Mooncakes: History and More

two mooncakes

The mooncake (月餅, 月餅) is a Chinese baked sweet treat that is quintessentially interwoven into the history and celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival. A sweet, dense pastry with a red bean or lotus (or sometimes sesame) paste, the round pastry, sold by the millions in the days and weeks preceding the Mid-Autumn Festival, have come to represent the full moon and is a symbol of family gatherings. Sometimes a whole salted egg yolk is added to the center of the cake to further represent the full moon.

mooncake with yolk

Origins and History

The history of the mooncake is varied and unclear. Some attribute the origin of the mooncake to the origin of the Mid-Autumn festival. Hou Yi, the fabled archer who shot down nine of the ten suns to save the world from heat and starvation, received the elixir of immortality as a reward for his services. Various sources have conflicting reasons why, but his wife, Chang’e, ended up taking the medicine herself, and flew up to the moon to become the Chinese moon goddess and the symbolic figure of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Hou Yi, stricken by the loss of his wife, is sometimes said to have left pastries, like her favorite, the mooncake, out under the full moon in memory of her. (Read more about Chang’e and Hou Yi)

A different historical origin story is that of Li Shimin, later called the Emperor Taijing, who ordered the famed general (and writer) Li Jing to conquer the Turks. On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (Mid-Autumn Festival), Li Jing triumphantly returned, having completed his task. In celebration of the military success, the emperor was gifted a round, sweet delicacy. Pleased, he shared the cake with those around him, and thus the then unnamed cake became a sweet treat enjoyed by those in the palace and upper-class society. It eventually was dubbed as the “mooncake” by a palace concubine, who noticed the similarities between the full moon and the round cake.

Taizong Emperor
Emperor Taizong of Tang

Another popular folk tale comes at the end of the Yuan Dynasty, in which the people of China used mooncakes as a means to secretly spread the word of rebellion against their Mongolian oppressors. In this story, Zhu Yuanzhang, later the Hongwu Emperor and the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, united the people in uprising against their rulers, but had trouble getting messages to his forces without the Mongols knowing. His subject, Liu Bowen, had the idea to hide secret instructions in mooncakes and distribute them across the land. Hidden within the filling of the mooncakes was a message to rebel on, unsurprisingly, the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The uprising was a success, the Mongols defeated, the Ming empire was established, and the custom of eating mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival was formed. During this subsequent Ming Dynasty, the consumption of mooncakes would become widely spread among the people.

Hongwu EmperorHongwu Emperor

Current Day

Today, it would be near impossible to visit a Chinese bakery around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival and not find mooncakes being sold. Recent days have seen mooncake sales skyrocket, reaching around 20.5 billion yuan (almost $3 billion USD) in China in 2020, with even western brands and larger global companies vying for a slice of the pie (or piece of the cake) by selling their own mooncakes. The tradition of gathering with family and friends to eat mooncakes together while watching the full moon has lasted for thousands of years, and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

Curious on how they’re made? Check out this video with a cute childhood story and delicious-looking mooncake recipe:

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