For Australia’s population of nearly 1.5 million people of Chinese descent, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important cultural celebration after Lunar New Year. The festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, during autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. It is also known as the Moon Festival, the Harvest Moon Festival or the Mooncake Festival, because of the moon-shaped cakes that are traditionally given as gifts during the festival period.
The celebration became popular around 1300 years ago in the time of the Tang Dynasty. It coincides with the end of harvest celebration in the middle of autumn and is traditionally believed to be the day when the full moon shines brightest. It is shrouded in history, traditions and symbolism. It represents an important way for contemporary Chinese people to celebrate and preserve their culture, heritage and community.
These days, perhaps the most commonly known aspect of the celebration is the gifting of mooncakes. These ornate pastries can be filled with red bean or lotus seed paste, or yolks from salted duck eggs. Contemporary pastry chefs are known to get creative with the flavours, experimenting with concoctions such as sweet potato and ginger soup, cream corn soup, black sesame glutinous rice ball and even Beef Wellington.
Colourful lanterns are also an important part of Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations and can be seen hung on trees or buildings in many cities and towns where the festival is celebrated. Hong Kong’s Lee Tung Avenue (LTA) is lined with nearly 1,000 lanterns for the crowds to enjoy and people can even try making their own lanterns. Traditionally the lanterns symbolise family reunion, as they illuminate the way home.
Across China and east Asia, there is huge commercial activity surrounding the celebration and it is spreading with the diaspora. A plethora of luxurious mooncakes are marketed to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore’s trendy elite, elaborate lanterns are sold on the streets of Hong Kong and deluxe Moon Cake gift boxes are even available in Australia.
LEXIGO translator Cecilia Chiu originally hails from Hong Kong and is now based in Tasmania. She shared what the Mid-Autumn Festival means to her and Australia’s Chinese diaspora.
Do you think the Full Moon Festival is important to the Chinese diaspora in Australia?
Every part of our traditions (including Mid-Autumn Festival) is important to us. It is the many different aspects of our traditions that shape our culture. In this sense, yes, the Mid-Autumn Festival is important to us.
How do you celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival?
I have not always celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival since I moved to Tasmania. When friends of the same ethnicity have time, we may have a meal together. Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival becomes a pretext for socialising rather than observing the tradition.
Last year, our celebration was a bit special. Friends got together and made mooncakes ourselves.
How do celebrations differ for you compared to when you lived in Hong Kong to now living in Australia?
Celebrations in Tasmania are very different from what I used to have in Hong Kong where festive foods and paraphernalia were readily available off the shelf.
Here in Tasmania, we have to make them our own, such as the lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival. We even bake our own mooncakes if we have time. To a certain extent, this is good. Celebration activities here are less commercialised and ‘getting our hands dirty’ makes us appreciate the traditional aspects more.
What's your favourite type of mooncake?
I love the snow skin mooncakes, which is a modern form of mooncake. Snow skin mooncakes are a non-baked mooncake originating from Hong Kong. Unlike the traditional baked mooncakes, snow skin mooncake uses less sugar and fat which is comparatively a healthier food.
There is a legend about mooncakes. It was once a revolutionary vehicle at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE). Han Chinese concealed messages in the mooncakes (think of it as a forerunner of fortune cookies!) to rebel against the ruling Mongols on Mid-Autumn Day.
Read more about the fascinating history of the Mid-Autumn Festival here.