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Unpacking mooncakes

Mooncake festival, or mid-autumn festival, is one of the first festivals that students of Chinese language encounter, showing up early in many a Chinese coursebook. It is known to be the second most significant festival in the Chinese calendar. In fact, Asians all over the world grow up eating mooncake – whether they actually like eating them or not – during this season, which varies from late August to early October. (As someone once put it: “It’s just something I do because I’m Chinese, not because I like them.”)

Mooncakes, usually round pastries embossed with elaborate patterns and significant meanings, are most commonly filled with a sticky yellow paste (lotus seed paste) and often a cooked egg yolk, but also come in flavors such as mango, red bean, chocolate, ice-cream and even red wine. Sold by the bucketload, they are hardly ever bought to be eaten by oneself – instead they are given as gifts to teachers, employees, employers, neighbours, friends, relatives, customers, and anyone else to whom you might want to show respect.

But what is the reason behind this billion dollar industry, and the festival to which it belongs?

Stories vary. Traditionally, it celebrates the harvest, with the 15th day of the 8th lunar month being the time that people celebrate the rice harvest, and show gratitude to ‘the gods’. As the family gather to share a meal and gaze at the moon, particularly round and bright at this time, they look to the full moon to give them a year of good fortune. But there is also the story of Chang’e, a virtuous woman / goddess who swallowed an immortality pill in order to protect it from her husband’s nemesis and was transported immediately to the moon. Her husband, and decades of dedicated followers have since offered and enjoyed mooncakes (her favorite food) during mid-Autumn festival, as they seek her provision of happiness and safety.

Is it a cultural or spiritual observation? Ask a modern-day Chinese urbanite and you’ll probably find that it is just something they have grown up doing – even the Christians – and doesn’t necessarily have any spiritual significance. But recently, companies have even gone so far as to sell insurance policies to compensate people in the case that bad weather (note that haze due to pollution is expressly excluded) prevents people seeing the full moon on this auspicious occasion, as missing out on seeing the full moon would surely impact their quality of life.

So, are people buying into this? Do people truly believe that spending one night gazing at a full moon will ensure a year of good fortune, happiness, success? In the countryside, it’s possible that many truly believe in its spiritual significance. In the cities, where more and more of the population are living, modern-day, science-governed, atheistic Chinese people are more likely just following the traditions of their ancestors.

Either way, as hundreds of millions of people celebrate this year’s mid-Autumn festival and gaze at the moon, pray with us – that the God of the heavens will instead show them the Son, that through Him they may have life, that they might have it to the full. That as they seek success, happiness and a year of blessing, they will discover that is it only through the Lord of the universe that they can have the type of blessing that is guaranteed not by money, but by the indwelling of His Spirit.

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