We eat mooncakes on the Mid-Autumn Festival because of a folk tale about undying love and betrayal

Happy Mid-Autumn festival.
Happy Mid-Autumn festival.
Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung
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The Mid-Autumn Festival is nearly upon us—falling on Oct. 4 in 2017 and Sept. 24 in 2018 (it takes place on the 15th of the eighth month on the lunar calendar)—which means family reunions and endless mooncakes in many Asian communities around the world.

The holiday dates back more than 3,000 years to the Northern Song Dynasty in China, but it’s also widely celebrated throughout Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

The origin

The Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the moon when it’s supposedly the roundest and fullest during the year. There are various origin tales for the holiday, but most of them center on the love story between the beautiful and intelligent goddess Chang’e and her husband, a renowned archer named Hou Yi, according to the book Handbook of Chinese Mythology by folklore experts at China’s Beijing Normal University and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

While the details differ by region, a common version (pg. 90) tells of how Yi saved the mortal world when 10 suns unexpectedly rose over the sky one year. The archer shot down nine of those suns, earning him an elixir of immortality from Xi Wangmu, the immortal queen mother of the west. Instead of taking it, however, he chose to stay in the mortal world with his love, and gave the potion to Chang’e, who kept it in her possession.

Knowing of this elixir, Yi’s apprentice Feng Meng broke into the couple’s home while his master was hunting. When he forced Chang’e to give him the potion, she refused and swallowed it, flying off to the sky. Because she didn’t want to be far from her husband, she chose to live on the moon. When Yi returned home and learned of the events that had transpired, the heartbroken husband offered fruits and cakes in their yard to memorialize his wife. When people learned what happened, they too decided to worship the moon each year on the anniversary of these events, on the 15th day of the eighth month, when the moon was at its brightest and fullest.

How it’s celebrated

In China, the Mid-Autumn Festival has since become associated with family reunions, harvest, and of course mooncakes—earning the holiday the lesser-used moniker “the mooncake festival.” Though mooncakes are ubiquitous in China in the weeks leading up to the holiday, the treat didn’t become popular until the Yuan dynasty. It’s said that mooncakes were used during the Yuan dynasty as a vessel for dispersing secret notes (paywall), helping the Han Chinese overthrow their Mongolian rulers.

Most people are probably familiar with the traditional Cantonese mooncake—made with thick lotus seed paste, wrapped around one or two whole salted duck egg yolks, and covered with a thin crust—that’s popular in Guangdong and Hong Kong, but there are many variations depending on the region in China. In southwestern Yunnan province, locals prepare the filling using flowers and ham. In Suzhou, near Shanghai, mooncakes have a flaky crust and meat filling, and the treats are enjoyed year round. Beijing mooncakes are known for their delicacy with flavors like red bean.

Aside from these traditional varieties, mooncakes these days have been infused with innovative new elements, including ice cream filling, icy crusts, and flavors like chocolate and vanilla. Even Starbucks and Haagan-Dazs have their own renditions.

epa05540266 A college-level Indonesian student opens a box of mooncakes as part of an activity held to teach foreign students about the Mid-Autumn Festival at Jingshan Park in Beijing, China, 15 September 2016. China observes the Mid-Autumn Festival or Mooncake Festival on 15 September, which this year is the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar where traditionally family members and friends gather to admire the mid-autumn moon and eat moon cakes together.
A traditional mooncake.
Image: EPA/Rolex Dela Pena

Mooncakes are usually eaten after dinner while admiring the moon, but the festival is also celebrated by the Chinese in other ways. People decorate their streets, homes, and businesses with lanterns, traditionally handmade with paper, though bulb-lit ones are popular these days. In southern China, people also celebrate by throwing water into vats of boiling wax to create exploding effects, though Hong Kong law now prohibits tampering with hot wax (section 23A).

Mooncakes are popular in China and places with large overseas Chinese populations, but that’s not how everyone celebrates the full moon. In South Korea, where the festival is known as Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, families gather to visit ancestral graves, watch folk dancing, and eat songpyeon, a golf ball-size rice cake filled with ingredients, such as sesame seeds, red beans, and chestnuts. In Japan, where Tsukimi is celebrated, people eat tsukimi dango, round white dumplings made of rice.