4 min read.
What is the Mid-Autumn Festival?
Ever wondered why the Mid-Autumn Festival (MAF) or zhongqiujie (中秋节) is such a massive event in China and many other Asian countries? The Mid-Autumn Festival has a grand history of over three millennia. It was derived from the custom of moon worshipping during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). After that, it was first celebrated as a national festival sometime during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD).
In the past, the MAF was celebrated during the harvest season. Ancient Chinese emperors worshipped the moon in autumn to thank it for a good harvest. Laymen too regarded Mid-Autumn as a celebration of their hard work throughout the year. People have long believed that worshipping the moon and eating together at a roundtable will bring them good luck, health and happiness. Hence, even though the agricultural days are long over for many families who now reside in urban areas, people use the MAF as quality time to catch up, gather as a family and wish one another well.
Every year, the MAF is held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, usually on a night with a glorious full moon. For 2020, MAF will be happening on Thursday, 1 October. It is undeniably a wonderful opportunity for both familial as well as corporate gift-giving. Here is a list of five gift ideas that we have prepared, just in case you are celebrating MAF, or you know someone who is.
Nothing screams out “Mid-Autumn Festival” quite like mooncakes, or yuebing (月饼). Mooncakes are normally circular. According to Huaxia, in Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and reunion, as in tuanyuan (团圆). As such, the sharing and communal eating of round mooncakes among family members during the week of the festival signifies the completeness and unity of families.
Mooncakes come in all shapes and sizes. Most mooncakes have a pastry skin enveloping a sweet, dense filling. However, some regions also sell savoury mooncakes. They are usually eaten in small wedges rather than as a whole, as each wedge can be very filling for the stomach. As China is enormous geographically, each region in China has its unique preference for filling, and even the crust of the mooncakes differ from place to place.
In terms of prices, the rough price for a single classic red bean paste, lotus seed paste, or vegetable and fruit mooncake is typically between RMB5 (US$0.72) and RMB10 (US$1.45). Five-kernel and roast pork flavors, while traditional, are more expensive, and cost around RMB10-20 (US$1.45 – 2.90) each. On a side note, it is increasingly becoming more normal to see new and creative flavors entering the market such as apple, durian and chocolate, perhaps to cater to the taste of younger celebrants. If you fancy your receiver to be somewhat young and adventurous, consider these more modern, interesting flavors instead.
If you plan to give to elders or your more esteemed colleagues, a typical gift box with well-designed or ornate packaging will set you back approximately RMB100-200 (US$14.40 – 28.80). Hotels, restaurants and confectionaries also tend to sell them at more premium prices than roadside stalls. Oftentimes, the packaging is more expensive than the mooncakes themselves. However, for these individuals, we suggest spending more to express respect and admiration.
- Fruit Baskets
Apart from mooncakes, fruit baskets are also common gifts as they provide a refreshing change for the palate after or while consuming mooncakes. The most popular fruits for the Mid-Autumn Festival are pears, grapes, grapefruits, pomelos and pomegranates. They are all ripe in autumn and each has its profound, underlying meaning. For example, eating a pear during the MAF means the family would not be apart. Pomelos are symbols of prosperity and good luck for many Asians. In addition, the seeds in a watermelon symbolize fertility and the round shape once again symbolizes family togetherness. According to China Highlights, many Chinese people believe that it is healthier to eat seasonal fruit. Keep in mind that the gift itself matters to many Chinese people as much as the thought, so it will be a good idea to give a fruit basket with the fruits listed above as a gift, rather than any random fruits of your liking. The average price of a fruit basket is RMB50 (US$8).
Tea is perceived as the “yin” (cooling) to the “yang” (warming) of mooncakes. Tea is regarded as a healthy drink in China and one that helps to detox and “cool” the body after a heaty meal. Since a mooncake may at times be too sweet, a cup of oolong or floral tea can help to ease the taste. Tea is also very useful for Asian families as it is often a basic courtesy to offer tea to guests. Therefore, tea is highly recommended as a gift for the MAF. Alternatively, giving tea-scented candles may work if you wish to opt for something slightly less mainstream while still keeping with the festival theme, as they may be practical when welcoming guests too. Do note that while most teas are considered “yin”, some like roasted oolong or black teas are considered “yang”. In terms of cost, you would be looking at roughly RMB100–200 (US$15-30) per kg of tea leaves.
Abalone is one of the most valuable types of seafood in China and amongst Chinese communities globally. It ranks first in the four traditional Chinese cuisines – “Abalone, Sea Cucumber, Shark Fin and Fish Maw”. Abalone is rich in protein, low in fat and full of nutrition, thus it is a delicious addition to any meal. Abalone generally tastes fresh and has a strong flavor, and is often served braised with vegetables or in soup. However, be ready to splash the cash, as a quality jar of abalone would cost around US$40.
- Hairy Crab
Hairy crab is another great gift if your recipient is from China, specifically Shanghai. As a seasonal food, hairy crab is mostly eaten between September and October. With its tender meat and high nutritious value, it is no surprise that hairy crab has become such a famous delicacy of the Shanghainese. The dish is also relatively easy to prepare – one simple steam and the crab is ready-to-eat. Expect RMB150-250 (US$23-38) per kilogram of crab.
As with most festival gift-giving, while more often than not “it is the thought that counts”, we hope this non-exhaustive guide has helped to debunk any misconceptions and bring light to one of the most popular and meaningful festivals in Chinese history. When in doubt, giving mooncakes should do no wrong.