The Mid-Autumn festival dates back more than a 1000 years ago, when the Chinese still based their calendars on the position of the moon. What the Chinese discovered is that the moon was at its fullest and brightest during mid Autumn, hence the most suitable time to worship the moon.
While traditions of worshipping the moon has almost disappeared in most parts of China, new customs have taken over. Today, having moon cakes among friends and family at the Mid-Autumn Festival is a traditional custom among Chinese people. This tradition is comparable to eating Zongzi at the Dragon Boat Festival; and having sweet dumplings during the Lantern Festival.
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There are lots of other interesting customs regarding the Mid-Autumn festival. We recommend you to read this article to learn more: The Ultimate Guide to Mid Autumn Festival Traditions
Through the ages, moon cakes have been regarded as a symbol of auspiciousness and reunion. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, people gather and have a reunion with the family. With the view of the bright moon, everyone enjoy moon cakes with the company of family.
How Did The Moon Cakes Evolve?
How the traditions regarding moon cakes all started is still a mystery. There are historical records that do offer clues on how it all started and evolved.
The ‘Tai Shi’ Cake
According to historical records, as early as in the Yin and Zhou dynasties (circa 1300 B.C. – 1046 B.C.), there was a kind of “tai shi cake” with thick filling and thin crust in memory of the imperial tutor in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, which was the “ancestor” of the moon cakes.
The Introduction of Sesame and Walnuts in the Han Dynasty
In the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. – 220 A.D.), when Zhang Qian was on his diplomatic mission to the Western Regions, he introduced sesame and walnut as supplementary materials for the preparation of moon cakes. At this time, round cakes filled with walnut seeds appeared, which were known as “hu cakes“.
Tang Dynasty Emperor Introduces the Name: ‘Moon Cake’
In the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.), there were pastry chefs engaged in the production of such cakes, and pastry shops began to appear in Chang ‘An, the capital city. It is said that on the night of one year’s Mid-Autumn festival, the emperor Tang Taizong and his concubine Yang Guifei were having hu cakes while enjoying the full moon, Tang Taizong didn’t like the name “hu cake”, Yang Kuifei looked up at the moon and suggested the name “moon cake”, from then on, the name has gradually spread among the people.
Legend aside, the first written record of the word moon cake (月饼, yuè bǐng) was in the book Meng Liang Lu (1274 A.D. by Wu Zimu) in Southern Song Dynasty.
The Story of Chang’e: The Goddess of the Moon
According to a Legend, Earth once had 10 suns, causing lots of heat and suffering. Archer Yi shot down 9 of them, and was given the elixir of immortality as a reward. However, he wasn’t seeking immortality because he wouldn’t want to live in this world forever without his beloved wife Chang’e.
His wife safe kept the immortality potion at home, but one day an apprentice of Yi attempted to steal the potion, while he was away. Because Chang’e didn’t want him to obtain the elixir, she drank it herself and rose to heaven. Chang’e picked the moon as her home.
Yi highly missed Chang’e. Every year during Mid Autumn, he would display her favorite fruits and cakes out of remembrance.
Did you know?
- You often see rabbits associated with moon cakes. That’s because a rabbit is said to have accompanied Chang’e to the moon!
- Alternative Chang’e legends: The above legend is actually the most popular and fairytale like. However, other versions of the legend actually describes that Chang’e actually accidentally or purposely took the elixir so that her husband couldn’t go after her. Eventually her husband created another elixir and ascended to the sun. They then became the symbol of the Moon (Yin) and the Sun (Yang).
- Ming Dynasty: Old historical records state that artisan cake makers printed the “Tale of Moon Goddess” on the mooncakes during the Ming Dynasty. This made them highly popular for the Mid-Autumn Festival!