Why we eat mooncake during the Mid-Autumn Festival

The rich and heartwarming culture of the Mid-Autumn Festival season is here, and this year we were treated to a very special celebration by Hennessy X.O and hosted by Harry Shum Jr! The virtual event, “A Moonlight Odyssey,” connected us all with amazing performances by NIKI, Hayley Kiyoko, Guapdad 4000 and Bohan Phoenix, let us sit in on touching stories with filmmaker Eddie Huang and the founders of Omsom, and taught us a few special Hennessy cocktails with mixologist Inga Tantisalidchai.

Photo courtesy of Hennessy X.O

To continue to honor this amazing holiday celebrated all over the world, let’s go on our own little odyssey to explore the legends that have survived thousands of years to bring us the rich culture, the fun holiday and the tasty mooncakes we have today.

The cake shaped like a full moon

Mooncake is a Chinese pastry so special that you only get to see or taste it once a year.  

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Traditionally shaped like a full moon, the mooncake is served, shared and enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Festival, an important holiday in Chinese culture that falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. 

The circle also signifies “oneness,” “perfection” and “unity,” which holds more significance when family members get together to celebrate the day that the moon is at its fullest.

Mooncakes are made in different varieties with an assortment of shapes and fillings now, but the traditional mooncake is made with a rich, thick filling of either red bean paste or lotus seed paste inside a thin, flaky or chewy crust of glutinous rice flour. 

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Regional varieties, such as Cantonese mooncake, may contain salted egg yolks in their center to symbolize the full moon. Nowadays, bakeries adorn the mooncakes with Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony” and label them to indicate the type of filling inside. 

During Mid-Autumn Festival reunions and get-togethers, mooncakes are usually enjoyed between loved ones and are also given as gifts to express love and good fortune. The cakes are so popular that the holiday is often called the Mooncake Festival. 

However, this holiday delicacy isn’t just filled with a sweet or savory filling, it’s also brimming with thousands of years of cultural history.

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Some 3,000 years ago…

During the Shang (1600 to 1046 B.C.) and Zhou dynasties (1112 to 256 B.C.), people in today’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces created a pastry named Taishi Cake in memory of Taishi, the last Shang emperor. The cake was subsequently renamed hu bing, or walnut cake, after sesame and walnut were added to the ingredients later on.

While people have been celebrating the harvest season coinciding with the autumn full moon since the Shang dynasty, actual Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations started much later. 

Legends of the mooncake

In one mooncake festival legend, Emperor Xuanzong (Li Longji) of the Tang Dynasty (619 to 907 A.D.) reportedly started holding formal celebrations in his palace after being invited to the moon for a party. It was not long after during Northern Song Dynasty (960 to 1127 A.D.) when it became customary for citizens to worship the harvest moon on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.

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One popular story over the mooncake itself, which was included in Chinese folklore during the Tang Dynasty, was about a trader who offered hu bing cakes to Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) after he returned home to celebrate a hard-fought victory against the Turks. The emperor shared the cakes with his officials and later named them mooncakes after seeing his consort Lady Yang Yuhuan, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, looking up at the moon. 

A different story places the mooncake eating tradition’s beginning after the Han Chinese rose against the ruling Mongols toward the end of the Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368).

A rebel leader named Zhu Yuanzhang distributed thousands of mooncakes to Chinese residents in the Mongol capital under the guise of celebrating the Mongol ruler. Each cake had a secret piece of paper informing they would attack on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.

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When the fateful day came, the plan succeeded and the Mongols were overthrown. Zhu, who founded the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), would later commemorate the victory with his officials on the day they attacked with the mooncakes.

Another origin story comes from the Handbook of Chinese Mythology where a young archer named Hou Yi became a hero for saving the world from a scorching heat.

Hou Yi took on the challenge of destroying nine of the 10 existing suns with his bow and arrow as the heat had been causing a drought in their area. After his success, the people chose him to be their king but he eventually became tyrannical. 

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To stay in power forever, he asked the “Queen Mother of the Western Paradise” Xiwangmu for an elixir of life. Hou Yi’s wife Chang’e later stole the elixir and consumed it to prevent Yi from becoming immortal and ruling forever. 

The elixir turned Chang’e into the Moon Goddess of Immortality, a highly revered figure who was admired for her sacrifice. To commemorate her actions, people would offer a sacrifice every 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The Han Chinese eventually continued the practice by laying out mooncakes and round fruits in their yards. 

The Liji, an ancient Chinese book that records customs and ceremonies, says the Chinese Emperor should offer sacrifices to the Sun in spring and the Moon in autumn. The 15th day of the 8th lunar month should be called “Mid-Autumn,” while the night is called “Night of the Moon.” Even today, some celebrations include offerings to the lunar deity Chang’e.

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Modern mooncakes

While reunions and gatherings have become limited in the pandemic, other elements that make the Mid-Autumn festival special are still very much alive like in the case of Hennessy X.O’s “A Moonlight Odyssey” virtual celebration.

 

Celebrating the holiday and eating mooncake remains a strong tradition wherever Chinese communities live throughout the world, even extending to fashion houses and designer labels who include mooncakes in holiday campaigns. 

Catch up on Hennessy X.O’s “A Moonlight Odyssey” to see our favorite Asian celebrities share their culturally inspiring stories and make the Mid-Autumn Festival the beautiful tradition we all share.

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Feature Image via Hennessy X.O

This post was created by NextShark with Hennessy X.O

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