This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival (Chinese: 中秋节, zhōng qiū jié) is approaching, which means it’s time to put up gorgeous lanterns and feast on decadent mooncakes! This year, the festival falls on September 21.
What is Mid-Autumn Festival?
The festival takes place in mid-autumn, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar. It is believed that on this day, the moon is at its roundest and shines the brightest. This festival is widely celebrated in East and South-east Asia, with each culture having their own unique customs. It is a happy occasion, commemorated with joyous gatherings and rituals. Together, families and friends appreciate the full moon while enjoying a delightful feast (with mooncakes, of course!). Incense is also often burned in reverence to deities, while the children play with lanterns.
History of Mid-Autumn Festival
The origins of Mid-Autumn Festival can be traced back 3000 years, all the way back to 1046 B.C., evolving throughout the centuries to become the festival we know today.
In the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 B.C.) when moon worship was commonplace, ceremonies to worship the moon were held in the middle of autumn to celebrate the bountiful harvest and the beautiful full moon.
However, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.) that mooncakes were eaten to celebrate the occasion. Before that, porridge was typically eaten during the festival as the dish could easily be made with harvested ingredients. When the general Li Jing defeated the Turks on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the Tibetan regime in ancient China congratulated the Chinese emperor by sending them cakes. These cakes later came to be known as mooncakes.
The festival continued to grow in significance over the years. A fixed date was set for the festival, and it is now one of the most important festivals in China, on par with the Chinese New Year. In China, the festival has even been recognised as a public holiday since 2008.
Legends of Mid-Autumn Festival
There are a couple of legends surrounding the festival, though the two most widely told tales are about Chang’e (Chinese: 嫦娥, cháng é) and the jade rabbit.
The Myth of Chang’e
In ancient times, there was an archer named Hou Yi (Chinese: 后羿, hòu yì) who lived with his wife, Chang’e. One year, ten suns shone in the sky all at once, causing torturous heat and great disaster to the people. Hou Yi shot down nine of the ten suns and was hailed as a hero.
To reward him, the Queen Mother gifted Hou Yi the elixir of immortality. Once taken, he would become immortal and immediately ascend to heaven. However, he did not wish to leave Chang’e behind and asked her to keep the elixir. Unfortunately, an apprentice of Hou Yi, found out about the elixir and attempted to coerce Chang’e into handing the elixir over when Hou Yi was out hunting. Chang’e refused to do so, and in a moment of desperation, swallowed the elixir instead. She immediately ascended, and wanting to remain as close as possible to her husband, she chose to live on the nearest place to earth from heaven – the moon.
When Hou Yi found out what had happened, he was saddened and displayed food that she liked as a sacrifice for her. Others soon found out about his sacrifices and also started offering their own sacrifices and burning incense to pray to Chang’e for luck and safety.
For an interesting, modern spin on the legend of Chang’e, check out Over the Moon, available on Netflix. This heartwarming animation is about a young girl, Fei Fei, who builds a rocket ship to the moon in the hopes of meeting Chang’e.
On her journey, she encounters adorable flying guardian lions (Chinese: 貔貅, pí xiū), a chatty glowing pangolin and mooncakes that walk and talk. And of course, she meets Chang’e, whose love story with Hou Yi continues.
The Legend of the Jade Rabbit
Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor (Chinese: 玉皇, yù huáng) disguised himself as a beggar and asked a fox, monkey and rabbit for food. The fox and monkey gave the emperor food, but the rabbit only had grass to offer. Knowing that humans did not eat grass, the rabbit offered itself as food, jumping without hesitation into a fire that the beggar started. The emperor, moved by the rabbit’s selflessness, transformed back into the emperor. He saved the rabbit and sent it to the moon where it became the immortal Jade Rabbit (Chinese: 玉兔, yù tù).
These days, the Jade Rabbit accompanies Chang’e on the moon where they make immortal medicine for those living in heaven.
Celebrating the festival
In Chinese tradition, the full moon signifies harmony, peace, prosperity and unity. Hence, the meaning behind these festivities are usually in line with the significance of the full moon.
As the moon is believed to be at its fullest and brightest in mid-autumn, families and friends gather to take in the beauty of the moon together. Even if one is not together with their loved ones, they can still appreciate the same moon on the same night, as if they are together.
A notable part of the festival celebrations would be the brightly lit lanterns that are hung everywhere, contributing to the festive atmosphere. The traditional paper lanterns come in eye-catching hues and sometimes, depictions of flowers, while the more avant garde ones include flamboyant painted cellophane lanterns and adorable battery-operated ones that play songs.
