One of my most favourite festivals in China is the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is the second most important Chinese celebration of the year after the Lunar New Year (Spring Festival celebrating the Chinese New Year). It is also called Moon Festival or the Harvest Festival and falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is at its apogee and at its brightest symbolizing ‘completeness’.
Many legends are associated with this festival and the one I prefer refers to Hou Yi, God of the Sun, who was only allowed to visit his beloved wife, Lady Chang Er, on the moon, once a year. Legend says that the moon shines brightest on that day because of their love.
The Chinese word for round has a similar pronunciation to the words reunion and perfect. This festival is a day for family reunions and the traditional gifts are ‘moon cakes’, round baked cakes in the shape of the moon. The traditional filling used to be a simple egg yolk – symbolizing the moon, surrounded by white lotus paste or red bean paste, and sometimes with assorted nuts and dried fruits.
In Chinese culture, Moon Cakes symbolize a host of good things:
- The circle (shape of the Moon Cake) is a symbol of harmony.
- The round shape stands for family unity and symbolizes the cycle of life, connecting the past, present, and future
- It also symbolizes long life and good health
In the 14th Century, messages were contained inside Moon Cakes for secret communication promoting a rebellion against the ruling Yuan Dynasty, which had been founded by Kublai Khan. It was eventually replaced with the Ming Dynasty and the story says that Moon Cakes were credited with the victory.
In the 1990s, I used to drive to the Tan Zhe Si Temple, outside of Beijing, to view the Moon on this spectacular evening. One time, a friend of mine from Hong Kong flew specially to Beijing on the occasion. She had heard so much from me about spending the night watching the Moon at the temple that she could not resist and eventually made the trip. The night was truly spectacular and especially when the Moon appeared between two ancient and majestic pine trees. Enjoying Moon Cakes and a bottle of wine, we surely saw Lady Chang Er on the Moon as the ancient pines were slowly moving in the gentle breeze and singing their special tune.
Nowadays, the sky is literally the limit with regards to Moon Cake fillings. People can enjoy, in addition to traditional savoury moon cakes, many sweet options such as chocolate moon cakes and ice cream moon cakes.
Also, Beijing has its own types of Moon Cakes made without egg yolk, smaller and less opulent than traditional ones. They are called Zi Lai Hong and Zi Lai Bai. The former is darker and has the distinctive taste of sesame oil and sweet osmanthus paste. The latter is filled with walnut, raisin and dry osmanthus.