The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Mooncake Festival or Lantern Festival, is one of the most important festivals of the year for the Chinese peoples around the world, and dates back over 3,500 years.
Mooncake Mid-Autumn Festival 2014: How to Celebrate This Family Event
Held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, the festival is held to celebrate the harvest as well as to the moon, and the customs are also observed by Vietnamese people (who were colonised by the Chinese in 111 BC).
Many traditional customs practiced by Chinese people today all over the world are based on events and rituals that have been passed down through thousands of years of Chinese culture, and many originate around remembered events of great crisis or strife.
Similarly, the tradition of giving mooncakes to friends, relatives and colleagues during the Mid-Autumn Festival is a reminder of the rebellion which succeeded in overthrowing the Mongol dynasty, which ruled China from 1271-1368 AD.
The Mongols had attempted to invade China many times in ancient times and eventually succeeded under the leadership of Kublai Khan during the 13th century. Khan set up the Yuan dynasty and created a new social order which favoured Mongols, West and Central Asians, with Chinese subjects (particularly those from the fallen Song dynasty) in the bottom tier
During the century that the Mongols were in power, their rule was oppressive, forbidding Chinese subjects to gather in public or own weapons, as well as levying heavy taxes, while making bad land management decisions that led to poor crops yield.
Mongol guards were posted outside the homes of all Chinese subjects.
One knife was given to ten Chinese families to use during meal times to cook, after which the implement was taken away again.
The families also had to support their Mongolian guards by giving them food and wine, and even their daughters. Chinese people were not even allowed to handle bamboo, in case they used it to manufacture bows and arrows. The story goes that Liu Bowen, the confidant of the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, suggested that the rebellion be timed to coincide with the Mid-Autumn festival.
Zhu applied for and got permission to distribute thousands of mooncakes to Chinese residents in the Mongol capital as a blessing to the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake was a piece of paper saying, “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eighth month”.
The plan succeeded, since Mongols did not eat mooncakes, and they were overthrown, retreating back into Mongolia, while Zhu founded the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).
Although some Chinese historians are sceptical that the cakes were used in this way, mooncakes have historically been made with specific moulds and always include three to six Chinese characters imprinted into the top.
Today, the Chinese characters usually refer to what flavour the cakes are, as it has become trendy to make mooncakes with a wide variety of fillings, including traditional ones like sweet bean paste, jujube paste and five kernel (a filling made from five types of seeds and nuts mixed with maltose syrup), as well as unusual flavours like chocolate, yam, orange and pandan leaf.