By Sophia Chow
Before the usage of the Gregorian calendar became commonplace, the Chinese used the phases of the moon to record the passage of time. As such, the moon traditionally has an important role in Chinese culture, both an object of worship as well as an inspirational symbol for songs and poetry.
On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, people in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, or 中秋節 (zhōng qiū jié). In 2016, the holiday fell on September 15th, just over two weeks ago. For the purposes of this piece, I will focus on Chinese and Japanese traditions as those are what I’m most familiar with, but I’d love to learn more about the traditions in other Asian countries!
The moon tends to be the most beautiful and full on the 15th day, and the 8th lunar month was chosen as it coincides with the harvest season—pleasant weather and abundant crops and fruits. In Chinese culture, it is a time for family and friends to gather together and appreciate not only each other, but also the beauty of the moon, while eating mooncakes. Mooncakes, or 月餅 (yuè bĭng), are baked pastries with traditional fillings of red bean paste or lotus seed paste, and some varieties also include a salted egg yolk in the center. They are molded into round shapes (symbolizing completeness, unity) with elaborate floral designs and often have various Chinese characters imprinted into the dough which name the original bakery, state the type of filling, or simply, “Happy Mid-Autumn Festival.” These days, pâtissiers have crafted all sorts of beautiful and colorful modern mooncakes with mochi exteriors, ice cream centers, cheesecake fillings, and so on.
In Taiwan, where my family is from, we also have a sweet-and-savory version of a mooncake called a 绿豆椪 (lǜ dòu pèng), made of mung bean paste and minced meat, and covered with a flaky pastry crust. Trust me guys, the balance of textures and flavors is so, so good. It’s one of my absolute favorite things to eat, and I’m crushed that I can’t seem to find them anywhere in Japan.
There is also a myth involving mooncakes which is too cool not to share. Back when China was under the oppressive Mongol regime first established by Kublai Khan, Chinese commoners baked and shared thousands of mooncakes with slips of paper hidden inside them. The hidden messages urged the Chinese to take up arms against their Mongol conquerors on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival in an act of rebellion. Through this coordinated effort, they eventually overthrew the Mongol dynasty and established the new Ming Dynasty.
The holiday has also spread to Japan, where the day is known as 月見 (tsukimi), or literally, “moon-viewing.” Instead of eating mooncakes, Japanese people offer and consume 月見団子 (tsukimi dango), piles of little round dumplings made of glutinous rice which symbolize the moon. Perhaps you’ve seen them being sold at your local grocery store or conbini. Japanese people gather to eat the dango and appreciate the beauty of the moon. Illustrations of a white rabbit are often included on signs and packaging for tsukimi sweets, in reference to the folklore tale of the rabbit on the moon that pounds mochi.
(Little pyramids of tsukimi dango. See the cute rabbit-shaped ones too!)
Chinatowns in Japan also sell mooncakes for the holiday, where the kanji for mooncake (月餅) is read as geppei. Japanese mooncakes have been developed to suit Japanese tastes, including fillings such as black sesame, chestnut, and white bean paste.
(Geppei sold in Japan. Note the popular panda imagery associated with all things Chinese.)
When the Mid-Autumn Festival rolls around next year, why not try some tsukimi dango or mooncakes for yourself as you appreciate the beauty of the full moon?