News Commentary

Mooncakes mark autumn feast

- Doreen Yu -

MANILA, Philippines - Today is the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon will be at its brightest.

In China and in Chinese communities all over the world, the day is celebrated as the Mid-Autumn Festival (zhongqiujie).

In rural China, the day is also considered a harvest festival, since the grain and vegetables and fruits have by this time been harvested in preparation for winter, so it is a time of plenty.

Families gather on this night for a sumptuous dinner, which traditionally includes round moon cakes and taro (gabi or purple yam), the latter because at the time of creation, taro was the first food crop discovered in the moonlight.

Moon cakes were made with bean paste or lotus paste with melon seeds and a golden yolk from a salted egg, and a golden brown crust decorated with symbols of the festival. These days, moon cakes are available in Manila in a wide variety of flavors, including be (yam) and pandan, and come in many colors.

According to a Chinese folk tale, the moon cakes were used by rebel leader Liu Futong to rally the Han Chinese to revolt against the Mongols. Secret messages about the rebellion were supposedly hidden inside the cakes given as gifts. However, Prof. Clark Alejandrino, head of the Chinese Studies program at the Ateneo University, says that this is mere myth, since there are no historical records to back it up, and the Han rebellion against the Mongols was sporadic and scattered uprisings rather than one orchestrated revolt.

Perhaps the most famous legend associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival is the story of Chang’e, the maiden who lives on the moon. Chang’e was the wife of the renowned archer Hou Yi, who saved the earth when ten suns burned fiercely in the sky, causing a terrible drought and scorching all plant life and drying up the rivers (some say this is the ancient version of global warming). He took out his red bow and white arrows, and shot down nine of the suns. Immediately the earth cooled, rains filled the rivers and the plants turned green; life on earth was saved. For this, Hou Yi was rewarded by the Western Queen Mother with an elixir of immortality made from the fruit of the tree of eternity.

At this point versions of the legend vary. Some say Hou Yi and Chang’e planned to take the elixir together on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month when the moon was brightest, to enter the heavens as immortals together. Others say Chang’e accidentally found the elixir and drank it without knowing what it was. Still others say that an evil man killed Hou Yi and tried to steal the elixir from Chang’e, who instead drank it all.

All agree, however, that Chang’e drank the elixir and became immortal, floating up to the moon. There she lives with the jade rabbit and the woodcutter Wu Gang, who had tried to achieve immortality and was banished by the gods to live on the moon, allowed to leave only when he could chop down a cassia tree that grew there; the problem was that each time he chopped the tree, branches would grow back, thus making his task impossible.

Scores of poems by China’s most famous poets have been written about the mid-autumn moon and about Chang’e, but perhaps the most famous mention can be found in the conversation between Houston space center and the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon in July 1969. Houston told astronaut Michael Collins to “watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit…a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o (who) has been living there for 4000 years…”

Tomorrow night, as you sip some fine Chinese tea and enjoy moon cakes after a sumptuous dinner, or perhaps as you play the dice game, look up at the moon for a second and, if the gods so favor, you just might catch a glimpse of Chang’e smiling down at you.












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