What is the Mid-Autumn Festival?
The Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival, is an annual holiday celebrated by the Chinese and Vietnamese on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar (usually sometime between September and October). It was initially held to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, but now is a time for family members to reunite (many often journeying long distances) and spend a three-day weekend together.
I often liken the Mid-Autumn Festival to Thanksgiving in the USA, but Mid-Autumn festival has more similar counterparts in Korea and Japan (with the Chuseok and Tsukimi holidays). During this holiday in China, family members will cook and eat traditional foods, watch tv together, and enjoy the full moon.
Origins of the Festival
There are so many versions, but most tales tend to involve the hero Hou Yi (pronounced Hoe-Ee) and the Goddess Chang’e (pronounced Chang uh). The gist is that one day the great Heavenly Emperor’s ten sons decided one day to turn themselves into actual suns. The Emperor was incredibly angry as his sons were scorching the Earth and harming the inhabitants (ten blazing suns are seriously hot). He asked fellow immortal Hou Yi to help him out. Hou Yi used his bow and arrow to shoot down nine of the ten sons, leaving one permanently stuck. The Emperor was so enraged at the death of nine of his sons that he banished Hou Yi and Hou Yi’s wife, Chang’e, to Earth as mortals.
One version of the story is that Hou Yi felt bad for his wife, who did no wrong, and remembered that there was a powerful being named the “Immortal Queen Mother of the West” who lived on Earth. He journeyed to her for an elixir of immortality. For saving the Earth from burning to a crisp, the Queen Mother gave him the elixirs. She warned to only drink half as the drinking it whole will cause one to return to the heavens.
Much like Pandora’s Box, Hou Yi told his wife not to open the chest he brought back till his return. Chang’e couldn’t wait, and in her eagerness accidentally drank the whole elixir. Chang’e immediately floated upwards. A returning Hou Yi saw, but couldn’t shoot her down for fear of killing her. Since she and her husband were banished from the heavens, Chang’e ended up forever being stuck on the moon. Her husband, Hou Yi, lived out the rest of his mortal life on Earth. People have given offerings to Moon Goddess Chang’e during this festival for millennia, recorded as far back as the Shang Dynasty (c.1600–1046 BC). It was first officially celebrated as a national festival during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127).
Other folktales explain how a rabbit came to live on the moon with Chang’e – hence why Chinese see a rabbit (rather than the Western “Man in the Moon”) when they look at the moon!
Perhaps the most well-known out of all the Mid-Autumn Festival foods (other traditional foods include hairy crab, pumpkin, and pomelos), mooncakes are very distinct in their shape and design. Incredibly rich, these cakes come in a wide variety of shapes and flavors. The most common fillings are usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste is surrounded by a thin (2–3 mm) crust. Many of the cakes contain yolks from salted duck eggs, meat, or nuts. They’re usually given as gifts to friends, family, and colleagues, and are either baked or made of pounded rice (like mochi) with a stamp of sort of auspicious design on the top. Moreover, the cakes are often eaten in small wedges accompanied by tea.
Mooncakes have been a delicacy since as long ago as the 14th century, and are traditionally filled with lotus paste and egg yolk. But pastry chefs have become increasingly innovative, making the cakes with ingredients from spicy chicken to 24-carat gold.Alexandra Ma from Insider.com
These days, gourmet mooncakes are all the rage. With the widespread popularity of sharing food shots on social media and access to a plethora of ingredients, it’s not uncommon to find mooncakes touting “exotic ingredients” or foreign brand names. Dior, Tiffany, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton all surprisingly have a hand in the mooncake business! Haagen-Dazs has even bene successful with selling ice cream mooncakes for the past 20 years. I even read that Oreo also offers their own take on the mooncake, replacing the lotus paste fillings with flavors such as double chocolate or strawberry jam. I love oreos and just might have to try them one of these days.
One fun Chinese legend says that mooncakes helped overthrow the Mongolian empire in the 14th century! Expatriate Lifestyle explains how Revolutionaries spread a rumor about a deadly disease that could only be cured through eating mooncakes. When the people cut into their mooncakes, however, they found a message with the date of the revolt — the 15th day of the eighth month of the year!
Making Mooncakes with my students!
This year, I was able to make mooncakes for the first time with my middle school students. The two departments at my new school in Beijing (the American Primary and the American Middle School) came together to do this activity the day before our three-day Mid-Autumn Festival weekend.
It was a lot of fun! The Middle Schoolers stayed behind in the canteen after lunch to put away the dining chairs, clean the tables, and lay lots of cellophane down. We set up the stations with our cake molds, and the canteen workers brought out our balls of filling (green or red bean) and warm pounded rice. The little primary students were brought in, and we all played around with the dough and molds. The best part was definitely eating our creations!