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9 Facts About Chinese Mooncakes: History, Culture, Legends

ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Learn about the history, legends, and cultural associations of Chinese mooncakes.

Learn about the history, legends, and cultural associations of Chinese mooncakes.

Mid-Autumn Festival Treat

One of the most beloved traditional pastries in East and Southeast Asia, mooncakes are synonymous with the Mid-Autumn Festival, a holiday that occurs on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. (In the Gregorian calendar, this typically falls in late September or early October.) The festival is marked by family reunions, get-togethers with friends, and of course mooncakes.

Although you can certainly enjoy a mooncake without any special knowledge, you'll appreciate this sweet delicacy all the more by knowing these nine fascinating facts.

1. Their History Goes Back 1000+ Years

The earliest mention of these traditional pastries, known as yue bing (月饼) in Chinese, dates to the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Mooncakes were referred to in the Southern Song Dynasty Chronicle, by Wu Zhimu (吴自牧).

Before this, though, the tradition of using baked cakes as an edible offering to lunar gods and goddesses existed in the Middle Kingdom. In these earlier centuries, the pastry was referred to with other names such as yue tuan (月团) and xiao bing (小饼).

During the reign of Tang Dynasty Emperor Xizong (873–888), mooncakes were gifted by the court to visiting scholars during the Mid-Autumn Festival, a practice that likely inspired the pastry’s association with the festival.

But while the association may date to the Tang Dynasty, the widespread practice of making and eating mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival only began during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). At least 500 years elapsed between the Tang and Ming dynasties. One may theorize from this chronology that the pastry started out as more of an aristocratic pleasure, taking several centuries to reach the masses.

There are many regional variations. Clockwise from top left: Traditional, snow skin, a box featuring a variety of fillings, and chao shan.

There are many regional variations. Clockwise from top left: Traditional, snow skin, a box featuring a variety of fillings, and chao shan.

2. There Are Many Regional Variations

The traditional Chinese mooncake, sometimes referred to as the Cantonese style, is round, about four inches in diameter, and about one-and-a-half inches thick. The top crust usually features auspicious Chinese characters (e.g., "longevity" or "harmony") or the name of the manufacturer. The pastries are filled with a dense paste made from lotus beans, sweet red beans, or jujube. It is also common for secondary ingredients to be included in the filling; for example, salted egg yolks, nuts and seeds, fruit pieces, or even savory ingredients such as dried ham.

There are many other variations that exist in different regions. Here are a few popular ones:

  • Chao shan (Teochew) mooncakes: Flakey with a dome-like crust.
  • Hong Kong "snow skin" mooncakes: Green crust instead of the traditional brown.
  • Suzhou mooncakes: A completely savory (rather than sweet) filling.
The legend of Hou-Yi and Chang’e is inseparable from the Mid-Autumn Festival and mooncakes.

The legend of Hou-Yi and Chang’e is inseparable from the Mid-Autumn Festival and mooncakes.

3. They Are Linked to Chang’e, Goddess of Immortality

Famously, mooncakes are associated with Chang’e (嫦娥), the Chinese goddess of the moon and symbol of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

There are several versions of the Chang’e myth, but in all her husband was the legendary archer Hou Yi (后羿), the hero who shot down nine out of 10 suns to save the world from a scorching demise. As a reward for his heroic deed, Hou Yi was given an elixir of immortality, which Chang’e subsequently ingested. In the most famous version of the story, it was said that she was forced to do so to prevent a thief from stealing the precious elixir.

Transfigured into an immortal, Chang’e then ascended to the Lunar Palace, forever separated from her husband. Heartbroken, Hou Yi placed Chang’e’s favorite cakes and fruits before the moon. Over time, this practice became associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival. In some extended versions of the myth, it’s said that mooncakes were one of the original offerings used by Hou Yi in memory of his wife.

A Very Different Chang'e Legend

A starkly different version of the legend claims that Hou Yi became tyrannical after saving the world. To prevent him from ruling forever, Chang’e ingested the elixir and fled. In this version, commoners are the ones who placed offerings before the moon, to thank Chang’e for her sacrifice.

Japanese-style mooncakes accompanied by rabbit-shaped pastries. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also celebrated in Japan.

Japanese-style mooncakes accompanied by rabbit-shaped pastries. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also celebrated in Japan.

4. They Are Associated With Rabbits

With reference to the above myth, one of Chang’e’s few companions in the Lunar Palace was the mythical Jade Rabbit. Rabbits thus frequently appear as decorative motifs on mooncake boxes and containers. Some confectioneries even offer mini bite-size cakes in the shape of exquisite white rabbits. These, naturally, are a big hit with children.

