The Mid-Autumn Festival, a time of joyous and romantic celebration for the Chinese
The Mid Autumn Festival, coming hot on the heels of the Month of the Hungry Ghosts according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, is one of the hot favorites on the list of festivals celebrated by the Chinese as well as our Vietnamese friends.. As we close the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts and herald this more auspicious festival, providing insight into this romantic and joyous celebration becomes something I would like to do for everyone!
How the Mid Autumn Festival is celebrated
Celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, this is a fitting switch from the more serious Month of the Hungry Ghosts, as it promises fun, a little romance (if you are lucky) and awesome, fantastic treats as well. This festival has become a particular favorite of mine because of a sinful but oh-so-good dessert - moon cakes, which I will introduce a little later.
How do the Chinese and Vietnamese celebrate the Mid Autumn festival? Those who are Taoists or Buddhists would begin by first making offerings of food and incense to various deities of the moon, including Chang E, Goddess of the Moon, whose story of romance I will share in a little while.She is accompanied by her faithful Jade Rabbit, who lives on the moon with her. It is also a time for little children to surface at night with beautiful, brightly lit lanterns. When I was younger, these used to be lanterns that were brightened primarily with the flame of a candle.I even burnt one by mistake! These days, everything has become, of course, battery powered!
There is the must have of Moon Cakes, of course, a sweet pastry dessert augmented by red bean or lotus paste filling. There is a captivating story behind the moon cake, which I will be only too glad to divulge. These days, the pastries used to make moon cakes have become more varied, what with the use of snow skin, green tea, durian and even strawberry! There are those who crave the good old traditional pastry flavor. Whatever your palate decides, you are guaranteed to find a moon cake that suits it.
Dragon Dances were often performed, in days of old, to revere the river spirit as well as to herald imperial authority. They were a hall mark of festive celebrations. These days, they are dances for entertainment - children find it amusing when the ‘dragon’ manipulated by a team of skilled dancers, manages to interact with them.
There is the eating of the pomelo to usher in auspiciousness and drive away bad luck. The pomelo may be a fruit with a bitter pith, but the juicy fruit inside more than makes up for its tough exterior.
All these make the Mid Autumn Festival one to look forward to. There are interesting legends and folklore that accompany this fascinating celebration as well.
Stories behind the Mid Autumn Festival
Chang E, Goddess of the Moon
The beginning of the Mid Autumn festival was also known in ancient times as Chinese Valentine’s Day, and indeed, a little romance is definitely involved. There are different versions of this story, but one version of the Legend has it that Hou Yi, an immortal, worked together with Chang E, a beautiful young maiden in the palace of the Jade emperor. They were married, but the bliss was short lived. Hou Yi soon aroused the jealousy of other immortals who slandered him in front of the Jade emperor and the couple was banished to the moon.
There were 10 Suns circling the Earth that caused it to burn. Emperor Yao, the then Emperor of China, commanded Hou Yi to use his skills in archery to shoot down all but one of the 10 suns. Hou Yi did so and was rewarded with the pill for eternal life. Chang E discovered it during her husband’s absence and swallowed it. Hou Yi discovered it and reprimanded his wife, who conveniently escaped by flying out of the window.
Chang E, who reached the moon, coughed up part of the pill, which she commanded her companion pet, the Jade Rabbit, to swallow as well. Hou Yi built himself a palace in the sun and visits his wife once a year during the Mid Autumn festival, which explains the beauty of the moon during that night.
The Jade Rabbit
Legend has it that the Jade rabbit is still accompanying Chang E on the moon and using a mortar and pestle to pound herbs to make the pill!
Wu Kang, the man on the moon
Wu Kang, a shiftless fellow, constantly changed mentors and apprenticeships. One day, he decided that he wanted to be an immortal. He went to live on the mountains where he appointed another immortal to teach him. The immortal introduced to him the various features of herbs used to cure illnesses, but his characteristic restlessness reared its ugly head. He was then given books of immortality to study. His interest again waned, and he was finally banished by his master to the moon palace. He was told to chop down a Cassia tree, which regenerates itself with each blow. There he is, still chopping to this day.
Why the Chinese eat moon cakes - the overthrow of Mongol Rule
The Mid Autumn festival marks an uprising in China against the rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled from 1230 to 1368 B.C. During this time, group gatherings were banned to prevent rebellion of any form. Li Bowen, advisor to the Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuan Zhang, noted that the Mongols did not eat moon cakes.
Thus, he timed the rebellion against Mongol rule to coincide with the Mid Autumn Festival.
