Every 15th day of the eighth month on the Chinese calendar, the full moon (around the time of the autumnal equinox) is celebrated across the Chinese world. The Mid-Autumn Festival (or Mooncake Festival) has been designated by Beijing as a piece of “intangible cultural heritage,” widely considered the second-most important holiday in the Sinosphere. Photos of the festival in action posted today by the Wall Street Journal can be seen here.
Hanging lanterns, donning papier mâché masks, offering food to the gods – especially fruits – are all part of this holiday, but more than anything else, it is associated with friends, family and colleagues passing around boxes of mooncakes. The history behind this tradition stretches back to the ancient Shang Dynasty (16th-10th century BC). The rite did not begin to take on a wider social significance until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong. It was Xuanzong who held the first palatial celebrations for the occasion, with the term “mid-autumn” first appearing in Rites of Zhou, a written account of rituals performed by the Western Zhou Dynasty.
Alongside ties to the harvest (and worship of mountain gods), lunar worship – which the ancient Chinese believed could lead to rejuvenation – also figured heavily into the roots of this holiday.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
By and large, the most popular story surrounding the moon’s link to this holiday involves Chang’e (the Moon Goddess of Immortality). As the story goes, Chang’e lived at a time when the world had 10 suns. While normally only one of these suns would take to the sky each day, once they all ascended together, setting fire to the earth and destroying crops. The emperor in charge called on renowned archer Houyi to shoot down nine of the suns – a task he successfully completed. In return, the emperor gifted Houyi with a pill of immortality.
When Houyi’s wife Chang’e got hold of the pill and took it, however, she flew and landed on the moon where she remains to this day. (China’s lunar exploration program is appropriately named after her.) Houyi, on the other hand, ended up on the sun. On the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the two are reunited and the moon glows at its brightest all year. Other stories surrounding the festival range from a jade rabbit pounding medicine on the moon to Zhu Yuanzhang’s “Moon Cake Uprising,” in which the cakes were supposedly instrumental in overthrowing the Mongol dynasty (1271-1368 AD).
As for the entrance of the mooncake, folklore holds that a Turpan merchant presented an offering of cakes to Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty in celebration of his victory over the Xiongnu on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. The customary “mooncake” giving now observed throughout China and its cultural sphere stems from this tale.
The “fruitcake of China” consists of an outer layer of thin crust that encapsulates a filling of paste made with lotus seeds, red beans or dates. Salted egg yolks – reminiscent of the moon – are also sometimes baked into the cakes, which traditionally feature the crest of the baker who made that batch of the calorically loaded sweets. Unsurprisingly, consumerism has ensured that Starbucks, Häagen-Dazs and others have produced their own varieties, such as mooncakes with ice cream fillings. Today the bite-sized indulgences are sold at grocery stores and shopping malls across China and offer a wide range of origin stories. So many boxes of the cakes circulate among Chinese nowadays that stockpiling and re-gifting them is commonplace.
The prominence of mooncakes has featured heavily in recent media reports about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to crack down on bribery by banning the use of public funds for the purchase of the treats, as well as banquets traditionally held around the time of the festival. As the Sydney Morning Herald notes, mooncakes come in varieties practically begging for use in bribery, including cakes filled with abalone or shark fin, or topped with gold flakes, and cakes packaged in boxes alongside high-end liquor and even gold watches. This extravagance seems to be on the wane, however, with this year’s sales down from last year’s 280,000 tons ($2.8 billion) worth of mooncake sales.
Amid Xi’s crackdown, the cakes have also been used subversively. Beijing Cream revealed yesterday that hackers infiltrated the website of the local government of the city of Shaoxing in Zhejiang province, replacing four of five images with photos of mooncakes that feature messages critical of the government.
It’s hard to say what Chang’e would make of all this.