Mid-Autumn Festival and Mooncakes
The Mid-Autumn Festival has a special place for the Chinese and many Asians across the world. What is moon worshipping and what are mooncakes? Read further to learn about its importance and how it is celebrated.
By Georgine Leung, a trained nutritionist in the anthropology of food.
Mid-Autumn (中秋節), sometimes referred to as the Moon Festival, is one of the key festivals for Chinese and some Asian families around the globe. Its significance is usually only second to the Lunar New Year celebrations. It falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar which is also around the time of the autumnal equinox.
Moon worshipping is one of the key pagan festivities for Mid-Autumn. It is accompanied by incense burning, and the offering of mooncakes, seasonal fruit tea and sometimes rice wine, in honour of the full moon on this night. Other traditions to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival include the lighting of lanterns – traditionally made of paper – but now available in different forms. In some places, lanterns are tagged with short riddles on display at parks as a social activity for those celebrating the Festival. Dragon and lion dances are also popular in southern China and Vietnam to fend off bad spirits.
The Story of Chang’e
When it comes to the origins of moon worshipping, a host of legends prevail. One of the more telling tales involves the moon goodness, Chang’e (嫦娥), who swallowed the elixir of immortality and ascended to the moon. According to Chinese folklore, she was believed to reside with the Jade Rabbit in the Moon Palace. This is a particularly popular story with children on Mid-Autumn during which they are encouraged to observe the shadows on the moon and imagine these characters darting across it.
Mooncakes (月餅) are small, round Chinese pastries made of a thick filling usually of lotus seed or red bean paste with a thin pastry crust. They may also contain one or two salted duck egg yolk(s). There are variations of mooncakes across regions in China and Southeast Asia. The fillings are usually sweet but there are several savoury choices, and those made of different kinds of nuts, kernels and meats. In recent decades, non-baked options such as ‘snowy’ mooncakes also became popular. Its crust is made of glutinous flour with a stretchy, rather than a crumbly texture. Other contemporary choices include ice-cream and chocolate mooncakes, and many other kinds of fillings reflecting current market trends and consumer preferences, such as those calling for lighter and healthier alternatives. The gifting of mooncakes to family and friends is a popular gesture around this time.
How did the Mid-Autumn Festival come about?
The Mid-Autumn Festival has been commemorated as early as the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC) in China, when people celebrated their harvest during the autumn full moon. However, the ritual of eating a cake (or pastry) to mark the occasion only emerged in the later Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Sung (960 – 1127 AD) dynasties and began as a royal treat.
Mooncakes in Chinese History
Mooncakes also have an important place in the making of Chinese history. A well-accepted anecdote described how mooncakes embedded a message of revolt by the Han Chinese towards the ruling Mongols during the end of the Yuan dynasty (1280 – 1368 AD) as the Mongols’ dominance in China had caused extensive dissent. Some revolutionists worked together to hide a message inside the mooncakes to instigate an uprising on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. As the story goes, this led to the successful coordination of a rebellion by the Han Chinese which played a part in the collapse of the Yuan dynasty.
Significance of the mooncake
Mooncakes take the shape of the full moon which is considered to be the brightest and roundest at the time of Mid-Autumn. The full moon symbolises completeness for the reunion of family and friends, and signifies harmony and unity. This is why it is important for families to observe the Mid-Autumn Festival together through sharing a family meal and mooncakes.
What do people in China do to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival?
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a public holiday in China. Apart from family gatherings, mostly younger people enjoy travelling to other cities during this time. A popular destination is Xiamen in Fujian province, which is well-known for its ‘dice rolling’ game ( 中秋博餅). Players take their turns in rolling six dice in order to win the final grand price, which used to be different kinds of mooncakes but increasingly various consumer goods or prize money. This activity has achieved Grade II Intangible Cultural Heritage status in China.
How is Mid-Autumn celebrated across the world?
Globally, there are many variations of the celebrations of Mid-Autumn. Here are some examples: