For many of my foreign readers out there, you must be wondering what on earth are “Mooncakes”? Mooncakes are made from moon dust brought back from the lunar missions. The United States government made a deal with the communist Chinese government to secretly import moon dust for Chinese consumption and the Chinese in turn funded part of the missions. The Chinese still funds NASA till today but on a lower scale given the large imports of moon dust in the early days. Did you know they actually secretly shipped tonnes of moon dust back to earth during each mission? Amazing stuff. This explains the the lack of new lunar missions by NASA today.
Okay, just ignore my made up conspiracy theory. Mooncakes are not made from moon dust and have no links to the lunar missions! The Americans were the first on the moon and all due to their own credit. The lunar missions, however, debunked quite a bit of the mythology (more on this later) behind the mid-Autumn festival celebrated in China and other Asian states.
What is Mid-Autumn festival
Mid-Autumn festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month each year. For those unfamiliar with the lunar calendar, the moon is the fullest on each 15th day of each month. The festival apparently has roots in moon worship before evolving into a festival revolving around the appreciation of a beautiful moon. You can say it is similar to Christmas evolving from something religious (worship of the Roman Sun God / Celebration of Christ’s birth) into a somewhat commercial festival enjoyed by both Christians and non-Christians alike.
There are a few myths tied to the festival.
Chang’e – The lady on the moon
This was the myth that the lunar missions debunked. There appears to be a few versions of this myth. Wikipedia kindly summarised the plots and I shall reproduce them here:
In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang’e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved very much her husband and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.
After the hero Houyi shot down nine of the ten suns, he was pronounced king by the thankful people. However, he soon became a conceited and tyrannical ruler. In order to live long without death, he asked for the elixir from Xiwangmu. But his wife, Chang’e, stole it on the fifteenth of August because she did not want the cruel king to live long and hurt more people. She took the magic potion to prevent her husband from becoming immortal. Houyi was so angry when discovered that Chang’e took the elixir, he shot at his wife as she flew toward the moon, though he missed. Chang’e fled to the moon and became the spirit of the moon. Houyi died soon because he was overcome with great anger. Thereafter, people offer a sacrifice to Chang’e on every lunar fifteenth of August to commemorate Chang’e’s action.
I personally prefer the second version more. Maybe because this was the version that I grew up reading and also it shows the great sacrifice Chang’e suffered to benefit the people against a tyrant king.
While I have not been able to find any reference to a rabbit with the Chang’e myth, I remember hearing stories of Chang’e with her rabbit on the moon. If you have not noticed the rabbit before, look hard at a full moon and you will be able to see that rabbit on the moon.
A tool for 007
The festival is also known for the consumption of mooncakes and there is a myth that these simple pastries were used in China’s underground movement to overthrow the Yuan government (i.e. the Mongols).
The Chinese had suffered under Mongol rule and sought to overthrow the government and reinstate a Han Chinese government. However, as communications were difficult between the rebels, a way of communicating had to be developed so as to allow the rebels to bypass any censorship and also avoid detection.
A plan was devised. Messages were to be inserted into mooncakes so that news of the rebellion could be passed around. Alternatively, messages could be “printed” onto the surfaces of a few cakes. When the cakes were delivered to its intended recipient, the reader can cut the cakes into quarters and rearrange the word printed on each quarter to reveal the message.
While there is no proof that the messages led to a coordinated uprising, there may be some truth behind the use of mooncakes to pass messages.
Mid-Autumn festival today
Today (as in the present times), families gather on the 15th day to celebrate this festival (for all those wondering, the 15th day this year falls on 4 October 2017).
Celebrations here include lighting of lanterns and eating mooncakes accompanied with tea while moon watching. While it doesn’t sound like much, I remember it was a fun time for me as a kid many years ago. We would go around the house and hanging paper lanterns lit with real candles on trees. Orange, red, green, yellow and blue. A myriad of colours. Then you have an occasional “bonfire” when one of your lanterns ends up bursting into flames.
So, what on earth are mooncakes?
Mooncakes. Having gone one full circle covering the history the festival and how families celebrate the festival today, we are back to the one item that started this whole discourse.
What on earth are they?
Mooncakes are round pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 3–4 cm thick. Traditionally, such pastries have a rich thick filling usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste and is surrounded by a thin crust. A more indulgent variant may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. As with all things, you have modern variants with aspiring bakeries deciding to outdo each other. These variants not only put traditional fillings to the test (instead of using red bean or lotus seed paste you have black sesame, durian and pandan flavoured paste) but also the entire concept of a baked pastry is now questionable. Instead of the traditional mooncakes, there are now “snow skins” that are unbaked and served cold.
Personally, I’m a traditional mooncake fan and dislike snow skins.
If you are in China or areas with large numbers of Chinese, be sure to look out for a mooncake fair. There will likely be samples for you to try so even if you don’t intend to buy any you can still join in the festivities:
Have you tried mooncakes before? Did you buy any like I did? Let me know in the comments.
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