Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 493, Aug 22 – Sept 4, 2014)
The origin, meaning, and different varieties of this quintessential Mid-Autumn Festival pastry
By Ting Ting Epoch Times Staff
The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on September 8 this year, is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the full moon is said to be at its brightest and closest to Earth. It is a day of family reunion and joyous celebration.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is also called the Mooncake Festival, after the delightful pastry that is made during this period. And with the festival around the corner, mooncakes of myriad flavours and styles can now be seen in bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants, and homes in Singapore and around the world. This rich pastry is traditionally best enjoyed with Chinese tea, and the warm company of family and friends.
But where does this quintessential festive pastry originate from, and why do we eat it on this special day?
A Tool for Revolt?
One popular folktale describes how the cakes were originally employed by the Han Chinese to overthrow the ruling Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD).
The rebels, led by Zhu Yuanzhang, needed a way to unite the people for the revolt. But with court officials and soldiers everywhere, it was difficult to draw out battle strategies without the Mongols receiving news of it.
Thus, Zhu’s general, Liu Bowen devised a plan to insert pieces of paper in cakes that were distributed to the Han people. When cut open, the people found a message to attack on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
That day, they launched a surprise attack on the Mongols, successfully taking the capital city and establishing the Ming Dynasty.
The Evolution of Mooncakes and the Mid-Autumn Festival
However, in truth, the mooncake dates back to even earlier times than the Yuan Dynasty. The earliest version of the mooncake appeared in Southern China during the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 B.C.), as a type of thin-edged cake.
During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.) sesame seeds, melon seeds, and walnuts were added into the cakes. Because sesame seeds and walnuts were from ethnic minority areas (also called “Hu”), mooncakes were called “Hu cakes”.
This lasted until the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) when, one Mid-Autumn Festival, Emperor Xuanzong tried a Hu cake and marvelled at its taste. His concubine, Lady Yang, looked up in the evening sky and saw the full moon. She suggested naming the confection mooncake.
The Chinese character for round, “yuan”, also appears in the Chinese phrase for harmonious reunion or gathering, “tuan yuan”. Thus, like the round, full mid-autumn moon, the mooncake is also a symbol of harmony, family reunion, and good fortune.
It was later during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) that people began the tradition of eating mooncakes and giving mooncakes to each other to express their good wishes for reunion. During this period, the mooncake also underwent cosmetic improvements, and the shell of the mooncake became more delicate.
Over the generations, mooncakes have also developed regional characteristics based on local foods and customs.
In Singapore and Malaysia, we are most familiar with the Cantonese-style mooncake, but there are others such as the Beijing-style and Suzhou-style mooncakes which are common in China, and which are gradually being introduced into our local culinary scene.
On the next page, learn more about the various types of mooncake across China and the world.
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