The Chinese Mooncake Festival 

The Mooncake Festival, also known as Mid-Autumn Festival, falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month which is Sept 24 this year. Historically, it was a harvest festival for farmers but traditionally, womenfolk worshipped Chang-Er, the moon goddess. Moncakes are also known as ``reunion cakes'' as family members gather to partake of the sweet confectionery. Mooncakes are eaten throughout the month before the actual festival day. They make meaningful gifts for kith and kin. In the evenings, children gleefully carry lanterns of all shapes and sizes. The bearing of lanterns and the origin of mooncakes date back to a 14th century revolt by the Chinese against the Mongols.

In 1376, the Chinese overthrew the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1280-1376) in an uprising brilliantly hatched by lantern-bearing messengers who delivered mooncakes with hidden messages. Legend has it that the time and place of the revolution were concealed in the mooncakes sent to friends and relatives. The midnight massacre of the Mongols was led by Liu Bowen. Today, altars are set up outside the house facing the full moon on the night of the festival. The ``harvest moon'' is at its brightest and roundest this time of the year. Offerings of mooncakes, mini yams and water caltrops are laid out for Chang-Er, also known as the Moon Lady. Round fruits are offered as the shape symbolises the fullness of the moon and family harmony.

Some women peel pomelos and mini yams in the belief that they will have a flawless complexion. Others pray to the moon goddess hoping to be blessed with good husbands. The classic tale of Chang-Er, the beautiful moon goddess, is associated with the Mooncake Festival. Pictures of her in a flowy gown floating to the moon commonly adorn mooncake boxes. Folklore has it that she was married to the divine archer Hou Yi, who shot nine out of 10 suns that were causing havoc. For his deed, the Queen Mother of the West gave him the elixir of life. Chang-Er stole her husband's potion of immortality, drank it and found herself floating to the moon. There she lives out her days in the cold lonely moon palace with a furry rabbit for companion.

A slightly different version says that Hou Yi was a tyrannical ruler. Chang-Er drank the magic potion to prevent him from becoming immortal. Another myth tells of woodcutter Wu Gang who was banished to the moon and became Chang-Er's friend and servant. The Jade Emperor punished Wu Gang by ordering him to cut down a cassia tree. It was a task that could never be completed as the tree is immortal and would grow back each time it is felled. Moon worship has its roots in China's Sung (960-1127), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, when commoners and emperors alike observed the practice.

Imperial chefs made mooncakes over a metre in diameter with designs of the moon goddess, the moon palace and cassia tree. Ordinary mooncakes were several centimetres in diameter. During the Qing dynasty, mooncakes were renamed ``moonflowers.'' In Mandarin, the word yuebing for mooncakes sounds like ``monthly sickness'' (or menstruation). The Empress Dowager Ci Xi staged rituals for an elaborate moon festival lasting from the 13th through the 17th day of the eighth lunar month. Some Chinese families today still stay up late to observe the occasion eating mooncakes, sipping tea and gazing at the beautiful moon. It is regarded the perfect moment if someone catches the moon's reflection in the centre of his or her teacup.


C-Right 2014 by Langkawi Gazette