Mid-Autumn Festival (a.k.a. Moon Festival)

The Mid-Autumn Festival (pronounced Zhōngqiū Jié) was traditionally for farmers celebrating their summer harvest on the day when the moon was deemed to be at its fullest and brightest. Nowadays, it has become the second-biggest holiday – after the Chinese New Year and celebrated widely amongst Chinese everywhere. This year, it falls on the Monday of September the 8th. The festival is renowned as a special occasion, where family and friends gather together and give thanks to joyous reunions.

There are many myths associated with the festival, particularly regarding its lunar deities. Many of these myths offer an explanation regarding the origin of moon worship occurring during the festival. One of the most well known myths is that of Chang’e, who is also known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality.

When I was young – and naïve, I might add – my grandfather used to sit me on his lap with a solemn expression and tell me the tragic folktale of Chang’e. Once upon a time, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was revered throughout the kingdom for his brilliant skills in archery. One year, ten suns rose into the sky simultaneously, and of course, catastrophe ensued. The heat was unbearable; there were droughts and famines, and people were starving. Hou Yi had marched atop a mountain and valiantly shot down nine of the ten suns, leaving only one to provide warmth and light. The common people were saved. A goddess – the Queen Mother of the West – admired Hou Yi and rewarded him with the elixir of immortality – enough for only one person. However, Hou Yi had a beautiful wife, Chang’e, and despite the promise of immortality, he was not willing to part with her. So he gave her the vial of elixir for safekeeping. After saving the people, Hou Yi’s reputation grew, and he accepted a lot of students who were all in awe of his skill. However, not all of them possessed good morals; in particular, a student named Feng Meng, who knew the secret of the elixir and wanted to steal it for himself. On the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, Feng Meng had feigned illness to avoid going hunting with Hou Yi. After Hou Yi left, he broke into Hou Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she consumed the elixir to escape his hands and flew uncontrollably to the heavens, now an immortal. Since she loved her husband very much, she chose the moon as her residence, since it was closest to Earth. When Hou Yi came back from his hunting trip with his students and learned the events that had transpired, he was distraught with woe. He displayed Chang’e’s favourite fruits and cakes in their yard and made annual tributes to his wife on the same day she flew to the heavens. When others learnt of the couple’s plight, they were sympathetic and participated in the tributes with Hou Yi by giving offerings of food and drink, eventually becoming what is known as the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Tradition dictates that families and friends gather on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar during a full moon, where they eat mooncakes and appreciate the beauty of the moon – which is a symbol of harmony and unity. Cultural customs include burning incense in reverence to deities such as Chang’e and performing dragon or lion dances. Many make an outing of the festival and celebrate by carrying brightly lit lanterns or even floating sky lanterns. Throughout time, the lanterns have evolved from symbolising fertility to symbolising the festival itself. An age-old tradition is to write riddles on elaborate lanterns, and anyone who solves the riddle is rewarded with the lantern.

Personally, my absolute favourite part of the festival is eating the mooncakes. Since the festival is associated with lunar worship and moon-gazing, I believe mooncakes to be an indispensible treat. In Chinese cultures, the round shape is considered particularly auspicious as it represents wholeness and unity – qualities highly regarded. Thus, sharing round mooncakes amongst family members signifies the completeness and harmony of families. Nowadays, less people make their own mooncakes at home, though my grandmother is a firm believer of making them the old-fashioned way, with the whole family at her beck and call. It’s become a popular custom to send relatives and friends gifts of mooncakes, usually packaged beautifully in brilliantly coloured tins.

Traditionally, mooncakes are round pastries composed of rich, thick fillings such as salted duck egg yolks, five kernel, and pastes of either red bean, jujube or lotus seed. Usually, the duck’s egg in the centre of the mooncake represents the full moon – slightly salty to taste, it balances out the sweetness of the dessert. In more contemporary times, however, mooncakes have successfully diversified, especially in regards to the fillings – now counting taro paste, pineapple and durian amongst the many, many choices. A recent phenomenon would be the ‘snow skin mooncake’ – made of frozen glutinous rice crusts and fruit, served cold. An interesting titbit – legend has it that instructions to overthrow the Mongol rulers during the Yuan dynasty were planted within mooncakes – as it was well know that Mongols didn’t eat them – resulting in a successful coup and the formation of the Ming dynasty. Ingenious eating at its finest!

At Mandarin Stars, we strive for the children to really get in touch with Chinese culture, and what better way to do that then teaching them about various festivals. This time round, we taught the kids how to make their own mini-mooncakes in class using playdough, glitter and a mooncake mold. Everyone had a lot of fun as we learnt about the story of Chang’e and why the Chinese celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. When we pulled out the flashcards for ‘lantern’ and ‘mooncake’, some of the kids got really excited, and started relating anecdotes of how they’ve eaten mooncakes before, or the time they lit lanterns at their grandparent’s place. In class, the kids learn through play as they make sense of the world around them. Children develop social and cognitive skills through play and they mature emotionally. For instance, when we’re giving out plates during fruit time and we run out of a particular colour – some kids are willing to trade their plates for another, and when other kids see this they’re willing to do the same.

Last but not least, a tip for mooncake-eating – they’re meant to be shared! Too many times I’ve given mooncakes to friends, only to see them frown apologetically – “but I can’t finish an entire one – mooncakes are much too rich!” Mooncakes are usually cut into quarters – eighths, even – and passed around the family; different fillings are often bought to offer more variety. People usually nibble on them whilst drinking cups of chrysanthemum tea as conversations flow freely. My favourite mooncakes would be the ones from Wing Wah and Kee Wah – pure decadence! The Emperor’s Garden Cakes & Bakery in Chinatown also do really nice mooncakes for reasonable prices.

And hereby I wish everyone a very happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Melanie Ling

Mandarin Stars