Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · Diplomacy

International Awards Winner · Singapore Malaysia Food Travel Blog 🇸🇬 johorkaki@gmail

History & Origins of Mooncakes & Mid Autumn Festival

History_Origins_Mooncakes_Mid_Autumn_Festival

The Mid Autumn festival, also called the Mooncake festival, is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Chinese communities around the world. The Mid Autumn festival is the second most important Chinese festival after Chinese New Year.

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Leong Yin Mooncakes

How did the Mid Autumn festival and the practice of eating mooncakes on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month come about?



Moon worship in China, goes back as far as the Xia 夏 dynasty in 2070 BC (that's over 4,000 years ago 😱 ). Ancient moon worship is surrounded by myths and mysticism. The mythology most associated with today's Mid Autumn festival is the legend of Chang Er 嫦娥. (There are numerous variations in the details though the basic storyline is similar.)



The Sun by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory - 20100819.jpg
By NASA/SDO (AIA) - http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/assets/img/browse/2010/08/19/20100819_003221_4096_0304.jpg, Public Domain, Link

Once upon a time, there was a severe drought in ancient China. Ten blazing suns in the sky, their scorching rays bearing down mercilessly on earth, dried up lakes, rivers and paddy fields. The people were starving and there was no water to drink.



Hou Yi 后羿, a skilled archer, climbed to the top of Kunlun mountain and shot down 9 out of 10 suns. The remaining sun, fearing that it would suffer the same fate, agreed to Hou Yi's demand that it rises in the morning and sets in the evening at the same time everyday. This agreement between Hou Yi and the sun brought great benefits to the people's lives.

Heavenly Queen Mother pleased with Hou Yi's deed awarded him 2 pills - one is the elixir of eternal youth and, if the two pills are eaten together, he will turn into an Immortal.




Hou Yi handed the 2 precious pills to his wife Chang Er 嫦娥 for safekeeping. One day, while Hou Yi was away, an evil disciple of his who overheard him talking to Chang Er about the 2 pills came to rob her of them.

In order to prevent the 2 special pills from falling into the wrong hands, Chang Er had no choice but to swallow them herself. She immediately turned into an Immortal, ascended to heaven and found herself in front of the Heavenly Queen Mother.

Chang Er pleaded with the Heavenly Queen Mother to let her stay as close as possible to her husband Hou Yi. Heavenly Queen Mother agreed and let Chang Er live on the moon, the nearest heavenly body to Earth.


Lunar libration with phase2.gif
By Tomruen - English Wikipedia, original upload 7 September 2005 by Tomruen [1], Public Domain, Link

That's why on a full moon night, if you look carefully, you can see a beautiful lady with long hair and flowing robes. That is Chang Er.

Hou Yi was, of course, very sad that his wife Chang Er now lives on the moon. So, on full moon nights, Hou Yi would sit outside his house and gaze at Chang Er on the moon while drinking tea and eating cake.

The villagers followed Hou Yi in eating cake and sipping tea while moon gazing. The custom spread and eventually became the Mid Autumn festival on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.


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Tong Huat Bakery in Kluang, Malaysia
For the story about those traditional big, round, thick mooncakes we see during Mid Autumn festival (known also as Mooncake festival), we have to go back 652 years to 1368.

That year, the mooncake played a crucial role in the final defeat of the Mongols who ruled China for 97 years from 1271 to 1368.



Mongol warriors 1300s. Image credit: Wikipedia
Since time immemorial, there was a constant ebb and flow between the nomadic nations in the north and agrarian nations in the south of China. To keep out the nomads, southern agrarian nations began building the Great Wall of China around 700 BC and joined the parts together into one continuous wall in 220 BC.

Great Wall of China. Image credit: Wikipedia
The Great Wall kept the Mongols at bay but only for some 1,500 years.

Kublai Khan, emperor of China 1271 - 1294. Image credit: Wikipedia
The Southern Song dynasty fell to the Mongols in 1271. That year, Kublai Khan proclaimed the founding of the Yuan dynasty.

Throughout Mongol rule, there was deep seated enmity and distrust between the Mongols and their southern subjects which were mainly Han Chinese.

The Mongols implemented many measures to keep Han Chinese under control. For example, they were not allowed to have iron or steel tools. Even kitchen knives were controlled - five families had to share one chopping knife. Bamboo was banned, in case the Han Chinese used them to make spears or bows and arrows. Lamps were not allowed at night, gatherings were banned, families were grouped together with every 20 family grouping headed / overseen by a Mongol.

