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  • Writer's pictureShanghai Expat Association

Moon cakes and rabbit lanterns – autumn in China is magical

by Julia Henningsen

Did you know the astronauts on Apollo 11 were asked to look for a girl on the moon? The story behind this unfolds around the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiūjié中秋节), also called the Moon Festival, celebrated annually on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, according to the Chinese calendar. This year it fell on September 10th. The celebrations are not only about family gatherings but also about the joy of the harvest, romance and harmony between people and nature and is celebrated with special food and symbols.

One of many variations on the origin of the Moon Festival is as follows:

Long ago, there were ten suns in the sky. They burned all the plants on Earth and people were dying. One day, Hou Yi used his bow and arrows to shoot down nine suns and saved all the people on Earth. The Queen Mother of the West gave Hou Yi a bottle of elixir that could make him immortal. But the elixir was only for one person. Although Hou Yi did want to become immortal, he wanted to stay with his beautiful wife, Chang'e (嫦娥). He asked Chang'e to keep the elixir safe for him. But a student of Hou Yi wanted the elixir. One day, after making sure Hou Yi had gone, the student went to Hou Yi's house and tried to steal it. To prevent the immortality elixir from falling into the hands of a thief, Chang'e swallowed the elixir. As a result, Chang'e floated up to the moon, eternally separated from her husband. Hou Yi was heartbroken when he was told what had happened to Chang'e. He displayed the fruits and cakes that Chang'e had enjoyed, to show Chang’e that he missed her.[1]

Other stories state Chang’e stole the elixir and fled from her husband to stay on the moon.

Click here to see a China Highlights video of the Mid-Autumn festival story and how it is celebrated in China.

Food of the Moon festival

Every year, as part of celebrations, people enjoy different kinds of fruit: pears, grapes, grapefruits, and pomegranates. The holiday is also a fantastic opportunity to drink osmanthus wine and eat mooncakes. Moon cakes are a traditional gift given to family, colleagues, partners, clients, and friends all over China. The typical moon cake is only a few inches in diameter and the round pastry is filled with a variet

Moon cakes. Photo by Julia Henningsen

y of flavors. Fillings like five kernel and pork, red bean paste, lotus seed paste, or even crayfish are common, but you will also find more contemporary styles and fillings, such as lemon cheesecake or even an Oatly mooncake. Snowskin mooncakes, which need to be chilled and have a shorter shelf life, usually come in fruit flavors with variations including durian mooncakes and even alcohol infused mooncakes. Shanghai-style mooncakes are made from short crust pastry, which is rich, crumbly and buttery. The most popular fillings are sweetened red bean paste, lotus seed paste and taro paste with egg yolks in the middle. If you are being given one, the correct way to eat a mooncake is for the senior member of the household to cut them into slices and distribute them to the family.

Symbols of the Moon Festival

Silk and paper rabbit lanterns. Photo by Julia Henningsen

Lanterns are another prominent part of the festival. Whether people carry them, or they light up towers, these brightly lit decorations play an important role in the festivities. They symbolize the prosperity of a family, as the words deng (lanterns) and ding (man) share similar pronunciations. Lanterns have many forms, from money to manga characters, paper to plastic and electronic ones; but a paper and silk little rabbit is the most traditional. The rabbit lantern draws inspiration from the Chinese legend, which tells of a selfless rabbit who sacrificed itself for the immortals and was thus rewarded with immortality on the moon –taking its place besides Chang’e. She is not alone up there - after all, the moon festival is a festival of completeness and reunion.

So, what does this all have to do with Apollo 11? The Moon goddess Chang'e has been the namesake of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program and was mentioned in a conversation between Houston CAPCOM and the Apollo 11 crew just before the first Moon landing in 1969:

CAPCOM: "Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says the girl named Chang'e has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported." Michael Collins (CMP): “Okay. We'll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl. “

Make sure to have a look up to the moon during the next Moon Festival, and maybe, you might just spot them.


Julia Henningsen is an author and has lived in Shanghai with her husband and two daughters since 2020. She is Communication Chair on the Executive Board of the Shanghai Expatriate Association. As a freelance writer, she recently published the article ”Sleepless in Shanghai – 48 hours without limits”. She also authored the book contribution "China's High-Tech Victory over Covid-19: Opportunities for a New Normal" and co-authored the calendar "The Famous Die Young". She reports on her life in Shanghai on Instagram under juliantoni.

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