Online article researched and written in 2003 on assignment by Mooncake — a fusion restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden, that was patronized, among others, by celebrities and the Swedish royal family
©Zak Keith 2003
The Mooncake Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival or Choong Chou, is a yearly Chinese festival celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, when the moon is said to be at its biggest, brightest and closest to the earth. Held in conjunction with the Lantern Festival, the Mooncake Festival has come to be associated with bright and colorful lanterns.
In Chinese cities or Chinatowns throughout the world, thousands of candlelit lanterns line sidewalks and waterfronts during the double festival. Anxious children on moonlit strolls watch as their minders help them to light their lanterns suspended on the end of a stick. Other excited children run around, faces aglow, gently waving plastic lanterns in the shapes of goldfish, rabbits, butterflies, stars, airplanes and ships. In places like Hong Kong, mainland China or any other regions with large Chinese populations, you’ll find families gathering in open spaces and scenic mountain spots to enjoy a view of the season’s auspicious full moon. You might also notice some old Chinese ladies cautioning their young never to point at the moon too, for it would be “disrespectful to the Lady of the Moon.” Young hopefuls wandering alone, try hard to spot the Old Man of the Moon, to ask that he grant them their wish for true love.
In every Chinese home, a rich brown round “cake”—more like a pie of sorts—is cut and served. Round shapes symbolize return—a full circle—in Chinese philosophy. A fundamental canon of Taoism is perfect harmony achieved through the union of man’s spirit with nature. Thus, the traditional round shapes of mooncakes and older round paper lanterns have come to symbolize an occasion for family reunion to the Chinese.
The roots of the Mooncake Festival may lie in the harvest festivals of old, which were celebrated with thanksgiving, especially after a plentiful harvest. Harvest festivals were celebrated not only by the Chinese, but by many cultures, including those in the West. However, the Mooncake Festival however carries a significantly patriotic undertone. In the ways of the Chinese, a simple symbol encapsulates and communicates a universe of deep meanings: tales of romance, immortality, regeneration and hope; a history lesson complete with reminders to diligently guard the independence and integrity of the Chinese people.
According to one popular oral tradition, mooncakes were used to restore Chinese rule in the 13th or 14th century— a time when China was in revolt against Mongolian rule. A rebel, General Chu Yuen-Chang, and his Senior Deputy, Liu Po-Wen, had devised a strategy to recapture a walled city held by the Mongols. Disguised as a Taoist priest, Liu entered the city distributing mooncakes to the populace. Then on the 15th day of the 8th month—the time of celebrations and traditionally the day when mooncakes are eaten—the mooncakes were sliced and to the surprise of the city folk, found to contain hidden messages—instructions to coordinate a civilian uprising with the attack of Chinese troops outside the walls. The successful dissemination of battle plans through this “Chinese Trojan Horse” of sorts (pardon the Eurocentrism), or “fortune-cookie telegram” if you prefer (although, fortune cookies were invented in the US!), and the subsequent victory over the northern “barbarians” eventually established Chu as Emperor of China.
Today, mooncakes no longer contain notes of conspiracy or messages about dissent and revolt. The delicacy is made of a sweet floury cake base called yueh ping, shaped into round discs symbolizing the moon and filled with sesame seeds, ground-lotus-seed pâté and salted duck eggs.
Once the discs are sealed, a logo of the “Lady of the Moon” is either printed or cast onto every mooncake. Her logo is as a rule, on every mooncake, every mooncake box and every mooncake festive poster; sometimes along with a “jade hare.” So who is this Lady, whom to this day, Chinese operas still portray as dancing and flying toward the moon?
According to another popular oral Chinese tradition, there was once a beautiful woman named Chang Oh, who lived a long, long, long time ago, specifically during the Sha Dynasty of 2205-1766 B.C. She was married to Hou Yi, a skilled archer and great general of the Imperial Guard. One day, at the behest of the Emperor, the general shot down eight of nine suns that had mysteriously appeared in the heavens that morning. He was richly rewarded for his marksmanship by the Emperor and the relieved populace. However, fearing that the suns would re-appear and dry up the earth, they prayed to Wang Mu, the Goddess of Heaven, asking that General Hou be made an immortal, so that he could continue to defend the nation for all eternity. The goddess granted them their wish, and General Hou was given a pill of immortality. Unfortunately, his envious wife Chang Oh, seized the pill of immortality for herself, and fled to the moon.
The story continues, that when Chang Oh reached the moon, she found a tree under which there was a friendly “jade hare.” She began coughing from the cold moon air and accidentally regurgitated the pill of immortality. Wishing to make amends and to appease her pursuers, she ordered the hare to pound it into tiny fragments and scatter the chaff all over the earth, so that everyone could be made immortal. She then built a palace for herself and remained on the moon.
Perhaps she met the Old Man of the Moon and lived happily ever after...?
All romantics know that true love and marriages are made in heaven, but what the Chinese say, is that all marriages are decided on the moon—by none other than the Old Man of the Moon. Who else?
Yueh Lao Yeh, the old man of the moon, is said to keep a book of records with all the names of the newborn. He decides who everyone’s future partner will be, and his decisions, once written in his book, are an irreversible fate. Hopeful singles and even ambitious children hike away from the cities into open spaces and mountain tops during the Mooncake Festival just to see the moon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Old Man of the Moon, to ask that he grant them their wishes about their future partners.
The Mooncake Festival is now the second largest Chinese Festival after the Chinese New Year, and like the New Year, it has been heavily commercialized. Mooncakes have become highly overpriced commodities, with “quality cakes” costing US$80 upward during peak season, even in traditionally inexpensive locations, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. We’re still talking about a mere few bites per “cake” and ingredients worth no more than a few cents. Still, you’ll find the Chinese parting with their money to buy them, rather than “losing face” over being seen as “too poor” to afford them. Perhaps no price is too small to pay for “saving China,” “a taste of immortality” and “eternal love.”
©Zak Keith 2003