Exploring the History of Mooncakes

With the Mid-Autumn Festival approaching in September, I figure now would be as good a time as any to write an article on the history of the iconic mooncake.

What is a Mooncake?

These delicious pastries are typically round in shape, often with ornate stamped designs, and contain a rich filling consisting of either red bean, lotus seed paste, or jujube paste and sometimes whole salted duck egg yolks are included as well. It is often recommended to pair them with black tea, as the malty flavor can help balance the rich sweetness of the mooncake, but other teas such as puer or chrysanthemum are also excellent choices. Which tea pairs best with a particular mooncake would depend upon which style of mooncake it is, as well as personal preference.

Although a mooncake is typically small in size, they are rarely eaten whole. It’s much more common to section the cake and share it with friends or family.

mooncake and teapot

History of the Mooncake

Shang Dynasty: 1600 to 1046 B.C.

The original form of the mooncake began being made 3,000 years ago during the Shang dynasty.

This cake was known as a Taishi, as it was named after the prime minister, who’s name was Taishi.

This cake was thick in the middle with thin edges on the outside.

Tang Dynasty: 618 to 907 A.D.

During the Tang dynasty, mooncakes were given to the emperor to celebrate the northward expansion of his regime. Soon after this event, these cakes became quite popular and began to become much more commonplace.

It is said that they were named “mooncakes” by one of the emperor’s concubines.

Song Dynasty: 960 to 1279 A.D.

There are poems and records from the Song dynasty that distinctly mention mooncakes, showing their sustained popularity throughout China.

The first record containing the word “mooncake” is thought to be the book Meng Liang Lu, written by Wu Zimu in 1274.

The Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival dates back over 3,000 years to the Shang dynasty but grew to popularity during the Tang dynasty. It remains rather popular throughout China in modern times and is now thought to be the second most popular festival in China after the Chinese New Year.

The festival itself is said to have been based upon an ancient legend involving Chang’e, who was considered the Chinese goddess of the moon. We have embedded an animated video about this particular legend involving Chang’e in a later section of this article. If you’re interested in learning about this mythological story, be sure to check it out!

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. This date is between September and October if you are going by the Gregorian calendar. The ancient emperors of China found out that on this night, the moon is at it very brightest, making it the perfect time to worship the moon.

During this festival it is common to see lanterns of all types being shone throughout the event. Although they are often considered simple decorations, lanterns are much more important than that. Many people are familiar with the age-old tradition of writing wishes on sky lanterns and sending them through the sky, but it is less known that this tradition is believed to honor Chang’e, the Moon Goddess. The lights of these lanterns are thought to symbolize prosperity and good fortune, giving people hope in the following year.

It is during this festival that these cakes are made and distributed. It can be quite difficult to find anything other than mass-produced mooncakes during other parts of the year and if you want a quality, authentic mooncake, then the Mid-Autumn Festival is the best time to buy them.

This year (2022) the festival starts on September 10th, so mark your calendar if you’re looking to try an authentic mooncake. Some people associate the Mid-Autumn Festival so strongly with mooncakes that the festival is sometimes even referred to as “Mooncake Day”.

Main Image by mersonsu10 of PixaBay.

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