When you eat mooncakes, they have to be at least three days old, or else the baked outside of the pastry will be too tough to chew.
You also have the option between savory and sweet fillings—the most common being egg yolk, lotus, or bean filling. I recommend the lotus. Or you could go for “snow skin” mooncakes, which replace the baked outside with mochi or sticky rice. So grab your choice of mooncakes, pour yourself a cup of hot tea, maybe light a lantern, and let’s go outside to admire the moon.
While others are still waiting for Halloween to start the holiday season, many Asian countries have already started celebrating with the Mid-Autumn Festival. This festival, also known as the Moon or Mooncake Festival, celebrates the end of harvest with mooncake, Peking duck, fruit, and paper lanterns. Every year, it takes place during the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. This year, the festival lands on October 1st, coinciding with the Chinese National Holiday. Therefore, the celebration is extended to eight days—a lucky number in Chinese culture.
A lot of movies and TV shows that feature Chinese culture, such as Disney’s Mulan or Netflix’s The Ghost Bride, put so much emphasis on tradition. So it’s easy to assume that Chinese culture is ancient, fixed, and unchanging. Even the Mid-Autumn Festival’s origins are deeply rooted in folklore and historical records. But the festival’s continued celebration, not only in China but also around the world, shows that traditional ideas can still grow and adapt.
Let’s start with the history: The festival’s origins date back to over 2,000 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). Initially, it looked nothing like the celebrations today. According to Zhou Li (周禮, the Rites of Zhou), Chinese emperors and high officials would simply prepare sacrifices for the moon. But, by the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), it had become celebrated among the common people. It grew so much in popularity that, by the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD), the Mid-Autumn Festival was declared a national celebration.
Like any good celebration, there are a lot of folk tales that have popped up over the years. One of the most popular stories is about the archer Hou Yi and his wife Chang’e, who becomes the goddess of the moon—literal star-crossed lovers. There are variations to this story, but the Mid-Autumn Festival is considered the one day of the year when the couple can reunite. But the reunion isn’t just for the swoon-worthy couple. It’s also reflected in the festival’s practice of family gatherings and, you guessed it, mooncakes AKA “reunion cakes.”
But the celebration continues to change and, although it has Chinese roots, variations of the festival occur throughout Asia. In Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, and the Philippines—where there are large ethnic Chinese populations—some practices remain the same with paper lanterns, traditional lion and dragon dances, fireworks, and feasting. Singapore’s festivities are known for its bazaars, carnivals, and lantern fairs along the Singapore River. Similarly, Malaysia’s Penang region hosts a “River of Lights” lantern parade.
However, other Asian countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and South Korea have developed their own practices. In Japan, the festival is called Tsukimi or Otsukimi. Seasonal cooking is popular alongside tsukimi-dango (rice dumplings) and displays of susuki (Japanese pampas grass). In Vietnam, the holiday is called Têt Trung Thu, also known as the “Children’s Festival.” Those celebrations are primarily focused on children with toys, masks, parades, and lion dances. In South Korea, a similar festival is called Chuseok, and is considered one of the biggest holidays. It is spread across three days, focusing on family reunions and recognizing ancestors. The Mid-Autumn Festival even finds footing outside of Asia with celebrations in major cities throughout the US, Canada, and Australia.
The idea of reunion and family echoes across many of these traditions that have persisted through different countries and separate continents. Therefore, it is not surprising that although this year’s global pandemic has put a damper on most festivities, the Mid-Autumn Festival is still being celebrated. Moreover, the Mid-Autumn Festival and its variations continue to remind us that even some of the most traditional ideas, old as they are, can still change and grow for a modern, global age.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!