Every mid-August, Mooncake Festival rolls around, and Malaysians get to enjoy all the different types of mooncakes.
Is there a deep religious significance to Mooncake Festival? Not really. For most Malaysians, it’s just a lighthearted and fun thing to do amongst family and friends.
If you ask a regular Malaysian on the street, you’ll get various answers on the history of the mooncake and what it represents.
Chang Er and Her Lover
Probably the most well-known of the legends is the one about a woman named Chang Er.
“Growing up, I was told this story of Chang Er and her lover where she ascended to the moon and resided there, separating the two lovers until only Mid Autumn festival comes around,” said Clement.
The Greedy Emperor Who Wanted To Be Immortal
There’s the legend of an emperor who wanted immortality, which is basically intertwined with the legend of Chang Er.
“The emperor want immortality so he procured two doses of herbs, one for him and one for Chang Er. Change Er didn’t think it was good for the people to suffer under a tyrant, so she snuck both doses and consumed them,” recounted Carol, a webcomic editor.
While the main lesson from that story was: “Don’t be a greedy emperor who wants immortality,” it did also make her wonder: “Will overdosing on medicine make you fly to the moon?”
The Princess And The Rabbit
As I asked more Malaysians to remember their mooncake legends, we started getting into Disney movie material.
“Without looking at Google, my understanding is that long ago there was a princess and a rabbit from the moon. And they couldn’t be together so one made the other a mooncake? Or was it that the rabbit on the moon who made cakes for the Chinese princess?” said Ariff, doubtfully.
“Either way, I think mooncakes are celebrating the harvest moon, where the moon is the biggest and brightest,” he concluded more confidently.
How Chang Er and The Rabbit Are Related
The full story involving Chang Er and the rabbit is actually quite interesting, as explained by Michelle, a Chinese myth buff:
“Legend has it that the immortality pill is guarded by this woodcutter named Wu Gang. He is only allowed to give out this pill to deities every 1000 years.”
“One day he offended the Emperor of Heaven, and as punishment, was directed to cut down a peach tree on the moon that would grow back every day. So he has to cut down the tree forever.”
“There was a job vacancy for a new custodian, so three lesser deities were assigned by the Emperor of Heaven to find a suitable candidate.”
“The three deities narrowed down the list to a monkey, fox and a rabbit, and as a test, asked them to bring something of value to them to contribute to the recipe for the immortality pill.”
“The rabbit had nothing to offer, so he offered his body and cast it into the fire. Impressed by this display of sacrifice, the deities made him immortal and made him the new custodian.”
I thought that was the end of the story, but there’s more.
“One day the rabbit himself made a mistake, and was exiled to the moon as a result. The Empress of Heaven gave two immortality pills to the human emperor Hou Yi, whose wife was Chang Er. Chang Er ate both pills by mistake, and that’s how she ended up on the moon with the rabbit.”
Point At The Moon, Get A Cut On Your Ear
Some other legends were more like corrective behaviour disguised as a scary story told by well-meaning parents.
“Whenever I saw a full moon I’d point at it, to try to get my parents to look. They would smack my hands and chide me, saying: “The moon will punish you and cut your ear!”
“True enough, I’d wake up the day after with a paper cut right around the earlobes. Mum would then apply some nice soothing ointment on it to make me feel better, haha!”
“And during Mooncake festival the moon is usually full, so that’s when it’s an absolute no-no to point at it.”
Looking back, Nicki mused that it was probably a lesson to teach us not to point at people or at things.
Hiding Messages inside Mooncakes
Mooncakes were also a feature of a few stories about ancient Chinese history.
Delilah, who read up on the history of mooncakes, explained it to me: “Actually, it’s about the people from the Yuan dynasty not happy with the government and they hid notes in cakes that said ‘On 15th august we fight’ to the volunteer army to overthrow the government of the day.”
Reunion Of Family
There’s certainly a lot of unique stories surrounding the mooncakes we’ve come to simply enjoy. At the end of the day, these legends simply are there to enrich our understanding of history while we enjoy a tasty dessert with our loved ones.
“All in all, I guess it’s about reunion, because everything’s round. So we gather round and eat round mooncakes watching the round moon,” said Christina. The word “yuan” means both ‘round’ and ‘reunion’ in Mandarin.
What are the mooncake stories told to you as a child? Tell us in the comments here or on Facebook!
For more articles about culture and traditions, read Here’s Why Malaysians Do These 3 Things During Hungry Ghost Month and 8 Signs Your Family Believes in Chinese New Year Superstitions.