Of Moon, Cakes and Chinese Celebration

Text and photos by Lau Sook Mei

Moon cakes with lotus seed paste (front) and red bean paste filling.

There is much more to the Mid-Autumn Festival than moon cakes and lanterns. It is a major festival celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. This year it falls on 22nd Sept in the Gregorian calendar. It marks the end of the summer harvesting season that coincides with the autumn equinox when the moon appears to be fullest, brightest and the most beautiful. Fruits, vegetables and grains are abundant and it is time for relaxation, celebration and merry-making. Family members from far and wide gather for a reunion dinner.

Different varieties of moon cakes for sale.

Non-baked moon cakes.

Traditionally, the moon cake is a must-have. Like the moon, its round shape symbolizes unity and harmony. It is a baked pastry with a variety of sweet filling: seeds and nuts, lotus seed paste, red bean paste and others. Tucked in the centre of the cake is a golden, salted egg yolk (duck egg). Moon cakes are complemented by pomeloes, baby taros and the water caltrop, a kind of water chestnut which looks like black buffalo horns.

Colourful mini moon cakes in cartoon characters.

Baby taros and water caltrops.

What is the significance of the iconic moon cake? The origin of moon cake goes back to the 14th century Yuan Dynasty when China was ruled by the Mongols. As public gatherings were forbidden, the Han Chinese could not harness the community in its attempt to overthrow the Mongols. A plan was hatched: thousands of moon cakes would be distributed – hidden inside were the time and place of the uprising. That night, the 15th day of the 8th month the Hans drove the Mongols out of China .

Agar-agar (jelly) moon cakes.

Another traditional yummy: goldfish-shaped biscuits with lotus seed paste filling.

On this night, family members and friends would gather in the garden at home. Some people would make offerings to the gods, mainly food mentioned above, which would later be consumed. Apart from the festive specials, Children are happy for they get to play with lanterns and candles, the highlight of the evening. Chinese the world over observe this “tasty” tradition as they admire the beauty of the gorgeous moon.

Lanterns in various shapes and sizes.

Having a whale of a time with lanterns.

Many lengends and folklores surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival are strongly associated to Chang’e, the Moon Goddess. One goes like this:

Long, long ago, ten suns burnt the earth. Crops failed, and many people died. Along came Hou Yi the archer who shot down nine of them and saved the earth. He was rewarded with the pill of immortality. Soon after, he met the beautiful Chang’e; they fell in love and got married. But Hou Yi turned into a tyrant, well-despised. To stop the eternal sufferings of the people, Chang’e took the pill of immortality and drifted up to the moon. To this day, she remains the Moon Goddess, keeping company with her jade rabbit.

This mid-autumn night, look at the moon; you may be lucky to see them on the surface.

Image of Chang'e on a biscuit.

Bathed in the silvery moonlight, here’s a poem for you by Li Qiao:

The Mid-Autumn Moon
A full moon hangs high in the chilly sky,
All say it’s the same everywhere, round and bright.
But how can one be sure that thousands of li away
Wind and perhaps rain may not be marring the night?


Here’s another interesting story regarding the Mid-Autumn Festival – the “lang-ting-tang men”. Any idea who they are?

Please go to the link to get to the bottom of it.



4 Responses to “Of Moon, Cakes and Chinese Celebration”

  1. 1 HeriHong September 21, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Thanks for the story and pretty pictures. Have you noticed that moon cakes have become square-shaped? Could this be a marketing ploy to give you more cake than the moon-shaped one? I wonder too if the pomelo is more a “tradition” in Ipoh than elsewhere simply because Tambun produces them.

    • 2 perakheritage September 23, 2010 at 1:16 am

      Thank you for the compliments, HeriHong. Moon cakes today come in so many kinds of fillings that I think the manufacturers need different shapes to differentiate the various fillings. As for the pomeloes, this tradition is not only observed in Ipoh but also in China and Hong Kong. Incidentally the Sha Tin Pomeloes grown in the New Territories are a famous product of Hong Kong.

  2. 3 S.Sundralingam September 22, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Just to add on, in 1376, the Chinese overthrew the Yuan(Mongol) dynasty (1280-1376) in an uprising brilliantly hatched by lantern-bearing messengers who delivered moon cakes with hidden messages.

    The time and place of the revolution were concealed in the moon cakes sent to friends and relatives. The midnight massacre of the Mongols was led by Liu Bowen. Enjoy your reunion moon cake dinner!

    • 4 perakheritage September 23, 2010 at 1:34 am

      Thank you Sundra for adding on. The Yuan Dynasty ruled China from 1280 to 1368 which means that the uprising happened in 1368, led by Zhu Yuanzhang whose advisor was Liu Bowen. Once the Mongols left, the Ming Dynasty was established and Zhu proclaimed himself as the Emperor of China (1368-1644).

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