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Chinese Customs & Festivals

Moon Cakes

Mid-Autumn Festival

According to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, the 15th day of the eighth lunar month is the day for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

A Chinese tradition says that, in ancient times, the Emperor held ceremonies to offer sacrifices to the sun in the spring and to the moon in the autumn. Later, the rites became prevalent among the common people.

According to the book Nianjie Quhua ("Amusing Stories about the Festivals"), during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Emperor Xuanzong’s travel to the Moon Palace added to the festival’s charm and importance. It is said that during a mid-autumn evening, while the Emperor was enjoying the moonlight, a magic Taoist priest named Luo Gongyuan invited him to see the Moon Palace. Luo threw his stick into the air and it streaked across the sky to the moon. Immediately, a silver bridge from the heavens stretched before them. Across the bridge, the Emperor saw a magnificent palace. A plaque above the gate read: "Guanghangong", meaning "Vast and Cold Palace". By the gate stood a tall, sweet-scented osmanthus tree, under which a white rabbit was preparing medicinal drinks. Hundreds of beautifully-dressed, dancing maidens surrounded the Emperor, accompanied him with melodious music, and entertained him with delicious cakes shaped like the full moon.

Upon returning to earth, the Emperor ordered cakes modeled after those seen in his vision to be made.

In China, the full moon symbolizes reunion. Whenever the Mid-Autumn Festival sets in, people will look up at the full silver moon and think of their nearby relatives or friends, as well as those who are far away from home. A line from a verse "The moon at the home village is exceptionally brighter" expresses those feelings.

On the evening when the full moon rises, people get together to eat moon cakes. Some cakes will either be sent to or saved at home for those who were absent. The sweet cakes are usually stuffed with sugar, red bean paste, melon seeds, dried flower petals or sesame. The savory ones are stuffed with meat. The surface of the cakes is patterned with clouds, the moon, and the rabbit. The Guangdong, Suzhou, and Chaozhou styles are acknowledged as the best.

As the Chinese saying goes, on festive occasions we think of our dear ones far away more than ever.

Revised June 13, 2011