The Chinese have given us much to celebrate, not least Chinese food, which has seemingly left its indelible mark on every continent around the globe. Perhaps it is fitting that the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, second only in importance to the Spring Festival, brings with it another Chinese delight – the moon cake.
Also known as the Moon Festival or “Zhongqiu jie”, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated annually on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, this year falling on October 1st (Thursday). It is the same day as China National Day.
With the moon at its brightest, the date will be a celebration of the end of the summer harvesting season for farmers, while for others it is the opportunity for a joyous reunion of family members who gather to party and appreciate the beauty of the autumn moon. Indeed, those of Chinese origin around the globe see the occasion as a chance to gallivant, dance, feast and moon watch to their heart’s content.
Legends concerning the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival abound, but perhaps the most told is of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e, and her tempestuous relationship with her consort, the Lord Archer, Hou Yi.
The story goes that once, while the earth and its population were being ravaged by a severe drought caused by ten suns fiercely burning simultaneously in the sky, Hou Yi was summoned by the gods and asked to shoot down nine of the demon suns with the promise that in return he would be given the highly sought after elixir of immortality.
Task duly completed and reward in hand, the master archer returned home to share the prize with his lovely wife, Chang’e. However, she purportedly stole the potion for herself and took refuge in the moon. Hou Yi followed in hot pursuit, only to be intercepted by the Hare, who would not allow Hou Yi to pass until he promised reconciliation with his wife. As the story goes, since that time, on the 15th day of each lunar month the spouses meet, Hou Yi duly travelling from his palace in the sun to the moon palace he had constructed for his wife.
A typical painting shows Chang’e floating toward the moon, often with her palace in the background. The Hare is sometimes present, preparing the drug of immortality. Statues more often represent her holding a moon disc in her raised right hand.
As Chinese people celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival and the memory of Chang’e, the full moon shines in the heavens and many go outside to view the supposed outline of a toad on the surface of the moon, for this creature, according to another fable, is now Chang’e.
As part of the festival, moon cakes are indispensible, traditionally eaten and/or offered as gifts to friends and neighbours. Hardly an item at the top of a dedicated dieter’s list, moon cakes are usually round, but occasionally square or rectangular.
Within the decorated pastry casing lies a rich and filling paste, often of durian, mixed nut, bean or lotus seed to sate the Asian palate, while containing an egg yolk representative of the full moon and sometimes, in more elaborate designs, four yolks indicating the four phases of the moon.
For the unknowing, perhaps the closest description of a moon cake might be of a pork pie and, as delicious as they are, given the moon cake’s exceedingly high calorie count, like a pie they are indeed often offered sliced into smaller pieces for everyone’s shared enjoyment.