With September around the corner the office is all a buzz because we got our shipment of moon cakes, or yue bing (月餅). For those of you who don’t know what moon cakes are, they are a thick pastry baked once every year for the Mid-Autumn Festival. These cakes are made out of lotus seed, red/green bean, or some other sweet paste and either have nuts or egg yolk in them. Different varieties of moon cake fillings and flavors have cropped up over the years. You can buy them at any Chinese supermarket around this time of year if you’re curious to try them (my favorite is the plain lotus seed moon cake. The egg yolk is too dry and heavy for me).
We get our moon cakes from Choi Heong Yuen Bakery in Macau. They ship all over the world and also have retail outlets in most overseas Chinese communities. We’ve tried moon cake from a lot of different companies (trust me), and our office seems to like this one the most.
What do moon cakes taste like? They’re very sweet with a thick, almost pasty texture. The filling has the consistency of peanut butter, so for some people it’s too overwhelming. One person does not eat an entire moon cake. The cakes are cut up into quarters or eighths for you to share with your loved ones. After all, this is what the festival is about.
So, what exactly is the Mid-Autumn Festival?
The Mid-Autumn Festival, or Zhongqiu jie (中秋節), happens every year around the end of September. Since the traditional Chinese calender is solar, the holiday changes every year. The festival is to celebrate the moon, which is supposed to be at it’s fullest at this time. Families gather around and eat mooncake while viewing the moon. The underlying theme of this holiday (like most holidays) is for families to reunite and spend some time together.
Of course, this being China, the Mid-Autumn Festival also has a legend attached to it:
According to legend, there were 10 suns living in the sky. When these ten suns all rose, it would burn up anything on Earth, causing mass chaos and starvation for Earth’s living things. One day, an archer by the name of Houyi (in some versions he’s actually the god of archery) decided that he had to do something about the destruction these 10 suns were doing. He set out for where the suns lived during the night (a tree in the eastern sea apparently) and shot down nine of the suns, keeping the last one alive since killing all the suns meant the world would be plunged into total darkness.
For his efforts in saving the world, Houyi was rewarded with an elixir of life. He didn’t take the elixir immediately, thinking that he needed to be prepared for eternal life. Later, his wife Chang’e found the elixir and decided to take it. She realized that she could fly and when Houyi returned, he was undoubtedly upset. Chang’e, also upset, flew out the window and into the heavens, where she came to rest on the moon. There, she realized that she couldn’t get back down to Earth, and was trapped there forever.
Chang’e is supposedly still on the moon, with only the Jade Rabbit (who is pounding herbs to make the medicine that would get Chang’e back to Earth). Accordingly, Houyi was so upset that he couldn’t save his wife that he built a palace in the sun, therefore becoming the yang to her yin. They can only meet once a year, on the fifteenth day of the full moon, which is why the moon is so full and bright.
I guess that gives enough reason to celebrate.
Of course, the office gives everyone two boxes of mooncake. That’s also reason to celebrate.