Mid-Autumn, Mooncakes, and Mythology

A belated happy mid-autumn festival!

Zentih Mid-Autumn Festival 2016 GIF | Gfycat

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a time of family gathering. I first understood this when I was young and my mom was away on a business trip during that year’s festival. We still cut our mooncakes with a portion for her set aside and my dad reminded us that the beautiful full moon we were admiring was the very same one that beamed down on her, so we were connected by the moon. In fact, as someone who grew up celebrating all major holidays with my family (new year’s parties with friends still feel foreign to me), 中秋节 (zhōngqiūjié) was the first family holiday I spent away from my home and my family in college. I distinctly remember crying over the mooncakes my parents had lovingly purchased for me to bring back to campus when I visited them, because I had never eaten mooncakes alone before.

Even without a global pandemic still happening, my family has been split across many cities for a few years now, but I still acutely feel the effects of the pandemic on the festive season. I used to think my festive season ran from October (Halloween) through to the beginning of January (New Year’s ending the Christmas season), but upon reflection this year, I’m finding that my personal festive season starts in earnest with the Mid-Autumn Festival and ends with the end of Lunar New Year celebrations. (That’s when we would take down our tree, after all.) So starting the festive season without having seen any of my family (besides my husband) since February? January? When I consider the many people who aren’t even able to get mooncakes to eat alone (and am grateful for efforts to remedy that this year), I am worried about the lows we may reach during the festive season.

BUT.
This post is not about being sad during the holidays. 😅 This post is actually an informational one about the Mid-Autumn Festival, mooncakes, and the mythology surrounding this super important Asian holiday, where I’ll be focusing on Chinese traditions and folklore since I’m of Chinese descent. I decided to put a little informational up here because I got really into my Instagram stories writing about 七夕, aka “Chinese Valentine’s Day”, so I thought I’d spare my Instagram followers and torment my scarce blog readers instead. I’ll also share some new ways I’m celebrating this year in lieu of different circumstances and a highly-challenged comfort zone.

M I D – A U T U M N. The reason mid-autumn is celebrated, even though the beginning of astronomical autumn is around the same time, because it falls in the very middle of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, which traditionally marks the middle of autumn. (Chinese calendars can be confusing, even when you don’t take into consideration the lunar calendar. For example, traditionally, China has also kept track of solar terms, which track with astrological seasons but there are 24 of them, each one having a different meaning with regards to agriculture.) Mid-autumn falls on a different Gregorian calendar date every year because the lunar calendar is not in sync, but it is always somewhere in that September-October season.

This festival is also a heavily moon-centric one, in part because it is supposedly the brightest, fullest moon of the year. (If you’re familiar with the concept of “harvest moon”, this is it!) In fact, from what I understand, in Japan they observe a moon-viewing festival (o-tsukimi お月見) on this date.

M O O N C A K E S. There is a lot of lore around just the mooncakes themselves. The story goes that mooncakes were used to smuggle messages in an attempt to overthrow Mongol rule in China, either by putting them inside the dense cakes or by putting coded messages on top of the mooncakes themselves.

baked pastry
Photo: Thoa Ngo

The above photo shows the mooncake I am familiar with; in fact, it’s the only style I’ve ever eaten. I believe the ones I have are Cantonese style, with my favorite fillings being white lotus paste and red bean paste (sorry five-nut…) and the more salted duck egg yolks, the better. (Seeing 白莲双黄, white lotus double yolk, on the top of a mooncake is always a treat!) Other easy to identify, visually, types of mooncakes are Suzhou-style flaky mooncakes, which often have a meat filling, and the more modern snowskin mooncakes, which are similar to mochi with their glutinous rice wrapping.

As with many other trends during the pandemic, many homecooks have tried their hands at making mooncakes at home. Mooncakes are not a food that you traditionally make at home, though. Asian supermarkets will always start selling them by the end of August, and Chinese bakeries frequently make them to sell during this time of year as well. Part of the festivities includes buying beautifully-packaged mooncakes to gift to your family, your boss, your teachers, etc.

12 indulgent mooncakes to get this Mid-Autumn Festival
I could do a whole listsicle post about fancy mooncake packages…

The egg yolk is popular in sweet and savory mooncakes because it represents the moon itself, a little lunar morsel for celebration. The traditional fillings for the mooncakes have historically been the remainders of preserved foods from the previous year’s harvest to make room for the new fall harvest bounties, hence why there are so many jams and pastes and cured meats and egg yolks.

M Y T H O L O G Y. There are always a few different versions of the story of Chang’e 嫦娥 and the Jade Rabbit so today I’m just sharing the one I’m most familiar with.

Once upon a time, there were 10 suns that would take turns illuminating our days when things went awry one day and all 10 rose at once, scorching the surface of our planet and threatening not only the crops but existence itself. The archer Houyi 后羿 shot down 9 of the suns and was rewarded with the elixir of immortality, and he became a king as well for his heroic deeds. However, power corrupted Houyi and he became a cruel tyrant. His wife, Chang’e, fearful that her husband would use immortality to abuse his citizens for all time, took the elixir herself. She then ascended to the moon, where her husband could not follow.

The Lady Chang'e Flying to the Moon

There on the moon, Chang’e remains, alongside the Jade Rabbit, who resides there producing the elixir of life. The rabbit always features prominently in many Asian folklore tales about the moon because you can see it when you look up.

Rabbit in the moon standing by pot.png
The Jade Rabbit working with their mortar and pestle on the elixir

This is why you see so many rabbits in the decor for the Mid-Autumn Festival, and even why Sailor Moon’s civilian first name is Usagi, which means “rabbit” in Japanese.

Sailormoon Bed GIF - Sailormoon Bed - Discover & Share GIFs

Anyway, I hope this was helpful in providing a bit of context to one of the major holidays celebrated across Asia!

We had a very low-key celebration at home. I spent 3 days preparing to make snowskin mooncakes, only to fail with the sticky dough and pivot to just making pumpkin mochi cakes instead, steamed and fried, which turned out really nicely, thankfully! We also ordered in an autumnal Chinese dinner (since I was sweating it out in the kitchen all evening) with some roast duck and pork, both traditional for celebrating mid-autumn. (Oh, what I would’ve given for some fresh crabs though…)

If you celebrate the festival, how did your celebration go?
What are your favorite kind of mooncakes? I still haven’t tried other types yet but maybe I’ll be able to scoop up some as bakeries sell off their remaining mooncakes.

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