Needless to say, there was great resentment and discontent among Han Chinese under Mongol rule. Rebellions broke out throughout the realm during the entire period of Mongol rule. But, they always failed because the rebels were uncoordinated and easily put down by Mongol forces.


Zhu Yuanzhang, the emperor of Ming dynasty. Image credit: Wikipedia
In 1637, rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (with the help of his adviser Liu Bowen 刘伯温) came up with a plan to coordinate the disparate uprisings. He ordered 圆饼 round cakes be distributed as widely as possible among Han Chinese but this had to be done without alerting the Mongols. (The round cake was a common small pastry with lotus seed paste filling popular since the Song dynasty, before its fall to the Mongols.)


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Dainty small mooncakes from East Bistro, Singapore
The idea was to spread a rumour that a deadly plaque was coming in the winter and the only way to save oneself was to eat a 圆饼 round cake on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (Mid Autumn festival) to receive blessings and protection from the gods.

When people ate their round cakes on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month of 1368, they found a slip of paper hidden inside which said 起義 or uprising in English.

They understood that it meant, the time has come.

Numerous uprisings broke out simultaneously all over China on 15th day of the eighth lunar month in 1368, taking the Mongols by surprise. The rebels led by Zhu Yuanzhang advanced on the palace in Peking forcing the last Mongol emperor of China, Toghon Temür to flee for Mongolia.

With the Mongols finally banished from China, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 declared himself the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. (The Ming dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644 when it fell to the Manchurians, another nomadic nation from the northeast).


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Handmade mooncakes in Singapore
To commemorate the successful uprising, Zhu Yuanzhang decreed that Mid Autumn festival on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month shall be celebrated with round cakes. As round cakes are round like the moon, they became known as mooncakes. As celebratory food, the small dainty round cake became big and thick.

Celebrating Mid Autumn festival on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month continues to this day in all Chinese communities around the world and it is synonymous with mooncakes, hence it is also called Mooncake festival.


Leong_Yin_Mooncake
Leong Yin Mooncakes
Today, mooncakes is a multi-billion dollar industry world wide (no kidding). There's a huge private and corporate gift market for mooncakes during Mid Autumn festival. So, every year mooncake makers come up will new and ever more trendy varieties to vie for a bigger slice of the cake. It is actually quite exciting anticipating the new mooncakes of the coming Mid Autumn festival just like new fashion lines of the Fall season.

Date: 7 July 2020 | Reviewed 10 Sep 2022

6 comments:

  1. Hi Tony,
    Putting aside the newer type of mooncake, Cantonese style variety dominate the traditional mooncake scene in the Nanyang, with Chaozhou “sweet” variety available in some cluster such as in Bangkok and Singapore. Maybe in Manila too?

    However, there are a much wider variety of pastries sharing the mooncake tradition, entirely unknown to the average Joe here. Listed below are few variety from the PRC that I am familiar with:

    - Yunnan ham mooncakes
    - Beijing red & white mooncakes
    - Chaozhou “Yi Xi” Lao pie
    - Hangzhou/Suzhou mustard meat mooncake
    - Shanghai meat mooncake

    Some are sweet pastries in skin like akin to puff pastry, whiles other are meat base with variety type of filling and skin.

    However, the outstanding among these is the Yunnan ham mooncake which, to me, is love at first bite. I will not risk describing it as I will not do it any justice. I would strongly recommend you taste it for yourself, as I was totally and utterly blown away.

    The same goes for all other type of local/regional mooncake. It had been an eye opener to me in my presumption of “what a mooncake is” and it will be for you too.

    #StaySafe
    #StayApart


    P/s: There are no Malaysian made mooncake that is Non-Halal (Non-Kosher). Why? Are all Singaporean made mooncake Halal too?

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Crawler. Yes yes I would love to do a post on all the different types of mooncakes there are. That will be a major and most interesting project. Love you interesting insights :-D

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    2. Hi Tony,
      It will be a challenging but interesting project to try out the different variety of mooncake out there, as these speciality pastries are available weeks leading to Mid-Autumn (中秋).

      In this age of Taobao and QQ Buy, I have had in the recent pass ordered and receive delivery of mooncake from the different local/regions. Unfortunately, they are not able to pack and retain the freshness of the product. Would like to again walk into these bakeries when they bring out new batches of mooncake from the oven…….

      #StaySafe
      #StayApart

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    3. Hi Tony,
      Thank you for the writeup, I am going to share it with the people living with dementia which I believe will be such great reminiscence. And if you could cover the types of mooncake consume by different dialect groups will be fantastic. Looking forward.

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    4. Thank you. That's a great idea. Let me work on it.

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  2. Best Mooncakes in Singapore - https://www.taichongkok.com

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