The Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the "Moon Festival", which is one of the most well known Chinese Festivals, roughly equivalent to ‘Harvest Festival’ or ‘Thanksgiving’. It is held on the 15th day of the 8th Chinese lunar month, which this year fell on the night of Thursday September 11th.
However, contrary to what most people believe, this festival probably has less to do with harvest festivities than with the philosophically minded Chinese of old. The union of man's spirit with nature in order to achieve perfect harmony was the fundamental canon of Taoism, so much so that contemplation of nature was a way of life. This is a day to worship the moon god. The Chinese believe in praying to the moon god for protection, family unity, and good fortune. Moon gazing is another essential part of this festival. On this day, the moon is at its roundest and brightest. This is also a time for lovers to tryst and pray for togetherness, symbolized by the roundness of the moon.
The legend of the Moon Lady
It is generally conceded that Neil Armstrong , the American astronaut, was the first man on moon, but that's not necessarily the truth to Chinese, who believe that the first person on the moon was a beautiful woman who lived during the Hsia dynasty (2205-1766BC) The legend goes like this: A woman , Chang-O, was married to the great General Hou-Yi of the Imperial Guard. General Hou was a skilled archer. One day, at the behest of the emperor, he shot down eight of nine suns that had mysteriously appeared in the heaven that morning. His marksmanship was richly rewarded by the emperor and he became very famous. However, the people feared that these suns would appear again to torture them and dry up the planet, so they prayed to the Goddess of Heaven (Wang Mu) to make General Hou immortal so that he could always defend the emperor, his progeny and the country. Their wish was granted and General Hou was given a Pill of Immortality. However, before he could take it, Chang-O stole the pill and ate it herself. Under the influence of the pill, she flew to the moon. When Chang-O reached the moon, she found a tree under which there was a friendly hare. Because the air on the moon is cold, she began coughing and the Immortality Pill came out of her throat. She thought it would be good to pound the pill into small pieces and scatter them on Earth so that everyone could be immortal. So she ordered the hare to pound the pill, built a palace for herself and remained on the moon. This helpful hare is referred to in Chinese mythology as the Jade Hare, and according to the legend, he is still pounding.
The old man on the moon: There is a saying in Chinese that marriages are made in heaven and prepared on the moon. The man who does the preparing is the old man of the moon (Yueh Lao Yeh). This old man, it is said, keeps a record book with the names of all newborn babies. He is the one heavenly person who knows everyone's future partners, and nobody can fight the decisions written down in his book. He is one reason why the moon is so important in Chinese mythology and especially at the time of the Moon Festival. Everybody including children, hikes up high mountains or hills or onto open beached to view the moon in the hope that he will grant their wishes.
The modern Mooncake Festival
Today, Chinese people celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival with dances, feasting and moon gazing. Not to mention mooncakes. While baked goods are a common feature at most Chinese celebrations, mooncakes are inextricably linked with the Moon festival. One traditional mooncake is filled with lotus seed paste and is quite distinctive in appearance. Roughly the size of a human palm, these mooncakes are quite filling, meant to be cut diagonally in quarters and passed around.
More elaborate versions of mooncakes contain four egg yolks (representing the four phases of the moon). Besides lotus seed paste, other traditional fillings include red bean paste and black bean paste. Unfortunately for dieters, mooncakes are rather high in calories. Today, mooncakes may be filled with everything from dates, nuts, and fruit to Chinese sausages. More exotic creations include green tea mooncakes, and ping pei or snowskin mooncakes, a Southeast Asian variation made with cooked glutinous rice flour. Haagen-Daz has even gotten into the act by introducing a line of ice cream mooncakes in Asian markets.
Once, according to Chinese legend, mooncakes helped bring about a revolution.
The time was the Yuan dynasty (AD 1280-1368), established by the invading Mongolians from the north. The Mongolians subjugated the Han Chinese. According to one Chinese folk tale, a Han Chinese rebel leader named Liu Fu Tong devised a scheme to arouse the Han Chinese to rise up against the ruling Mongols to end the oppressive Yuan dynasty. He sought permission from Mongolian leaders to give gifts to friends as a symbolic gesture to honour the longevity of the Mongolian emperor.
These gifts were round mooncakes. Inside, Liu had his followers place pieces of paper with the date the Han Chinese were to strike out in rebellion -- on the fifteenth night of the eighth month.
Thus Liu got word to his people, who when they cut open the mooncakes found the revolutionary message and set out to overthrow the Mongols, thus ending the Yuan dynasty.
Today, far from the exotic and heroic legends, Chinese communities all over the world make and consume mooncakes during the traditional autumn Moon Festival.
Mid-Autumn Moon Cake Recipe (makes 24)
1 can (17-1/2 ounces) lotus seed paste 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts 4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2-cup non-fat dried milk powder 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 eggs 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup solid shortening, melted and cooled 1 egg yolk , lightly beaten
1. Mix lotus seed paste and walnuts together; set aside.
2. Sift flour, milk powder, baking powder, and salt together into a bowl. In large bowl of electric mixer, beat eggs on medium speed until light and lemon colored. Add sugar; beat for 10 minutes or until mixture falls in a thick ribbon. Add melted shortening; mix lightly. With a spatula, fold in flour mixture. Turn dough out on a lightly floured board; knead for 1 minute or until smooth and satiny. Divide dough in half; roll each half into a log. Cut each log into 12 equal pieces.
3. To shape each moon cake, roll a piece of dough into a ball. Roll out on a lightly floured board to make a 4-inch circle about 1/8-inch thick. Place 1 tablespoon of lotus seed paste mixture in center of dough circle. Fold in sides of dough to completely enclose filling; press edges to seal. Lightly flour inside of moon cake press with 2-1/2 inch diameter cups. Place moon cake, seam side up, in mold; flatten dough to conform to shape of mold. Bang one end of mold lightly on work surface to dislodge moon cake. Place cake on ungreased baking sheet. Repeat to shape remaining cakes. Brush tops with egg yolk.
4. Bake in a preheated 375 degree F. oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack and let cool.