In continuation of a 3000-year-old tradition, some people set out offerings and sacrifices for the moon, also making wishes and burning incense for Chang’e. Offerings include peaches, oranges and pomelos, which are eaten after the ritual is completed. Families do their best to reunite and share a delicious meal consisting of a sumptuous spread of food, in line with the moon’s symbolism of unity.
One of the hallmark traditions of this festival would be eating mooncakes. Mooncakes are mostly round in shape, traditionally featuring a rich and thick sweet paste encased in a pastry skin. The filling may contain other ingredients, from nuts and seeds to salted duck egg yolks which represent the full moon. Mooncakes may contain up to four salted egg yolks, each yolk representing a phase of the moon. Savoury mooncakes exist too – there are variations with mushroom and meat. Besides being delicious, this delicacy is also symbolic – the round shape represents completeness and reunion. In this spirit, mooncakes are often shared amongst family and friends during the festival.
Traditional mooncakes usually have either lotus seed, sweet bean or red date paste with any combination of nuts, seeds and salted egg yolks inside. Although there are different types of mooncake skins, the traditional baked mooncake has a chewy skin that comes with Chinese characters imprinted on the skin – the characters either state the name of the bakery, the type of mooncake, or prosperous sayings.
The pastry dough is also baked in the shape of piglets and sold packaged in small baskets, symbolising piglets being transported for sale in bamboo cages.
In recent years, there has been an emergence in contemporary mooncake flavours. Fillings like taro, durian, chocolate and green tea paste are increasing in popularity, while snow skin mooncakes have also been introduced. Snow skin mooncakes are no-bake mooncakes with mochi-like skin that need to be refrigerated.
Wondering where to get your hands on some mooncakes for this year’s celebrations? Here’s a list of establishments offering various types of mooncakes – from old-school baked mooncakes to indulgent champagne-infused ones.
- The St. Regis Kuala Lumpur
This year, The St. Regis has traditional baked mooncakes packaged in a luxurious Swarovski-embellished trunk. Not only that, they’ve also upsized their mooncakes – the Prosperity Mooncake contained in the trunk is 6.5” wide, perfect for sharing! However, if blinged-out trunks and giant mooncakes aren’t your thing, they also have regular-sized mooncakes that come in a regular trunk. Prices start from RM200 for a box of four.
- Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
In collaboration with award-winning local fashion designer Melinda Looi, Grand Hyatt has unveiled a collection of mooncakes that are as gorgeous as they are delicious. And in an ode to the Jade Rabbit, the mooncakes come in a gorgeous rabbit-shaped reusable bag. Both baked and snow skin mooncakes are available, but the star of the show is no doubt the snow skin ones. These mooncakes come with fillings such as black sesame and peanut cream, and flavoured snow skin like coconut truffle. Conveniently, the surface of the box doubles up as a chess set complete with chess pieces, providing an activity to do while enjoying the mooncakes. Prices start from RM253 for the traditional baked mooncakes.
- The RuMa Hotel and Residences
The homegrown RuMa Hotel and Residences puts quality before quantity with this year’s selection of mooncakes. Each mooncake is lovingly handcrafted, and only available in two flavours – durian paste and pandan lotus paste. A box of two costs RM98, with additional perks like discounts with CIMB cards and spa vouchers for those who purchase at least two boxes.
- The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur
Besides offering traditional mooncakes, The Ritz also has snow skin mooncakes, albeit with a touch of magic – the snow skin is infused with Champagne. And in line with only offering their clients the very best, The Ritz’s unique boozy mooncakes contain Moët & Chandon Champagne, the champagne of choice for the British royals. Those who prefer their mooncakes to be spiked even have two options, either classic Champagne or the exclusive Rosé Imperial Champagne. Prices range from RM120 for four traditional mooncakes and go up to RM184 for eight mini champagne mooncakes.
- Concorde Hotel
Concorde Hotel has a wide array of mooncake flavours, but the standout flavour would have to be their Musang King durian snow skin mooncake! Made with 100% pure Musang King durian flesh, the mooncake is creamy, rich and sure to delight. All their mooncakes come in a jewellery box with an elegantly designed glass top bearing bird and flower motifs, making it the ideal gift for loved ones. Each set of four baked mooncakes costs RM118, while the Musang King set costs RM158 – a steal, considering the quality of the durian.
In the spirit of Mid-Autumn Festival, take this opportunity to catch up with friends and family, or reminisce about your childhood by playing with lanterns. And when devouring mooncakes, don’t forget to pair it with some traditional Chinese tea (or bubbly, for that matter) as the mooncakes may become cloying after a while.
The Echo Media family wishes you a jubilant Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! 中秋节快乐！(zhōng qiū jié kuài lè!)
Written By: Natalie
Edited By: Jamie