Chinese Moon Festival

All About Chinese Mooncakes and the Mid-Autumn Festival

Mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival
Thick mooncakes ready for the Chinese Moon / Mid-Autumn Festival. Thomas Ruecker / Getty Images

Also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival or the Mooncake Festival, the Chinese Moon Festival is a favorite holiday for ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese people around the world.

Second only to the Lunar New Year in popularity, participants observing the festival share fun, overpriced cakes (mooncakes) with people they appreciate. Some are tasty; some are as dense as hockey pucks. Regardless, everyone appreciates the time away from work!

The Chinese Moon Festival is also a joyous time for family, friends, and couples to reunite under a full moon during harvest. All take a little time to appreciate the beautiful full moon on what is hopefully the clearest night of the year. The round shape and completeness of the full moon symbolize reunites pieces that form a whole.

What to Expect During the Chinese Moon Festival

The Chinese Moon Festival is a time to take a needed break from work, reunite with family and friends, and pay homage to the full moon with poems.

Mooncakes are gifted, swapped, and shared. The festival is a good excuse for couples to enjoy romantic time sitting under a full moon — and yes — sharing cakes. Businesses often give a case of mooncakes to show appreciation to clients.

Travelers can enjoy the fun in parks and public spaces, but keep in mind that many shops and businesses may be closed in observance of the public holiday. Transportation options may be full or limited.

Public parks are lit up with special displays and lanterns; there may be stages with cultural shows and parades. Dragon and lion dances — there is a difference! — are popular during the festival. Incense is burned in temples to honor ancestors and the moon goddess. Bright lanterns are hung high from poles and launched into the sky.

What Are Chinese Mooncakes?

Chinese mooncakes are small, baked cakes eaten with the fingers during the Mid-Autumn Festival — or anytime you want a treat. They're a popular gift, often given by the box, during the Chinese Moon Festival.

Mooncakes are made with egg yolks and come with a variety of fillings; the most popular are made from bean paste, lotus seeds, fruits, and sometimes even meat. The cakes are typically round, symbolizing the full moon. Writing or patterns on top tell of good fortunes to come. Regional variations abound. The boxes for mooncakes are often as beautiful as the cakes inside.

Many mooncakes are sweet but not all. Some are savory. Artisans go after the shock factor with new creations each year. Fillings such as sambal, durian, salted duck eggs, and gold flakes up interest levels and the price for a box.

Despite the small size, Chinese mooncakes are often prepared with lard or shortening and are quite heavy. Unless self punishment is the aim, you wouldn't want to eat several at a time. Many people choose to cut mooncakes into quarters to share them with friends.

Given the difficulty of making real mooncakes and the far-flung fillings involved, some are surprisingly expensive! One pricey variant contains shark fin — an unsustainable option. Around 11,000 sharks die per hour (roughly three per second), mostly due to finning practices driven by Asia.

Some mooncakes share the same fate as American fruitcakes: they're swapped and -mostly- appreciated but never consumed.

Where to Find Mooncakes

You probably won't have any trouble finding mooncakes days or weeks before the festival. Similar to how merchandise for commercialized holidays in the United States shows up in stores months early, the same is true about the Moon Festival.

Mooncakes will be for sale in every shop and restaurant. Hotels will have their own in-house creations on display. Even ice cream chains offer mooncakes or mooncake-flavored ice cream during the festival.

If you plan to give mooncakes that are wrapped or boxed, keep in mind that gift-giving etiquette differs in Asia from the West. Don't expect the recipient to always open a gift in front of you.

Moon Festival Legends

Known as the Zhongqiu Jie (Middle Autumn Festival) in Mandarin, the Chinese Moon Festival dates back to over 3,000 years. As with all practices so old, a lot of legends developed over the years. Most stories are based on the idea that the goddess Chang'e lives on the moon; tales of how she got there diverge widely, however.

One story suggests that the moon goddess was the wife of a legendary archer who was ordered to shoot down all but one of the suns in the sky. That's why we only have one sun. After accomplishing the task, he was given an immortality pill as a reward. His wife found and took the pill instead, then later flew to the moon where she lives now.

Another Chinese Moon Festival legend states that paper messages inside of mooncakes were used as a way to organize the exact date of a coup against the ruling Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongols were overthrown on the night of the Moon Festival. Although this legend seems a little more plausible than a goddess living on the moon, little historical evidence suggests that this is how the Mongols were defeated.

Where to See the Chinese Moon Festival

Great news: You do not have to be in China to enjoy the Chinese Moon Festival! Chinatowns around the world will celebrate.

China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau have the largest celebrations. But the festival is especially popular in places around Southeast Asia with large ethnic Chinese populations such as Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia.

When Is the Chinese Moon Festival?

The Chinese Moon / Mid-Autumn Festival starts on the 15th day of the eighth month as determined by the Chinese lunisolar calendar. Dates for the festival change annually, but it's always celebrated in the fall.

  • Moon Festival 2011: September 12
  • Moon Festival 2012: September 30
  • Moon Festival 2013: September 19
  • Moon Festival 2014: September 8
  • Moon Festival 2015: September 27
  • Moon Festival 2016: September 15
  • Moon Festival 2017: October 4
  • Moon Festival 2018: September 24