The Mid-Autumn Festival, otherwise referred to as the Mooncake Festival, in an annual celebration held to mark the end of the autumn harvest festival.
The festival has been observed since over 2,000 years ago. It is celebrated annually on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. For 2023, the auspicious festival falls on the 29th September when the moon is at its fullest and brightest.
The celebrations kick with a family dinner where families gather together to signify reunion and completeness. After the dinner, the younger population will light up colourfully decorated handheld paper lanterns and stroll around their compound or parks to accompany the moon viewing.
More elaborate celebrations would include Chinese dances, Chinese Opera and puppetry, among others. The highlight of the festival, however, are the mooncakes which are often exchanged as gifts.
But how did this festival and its association with mooncakes come about? The festival is centred around the love story of husband and wife, Chang Er and Hou Yi.
The story goes that ten suns rose in the sky together one year, leading to great disaster. Hou Yi was a great archer who managed to shoot down nine of the suns. He was rewarded an elixir of immortality by an immortal who admired Yi’s skill. Yi, however, did not yearn for immortality without his wife Chang Er so he chose to let her keep the elixir.
Peng Meng, one of Yi’s
apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the Chinese lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi's house and forced Chang Er to give the elixir to him. She refused and swallowed it instead. She then flew into the sky and chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang Er liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang'e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.
In the historical context however, mooncakes were used in the Ming revolution to pass messages around secretly under the guise as gifts during the Yuan Dynasty. This tactic led them to their victory in their liberation from the Mongols.
The mooncakes from back then have since taken on several new forms. The traditional mooncake has a flaky, sometimes chewy pastry exterior and will have various types of filling. Some may fill their mooncakes with sweeter, floral elements while others might prefer to insert meat to make it savoury. The most common fillings would be lotus paste, red bean paste, black sesame paired with melon seeds, nut slices or a whole salted egg yolk.
Modern mooncakes now come in an array of forms and flavours. Some are spherical, others made of jelly or glutinous rice. You may find these contemporary versions with traditional fillings though newer flavours such as tea flavoured pastes, ice-cream, bird's nest, abalone and ginseng are gaining in popularity.
Feel free to celebrate with locals at public gatherings if you happen to be travelling in Kuching around the time of the festival. Well known gathering places include the Malaysia-China Friendship Park, MBKS compound, Kuching Waterfront and Traffic Garden.
The festival is celebrated by Sarawakians of of different ethnic backgrounds so do not hold back and make sure to join in on the celebration for this year with the public events happening around the state.
You can find the different events taking place in Sarawak at https://sarawaktourism.com/TourismApi/images/post/1223/tourism.pdf
Try the different mooncakes available and share them with those who are with you. If you would like to read up on any other festivals celebrated in Sarawak, please visit https://sarawaktourism.com/.