Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival

By Kendrick Chua 04 October, 2017
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It's that night when the moon is at its roundest and brightest

This is the season once again for mooncakes, reunions and mooncake games. The festival has every bakery in Binondo frantically displaying mooncakes in colourful and elegant boxes; and restaurants busy with large bookings. This is, after all, the season of the Mid-Autumn Festival.  

The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節), as the name implies, is celebrated during the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar Calendar which falls today, October 4. This is one of the four main Chinese festivals. The other three being the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival), and Qing Ming Festival (equivalent to our All Saints Day).

The custom behind the festival, moon worshipping, can be traced back to 2000 B.C. during the Xia and Shang Dynasty when the people hold ceremonies when the moon is at its brightest and roundest. This was to worship the moon and hope that the moon deity would grant them a bountiful harvest. But, historical records show that the term “mid-autumn” was first documented during the Zhou Dynasty. Succeeding dynasties saw the event grew unprecedentedly popular. Although its purpose has evolved, families continue to gather together to celebrate this night.

A legend during the Tang Dynasty became the popular tale behind the festival. Originally, the Earth had 10 suns; and these suns continuously burn the Earth causing great losses for the people. Hou Yi, an excellent archer, rose up to the occasion and shot nine of the suns down. As a reward for his heroics, the Queen of Heaven presented Hou Yi with an elixir that would grant him immortal life. Hou Yi became corrupted and tyrannical because of his fame. His wife Chang’e was well-aware of the repercussions should her husband drinks the elixir. One day, while Hou Yi was out hunting, Chang’e secretly drank the elixir and suddenly started floating. She only stopped when she reached the moon. When the people heard of this news, they made offerings as a symbol of their gratitude for her.

This festival couldn’t come at a better time; it is held just several weeks after the end of the “Ghost Month”.  Locally, we have dubbed it as the Mooncake Festival. However, this is a misnomer since it is the Moon, and not the cake that we celebrate.

So how did the cake enter the picture?

During the Yuan Dynasty, when China was under the rule of the Mongols, the Han planned an uprising. However, they face the improbable task of mobilizing the Han people without the Mongols discovering their plot. The military counsellor of Zhu Yuanzhang (who eventually became the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty) by the name of Liu Bowen thought of an ingenious plan: he told his soldiers to spread a rumor that the only way of getting cured once stricken by a winter plaque is by eating, you guess it, the mooncake.

They slipped a piece of paper with the words, “uprising, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival” in the cake and distributed these to the Han people. The plot worked, and a huge and coordinated revolt broke out that night. Since then, the Chinese eat mooncake every Mid-Autumn Festival to commemorate the Han uprising.

These mooncakes, priced from P90-P150, come in three popular flavours: lotus, black bean paste (monggo), and four treasures. Despite these prices, businessmen continue to buy in bulk and give them out as goodwill to their suppliers and customers. In fact, majority of the establishments offer one free box for every 10 boxes of moon cakes. When my father was still working as a General Manager of a Chinese Restaurant, he is accustomed to see customers buying moon cakes by the hundreds! Others, being entrepreneurial, buy as many as a thousand boxes and resell them in provinces.

On top of that, the restaurants are packed days leading to the festival. Some even make reservations months before. Since the main idea is reunion and gathering, family associations, business and non-business organizations would celebrate it together over an eight-course sumptuous Chinese lauriat.

This is then followed by the much-anticipated mooncake game. The game, which consists of one bowl and six dice, is said to be invented by the Ming General Zheng Chenggong so that his soldiers deployed for battle would not be homesick during the festival. The six levels of prizes were named after the scholars of the imperial examinations: Xiucai, Juren, Jinshi, Tanhua, Bangyan and Zhuangyuan. And the objective of the game is simple: roll as many four as possible. Depending on your luck (or skill), you could either settle for the small prizes or go home with the Zhuangyuan (grand prize).

Here’s the interesting part. Although the festival is celebrated by the Chinese, not every one plays the moocake game. Hong Kong, Taiwan and most parts in China are not familiar with it. The game is said to have originated in Xiamen in the province of Fujian. Since most of the Chinese residing here are immigrants of Fujian, they brought with them this tradition when they came over.

Good for us! 中秋節快樂!

 

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Last modified on Wednesday, 04 October 2017 09:21

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