Mooncakes: China's Evolving Tradition


Photos by Sienna Parulis-Cook

To try ice cream mooncakes, click here for the recipe.

China's Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month and was celebrated this year on October 3rd. The holiday is a harvest festival and a time of family reunion. Historically, Mid-Autumn Festival was also a time for moon worship. Women would set up an altar in their family's courtyard with statues of the moon rabbit, melons and pomegranates to symbolize fertility, and 13 mooncakes to represent the 13 months of the Chinese lunar calendar. The mooncakes varied by region but were generally round in shape (a symbol of reunion), a few inches in diameter and contained a rich, sweet filling of lotus seed paste, nuts, dried fruits, sweet beans or other ingredients. After worshipping the full moon, family members would eat the cakes together.

The moon-worshipping ritual has disappeared in modern-day Beijing, but the mooncakes have survived. They were banned in some parts of the country during the Cultural Revolution and unavailable during times of extreme hardship. But even at the height of Maoism, mooncakes were often produced by state-owned factories or bakeries and distributed by the work unit, and citizens were given special mooncake ration coupons at Mid-Autumn Festival. While moon worship, along with many other facets of Chinese popular religion, was eradicated as an obstruction to the realization of Communism, mooncakes, like other festival foods such as glutinous rice balls at the Lunar New Year or zongzi, steamed rice dumplings, at the springtime Dragon Boat Festival, were deemed a less threatening part of the tradition.

Older people often complain that children do not appreciate mooncakes the way they used to, but the mooncake companies are finding ways to solve this problem, too.

Since economic reforms in the 1980s, though, China's mooncake market has expanded dramatically. While only two or three types of mooncakes were available just a few decades ago, now consumers are faced with an overwhelming variety of flavors and packaging.

If you ask anyone in Beijing where to buy mooncakes, they will almost certainly tell you about Daoxiangcun, a Qing Dynasty bakery founded in 1896 that was closed in the 20th century but reopened as a state-owned company in 1984. The historic brand derives its success from its image of tradition and authenticity. Here, you'll find not only the salty egg-yolk and lotus paste mooncakes that are typical to the south of China and are now recognized as the most "traditional" flavor, but you can also purchase Suzhou-style mooncakes with their flakey pastry, or the five-kernel mooncakes that come from the north of China and taste a bit like granola bars.

Although mooncakes were an 11 billion yuan (around $1.5 billion) industry in 2006, they have faced some challenges in recent years. Rising obesity rates and the advent of related diseases have made many, especially young women, wary of the calorie-packed cakes. The mooncake market has adapted by creating low-fat and low-sugar mooncakes, as well as "healthier" flavors such as green tea and various fruits.

While there is certainly money to be made from the marketing of tradition, China's young urbanites often scoff at the classic mooncakes and see little reason to buy them. They are instead wooed by companies that seek to make the pastry into something modernized, Westernized, and "cool." Haagen Dazs' ice cream mooncakes are wildly popular, and Dairy Queen and Coldstone Creamery have followed suit with their own "mooncakes," which, with a chocolate exterior and ice cream interior, bear no resemblance to the traditional cake in anything but shape.

Older people often complain that children do not appreciate mooncakes the way they used to, but the mooncake companies are finding ways to solve this problem, too. This year marked the introduction of Barbie mooncakes in Shanghai, where the $57 deluxe box comes with a Barbie doll. Mooncakes may also come bearing images of cartoon characters like Snoopy or Hello Kitty.

In the 1980s, mooncakes cost only one or two yuan (15 to 30 cents) apiece, but Mid-Autumn gift boxes today can cost hundreds of dollars. Part of the reason for this increase in price is the packaging, which has become extremely elaborate and is widely recognized as more important than the actual cakes. Functioning as a symbolic gift used to reinforce or establish relationships, mooncakes are now given not only to family members, but also to employees, clients, business partners, and anyone else deemed potentially useful to the giver. For those in powerful positions, it would be impossible to eat every mooncake received. Thus, many boxes are regifted or thrown away.

Official criticism of the wastefulness and extravagance of Mid-Autumn Festival gifts has led to government restrictions on packaging and the practice of giving mooncake gift baskets that include "extras" like cartons of cigarettes or bottles of alcohol. Still, many mooncake purveyors have found creative ways to get around these new restrictions, and others have ignored them.

Even a century or two ago in urban areas, mooncakes were generally bought in stores, not made at home. Apart from a certain expertise and special molds, production of the cakes also requires an oven, something absent from most Chinese kitchens even today. In rural areas, it was traditional for villagers to form "mooncake societies," where they would pool their money to give to one skilled baker who would then make mooncakes for the whole community.

In the midst of criticism over their price, packaging, health effects, and general corruption of a traditional family holiday, however, the official Chinese press has recently embraced the practice of making mooncakes at home. Today, recipes for both traditional and modernized mooncakes, many of which do not require an oven, can be found in popular Chinese cooking magazines, but most people continue to purchase their mooncakes from restaurants, bakeries, and hotels.