unique with salted meat filling wrapped in a delicious chewy crust. The aroma of pork lard emanates through the pastry, making this type a mouthwatering snack in Yunnan and the surrounding area. The Suzhou-style mooncakes, on the other hand, are generally filled with pork-mince filling for a savoury variety.

Some mooncakes variants are square in shape. (Credit: Getty Images)

These meaty mooncakes, however, are not symbolic to the Mid-Autumn festival, but expect no less than hour-long queues especially during this time of the month; these classic pork mooncakes are usually bought as a snack or gifts for family and friends.

Mooncakes for millennials
The moon-worshipping ritual has since disappeared, but the mooncakes survived. While only two or three types of mooncakes are popularised in the last few decades, the last five years have seen consumers faced with an overwhelming variety of flavours and packaging.

With rising obesity rates and the advent of related diseases, the mooncake purveyors have adopted a ‘healthier approach’ to making mooncakes more ‘accessible’ to the mass market. But with every mooncake averaging close to 1,000 calories (if you go for the egg yolk variety), many are steering away from these indulgent delights.

Every year, Starbucks will supply the gift box of mooncakes especially for Chinese customers to celebrate the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival. (Photo by Zhang Peng via Getty Images)

In fact, the market has also seen the introduction of low-fat and vegan mooncakes free from eggs and lard, both key ingredients of the traditional mooncakes. Mainstream food companies are also seeing this segment as a money-making tool – creating their own version with a chocolate exterior and ice cream interior, which bears no resemblance to the traditional cake in anything but shape.

Mooncakes have also evolved from traditional flavours into daring territory. Many now contain truffles, cheese and even champagne. In Southeast Asia, local ingredients like durian, pandan and calamansi are also making their way into today’s mooncakes.

Mooncakes today come in all sorts of designs, sizes and flavours. (Credit: Getty Images)

This innovation even extends to packaging. Fashion brands like Bottega Veneta, Van Cleef & Arpels and Louis Vuitton have also jumped in on the chance to offer their own version of packaged mooncakes to be distributed to VIP customers in the region.

The palm-sized symbolic form of the moon will continue to evolve and grow away from its original significance. These new-fangled creations may infuriate traditionalists but even as specific customs vary by geography and new ways of thinking, one element has remained the same: the Mid-Autumn festival is a time for families to come together and enjoy mooncakes as a sign of love and harmony.

Martin Teo
Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. He's now on a lookout for the elusive Philodendron Florida Beauty to add to his urban garden.
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