Blog, China

September 14, 2008

Mooncakes and the Mid-Autumn Day Festival

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Chinese Mooncake I have to confess, I’m a big fan of mooncakes! For those of you who don’t know what’s a mooncake – Mooncake (濿饼; pinyin: yuè bĭng) is a traditional Chinese pastry eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival and it comes in all kinds of shapes, sizes and fillings. It’s nothing like the traditional pastry we are used to, although you will not notice the difference by just looking at it you’ll feel how heavy it is when you take it in your hand. Under the thin pastry crust is a dense and usually sweet filling (the common filling is lotus seed paste) and eating just one of these mooncakes is typically enough for an average person, but you can force some more if consuming them with tea. Oh, and don’t be surprised to find a salty egg yolk inside the cake! It is meant to symbolize the full moon, although I’m not sure why does it have to be salty? Well, if you live in China for some time and you get used to things like pineapple toppings for every type of pizza and sweet and sour sauces, then a salty egg yolk inside a sweet cake should be completely normal.

Mooncakes are probably the main thing during the Mid-Autumn day festival (中秿篿), or at least it is so in my understanding. The Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar (which is mid or late September), and this year it falls on this Sunday, September 14th. Because the event of full moon actually occurs night time, some very few regions will celebrate the festival on the day after, rather then the day before the festival. It’s a traditional holiday celebrated within the family and this year it was even made official holiday (no more Golden Weeks, remember!) Oh, and I just found a little story on danwei blog regarding the dilemma of dates to celebrate the this holday – The Poor Person’s Mid-Autumn Festival is on the 16th (by Zeng Ying).

What is the meaning of this festival and how it was originated you might ask? I also asked myself that question and addressed it to the locals, but I always got quite a vague answer like: “we’re contemplating the moon”. So, I decided to find out myself and here’s what I dug:

“The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, is a popular East Asian tradition of Chinese origin, dating back over 3,000 years to moon worship in China’s Shang Dynasty”

“In Malaysia and Singapore, it is also sometimes referred to as the Lantern Festival or Mooncake Festival. The Chinese Lantern Festival is held on the 15 day of the first lunar month.”

But, most importantly I also found the legend of Houyi and Chang’e that explains the moon gazing and the jade rabbit. The only trouble is there are several versions, but they all have a few things in common:

  • Once there were 10 suns and global warming was a kind of real threat
  • Chang’e was a great archer and he shot 9 of the suns, leaving one for us to enjoy
  • Chang’e gets a magical pill that grants eternal life
  • But accidentally his wife Houyi eats the pill and begins flying
  • Her flight for certain reasons stops at the moon
  • Heartbroked Chang’e contemplates the moon thing of his beloved one
  • There’s a rabbit appearing in the story out of nowhere
  • oh… and there’s of course an Emperor!

Mid autumn festival Legend Here’s a short version of one of the variations:

“Chang’e and Houyi were immortals living in heaven. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor transformed into ten suns, causing the earth to scorch. Having failed to order his sons to stop ruining the earth, the Jade Emperor summoned Houyi for help. Houyi, using his legendary archery skills, shot down nine of the sons, but spared one son to be the sun. The Jade Emperor was obviously displeased with Houyi�??s solution to save the earth. As punishment, he banished Houyi and Chang’e to live as mere mortals on earth.

Seeing that Chang’e felt extremely miserable over her loss of immortality, Houyi decided to journey on a long, perilous quest to find the pill of immortality so that the couple could be immortals again. At the end of his quest, he met the Queen Mother of the West, who agreed to give him the pill, but warned him that each person would only need half a pill to regain immortality.

Houyi brought the pill home and stored it in a case. He warned Chang’e not to open the case, and then left home for a while. Like Pandora in Greek mythology, Chang’e became curious. She opened up the case and found the pill, just as Houyi was returning home. Nervous that Houyi would catch her, discovering the contents of the case, she accidentally swallowed the entire pill, and started to float into the sky because of the overdose. Although Houyi wanted to shoot her in order to prevent her from floating further, he could not bear to aim the arrow at her. Chang’e kept on floating until she landed on the moon.

While she became lonely on the moon without her husband, she did have company. A jade rabbit, who manufactured elixirs, also lived on the moon.”

If you’re decided to read a few more versions, check this article on wikipedia and other versions here.

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