Intricately stamped mooncake

Intricately stamped mooncake

5. They Symbolize Reunion

Beyond their religious and folkloric meanings, mooncakes represent family reunion and happiness in Chinese culture. This symbolism derives from the simple fact that gathering families together for the Mid-Autumn Festival has long been a cherished tradition.

In modern times, the gifting of mooncakes during the eighth lunar month (the month of the Mid-Autumn Festival) is an important tradition not only for families and friends, but also for businesses all across China as well as other parts of Asia. For businesses, exchanging mooncake gifts symbolizes the reinforcement of partnerships. It is not uncommon for some businesses to set aside significant budgets each year for this purpose.

Could these simple cakes have had a revolutionary role?

Could these simple cakes have had a revolutionary role?

6. They Were an Instrument of Revolution

According to legend, mooncakes were instrumental in overthrowing the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.

As the story goes, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the subsequent Ming Dynasty, circulated a rumor that a frightening plague was spreading and that the only way to prevent infection was to eat a certain type of mooncake. Messages pinpointing the intended date of a planned national uprising were then hidden in the fillings. No surprise, the date set was the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month; i.e., the Mid-Autumn Festival.

In another version of this tale, a secret message was encrypted into the auspicious characters on the cakes. As the pastry is typically given in boxes of four, the message was undetectable until a slice from each of the four cake was assembled.

Regardless of the veracity of these stories, they are widely accepted and embraced by the Chinese community. The tales also possibly explains the popularity of the pastry during the Ming Dynasty. For the commoners of that era, making and eating these cakes could have been a celebration of the revolution.

Sugar-free mooncakes in Singapore. Such variants allow diabetics to safely enjoy the pastry, too.

Sugar-free mooncakes in Singapore. Such variants allow diabetics to safely enjoy the pastry, too.

7. They're Not Exactly a Health Food

Because of their rich fillings, mooncakes are hardly the healthiest Chinese pastries around. The use of ingredients like lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks translates into significant levels of sugar and salt—with one mooncake containing anywhere between 700 and 1000 calories. In modern Asian media, it is not uncommon for articles to explicitly remind readers not to over-indulge, for health's sake.

In an attempt to make them slightly healthier, many modern Asian confectioneries have tried to reduce their use of sugar and salt. For example, less-sweet variants are increasingly marketed. The green snow skin variant is known for being healthier, as it uses less oil.

In certain countries, such as Singapore, healthier mooncakes can even receive government accreditation. This trend towards better nutrition is sure to continue in the future, as people around the world become increasingly aware of health consequences.

A smaller-scale Mid-Autumn Festival food fair.

A smaller-scale Mid-Autumn Festival food fair.

8. They Are Big Business

As mentioned above, the gifting of mooncakes during the eighth lunar month is an important social and business practice in China and elsewhere across Asia. As such, shopping malls in predominantly Chinese cities will always host mooncake fairs as the month approaches.

Hotels, restaurants, and confectioneries in these cities compete intensely for a slice of the market in these fairs, with leading brands often featuring unique packaging or flavors. In fact, the demand is so robust that even the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was unable to stifle it; brands simply switched to online sales. Because the virtual fairs don't have the costs associated with in-person exhibits, even more mooncake businesses have been able to enter the highly competitive market.

A multi-colored, bite-size twist.

A multi-colored, bite-size twist.

9. Avant-Garde Flavors Are Popping Up

Though still popular, traditional mooncakes are no longer the staple in today’s market. Because of intense competition and increasingly international tastes, confectioneries today frequently feature fillings and crusts that are amalgamations of Chinese and regional tastes.

For example, durian paste mooncakes are extremely popular in Singapore and Malaysia. Higher-end confectioneries throughout East Asia also showcase artisanal creations with elaborate decorations that command higher prices.

In addition, creative fillings are hitting the market, including custard, chocolate, Japanese purple yam, Japanese mochi, and even truffle-flavored pastes. For me, learning which new varieties are available each year is as entertaining as actually eating them. Naturally, Lifestyle and F&B magazines enthusiastically feature extensive lists of the best mooncakes to buy each year, and these lists are always extremely popular.

Further Reading

© 2020 Scribbling Geek

Comments

Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on September 13, 2020:

Hi Eric, thanks for reading. Curiously, most historical evidence suggests that the cakes and the festival were separate in earlier centuries, but gradually came together. I personally think a reason for this is because the harvest moon is typically clearest during the Chinese autumn.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 13, 2020:

Wonderful and I am now hungry for moon cake. Thank goodness we have them year round now instead of just Autumn. Our Vietnamese ones are called bánh trung thu. Meaning cake of Autumn. Is the cake made for the festivals or are the festivals made for the cake? hihihi