He cleverly sought permission to distribute thousands of moon cakes to residents with a message hidden within - “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month.” On that night, the rebels attacked, overthrew the Yuan Government, and thus Mongol Rule. Moon cakes have since been enjoyed nation wide in China to celebrate the momentous occasion.
Moon Cake varieties-tradition versus modernity
Till this day, moon cakes remain a favorite pastry dessert in many Chinese families. Many, like myself, prefer the traditional taste!
Lotus Seed Paste
Made from dried lotus seeds, this is considered to be the most luxurious among moon cake fillings.
There are many moon cake varieties, including red bean paste, mung bean paste and black bean potato paste, but red bean paste is the most commonly used as moon cake filling.
Five Kernel - nuts!
Nuts are often used as a filling for moon cakes. These include walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds and almonds. depending on the region in China the moon cakes are made.
Egg yolks are, for some, an indispensable feature of moon cake eating. However, watchers of cholesterol might not wish to have yolks in their moon cakes, which can come with no yolk, a single yolk, double yolk or even quadruple, depending on the taster’s fancy!
Regional Varieties of Moon cakes
If one is in China and planning on having a moon cake for dessert during this time, the variety one gets will depend on the part of China you are at! China is divided into various regions with people speaking different dialects - hence their moon cakes would reflect the same variety!
Cantonese style moon cakes
These moon cakes hail from south China’s Guangdong Province. The fillings in these moon cakes are various, which highlights the adventurous nature of the Cantonese people when it comes to eating.The most used ingredients include lotus seed paste, melon seed paste, ham, chicken, duck, roast pork, mushrooms, and egg yolks. Cantonese-style moon cakes taste sweet.
Suzhou Style Moon Cakes
These moon cakes, which hail from Suzhou, are famous for their flaky pastry dough. They are a weight watcher’s nightmare, being generously dolloped with large amounts of sugar and lard. Suzhou style or Su style moon cakes cater to sweet and savory tastes.
Beijing Moon cakes
Moon cakes from Beijing are known for being ornately decorated as well as for their meticulous allotment of skin and filling.
Chaoshan Style Moon Cakes
These moon cakes are larger than Su style ones and are characterized by their heavy fillings of Mung Bean and Black Bean Potato Paste.
Ningbo Style Moon Cakes
These moon cakes are salty and spicy in flavor, hailing from China’s Zhejiang province.
Modern Moon Cakes
Alright, so eating traditional moon cake pastry can be rather heavy and boring. So why not try these delicious varieties?
Ice Cream Moon Cakes
These days, ice cream moon cakes are all the rage with young children. These are carvings of ice cream made to look like moon cakes. Sweeties for the kiddos!
Durian Moon Cakes
Pastry and skin made out of durian and flour is used to fashion this moon cake for lovers of the durian. A soft, yellowy delicious treat!
Green Tea Moon Cakes
Green tea leaves are added to lotus seed paste and covered with light green coloured pastry. Fitting for lovers of green tea!
Hou Yi and Chang E, one of the legends behind the moon cake festival
Fun Facts about the Mid Autumn Festival
The Mid Autumn Festival does not always occur during a full moon.
The Chinese lunar calendar does not coincide with the revolution of the moon, so it is not guaranteed that there will be a full moon during the mid autumn festival.
Bringing the family to the banks of the Qiantang River
The Qiantang River in Zhejiang is known for its upsurges and tidal waves, and many love bringing their families to its banks to witness the upsurge. Unfortunately, there was an incident involving a 90 m tidal wave which crashed into the river’s banks and injured many people.
The Mid Autumn Festival was considered the Chinese Valentine’s day in days of old.
In ancient times, the Chinese used to pay homage to Yue Xia Lao Ren or Old Man in the Moon. He acted as the Chinese cupid, who brought unmarried couples together.
Wearing Pomelo Rinds
In ancient times, silk weavers would wear pomelo rinds around their heads to ward off rats and discourage them from eating their silk worms.
The mid autumn festival is a fascinating one, filled with Chinese cultural history. A delicious festival too, one can look forward these days to a variety of moon cakes - it is immense and delightful indeed. A warm introduction to the Mid Autumn to everyone, which starts on the 17th of September this year!
Copyright (C) by Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin
No reproduction of this work is to be made without the permission of the author.
Other articles on culture by Michelle Liew (midget 38)
- What it means to be Peranakan - the customs and dishes made by the straits born Chinese
Insights into the customs and traditions of the Peranakans, the fascinating straits born Chinese community.
- Beliefs surrounding the Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts : A horror story
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