Mid-Autumn Festival and Moon Cakes

Mid-Autumn Festival and Moon Cakes    —by Jinny Batterson

This past weekend in China, people celebrated “Mid-Autumn Festival,”  whose closest U.S. equivalents may be various localized harvest moon celebrations.  The Chinese festival falls at the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Mid-Autumn Festival is a time when families will reunite whenever practical. As if to help encourage the custom, the Chinese expressions for “round” (yuan) and “reunion” (tuanyuan) sound similar and share their main character.

At Mid-Autumn Festival time, I’ve sometimes gotten gifts of “moon cakes” from Chinese students or colleagues.  The recipes for these mostly round confections vary from place to place.  All the ones I’ve tasted have been greasy, heavy, and sweet.  Commercially made moon cakes are most often sold in decorative boxes with elaborate wrappings, eight or twelve or even twenty to a box. Moon cakes frequently have decorations or sayings stamped into their tops, with fillings of sweet bean paste, green tea paste, or fruit preserves. They remind me a little of the traditional dense fruit-and-nut-laden cakes that sometimes accompany U.S. family gatherings at Christmas time. People are reluctant to discontinue the tradition, but may be just as reluctant to eat large portions of the rich cakes. An anecdote I heard during one China stay was that gifting boxes of moon cakes to co-workers used to be nearly obligatory, but that “regifting” was widespread as well—people told me of one Shanghai office worker who placed an inconspicuous marker on a box of cakes before giving it to a colleague.  Sure enough, several days and giftees later, the marked box made its way back to him.

Various stories and myths are associated with the holiday. Historians trace the offering of moon cakes during the festival to the beginnings of the Yuan Dynasty, whose army was victorious during the 13th century in part because it passed secret messages back and forth imbedded in moon-shaped cakes. One popular legend tells of ancient hero Hou Yi and his lovely wife Chang E.  Chang E was forced by the queen of heaven to drink an elixir that caused her to leave earth for the heavens beyond. Because she loved her husband and did not want to leave him, Chang E stopped at the nearest heavenly body to earth, the moon. When the moon was full and round, Hou Yi could sometimes see an image of his wife in the patterns on the moon’s surface. He began offering Chang E’s favorite foods as a sacrifice at a local shrine. The custom was later taken up by others, who offered sacrifices of moon cakes at Mid-Autumn amid prayers for peace and good fortune.

The one time I was in China and paying attention at the Mid-Autumn holiday, I missed an invitation to some students’ moon viewing party because I wasn’t fluent in “QQ,” a widely used social networking tool in China.  Students later consoled me for missing their gathering—it had been impossible to see the moon, anyway, they said, that misty evening in Ya’an, Sichuan. At a recent mid-autumn gathering in the U.S., I saw a video of a traditional Chinese family Mid-Autumn festival evening. The hostess for the extended family gathering had made a homemade moon cake about the size of a large pie. She carefully cut the cake into enough pieces for everyone, offering the first slice to the oldest family member. At Mid-Autumn celebrations, someone often recites the Su Shi poem, “Shui Diao Ge Tou,” or performs its musical version.  It tells of the poet’s longing to be reunited with his faraway brother.

In this season when nostalgia comes easily, as summer’s heat gives way to the occasional chill, as the first frost looms, we can all remember family, friends and loved ones, even those separated from us by great distances. All of us can view the same moon.

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