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The Moon Festival is celebrated during the harvest moon (the first full moon of autumn) on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month in late September or early October. Also known as the "Reunion Festival" or “Mid-Autumn Festival, it is a time when families and friends get together and eat "Moon Cakes" as a symbol of reunion. Kids love the moon cakes, which are pies with sweet fillings. Moon cakes vary somewhat from region to region but usually have sweet been paste in the middle. The holiday is also celebrated with fireworks displays, the hanging of lanterns and the consumption of large amounts of maotai (rice liquor). It is now included in the third golden week of the year.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important on China's lunar calendar after the Chinese New Year. It is based on the legend of Chang E, the mythical moon fairy who lived in a crystal palace and came out only to dance on the moon's shadowed surface. These days many families gather for large meals on the evening of the new moon which fell on September 12 in 2011, with the mooncakes central to the celebrations.

The moon cakes given as presents were traditionally filled with red bean paste and sold for a few pennies. These days you can get ones in fancy boxed sets with a layer of shark fin and edible gold images of Buddha imprinted on them for $25,000. Recipients are often corrupt officials. Other gifts given to corrupt officials at this time of year include dried abalone, platinum necklaces and golden chessboards.

Moon cakes played a pivotal role in the rebellion that ousted the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and launched the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. The Mongols cracked down ruthlessly on the Chinese but failed to suppress the Chinese custom of exchanging little round full moon cakes during the coming of the full moon. Like fortune cookies, the cakes carried paper messages. The clever rebels used the innocent-looking cakes to give instructions to the Chinese population to rise up and massacre the Mongols at the time of the full moon in August 1368.


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mooncake filling
Moon cakes are dense, pie-like pastries with sweet fillings. According to custom, one is supposed to eat the cakes under the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Often extravagantly expensive, they are about the size of a hockey puck and just as dense. Fillings range from red bean with salted egg yolks to cheesecake to Peking duck. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2011]

A typical 6.3-ounce mooncake has about 800 calories. By contrast, a McDonald's hot fudge sundae, which weighs the same, has only 330 calories. "They're too sweet and not healthy," one Chinese woman told the Los Angeles Times. "I just bring them with me when I meet friends and give mooncakes to anyone who wants one."

In 2010, health officials in Taiwan warned the public to lay off the mooncakes and instead indulge in fruits and vegetables. But mooncake-haters notwithstanding, nutritionists and dietitians in Beijing doubt that health warnings will dissuade people from eating them. "Mooncakes have been a traditional part of Chinese food and celebration for centuries, there's no way we could tell people not to eat them," said Liu Huali, chairman of the Beijing Nutrition Consultant Assn. "Even though they're high in sugar, high in oil and high in calories, people won't listen to our advice." Liu said that even he would be eating a few bites of mooncake this year.

Buying Mooncakes as Mid-Autumn Festival Gifts

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, With the Mid-Autumn Festival fast approaching, Yang Haijuan dropped by the posh China World Hotel to pick up three deluxe sets of mooncakes, gifts for her friends. She'd chosen the eight-cake "Autumn Elegance" boxes, covered in golden fabric and embroidered flowers, at a cost of $63. Each came in a thick, sparkly, gold and red shopping bag with rope-like handles. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2012]

"I'm buying more this year and spending more than last year," said Yang, a human resources specialist. But she'll get even more boxes of pastries than she'll give: Yang expects to receive up to 20 boxes, from colleagues, friends and family members as gifts for the festival. In 2012, China is expected to produce 280,000 tons of mooncakes, with sales reaching $2.53 billion, up 6 percent from a year ago, Zhu Nianlin, president of the China Assn. of Bakery & Confectionery Industry, told China's Global Times newspaper. But high-end mooncake purveyors report much stronger growth.

Many Beijing residents grouse that mooncake mania adds to traffic in the week before the Mid-Autumn Festival, as people scurry around town buying cakes, delivering them and picking up other cakes with vouchers they've been given by their employers or friends. City officials said the capital's traffic congestion index on Tuesday hit 9.8 out of 10, the worst reading of the year.

Mooncake Becomes the Fruitcake of China

Benjamin Haas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Zou Jin has one response to the gifts of mooncakes that piled up on her desk before the mid-autumn festival: “You shouldn't have.” The 30 cakes that Zou had received from her employer and various clients weeks ago sat unopened and neglected under her desk as the 31-year-old marketing manager tried to pawn them off on anyone who would take them. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2011]

Back in the era of scarcity, they were a rare calorie-rich treat to fill the chronically hungry belly. Nowadays, the mooncake has become the Christmas fruitcake of China, passed around and regifted ad infinitum.

In an effort to make mooncakes more palatable, Chinese and foreign companies have started incorporating unconventional flavors. The most popular in recent years have been Haagen-Dazs' ice cream mooncakes. "We'll eat these ourselves, they're ice cream and delicious," said Zhang Yujing, 30, a homemaker who was picking up a box that her husband had been given. "But if these were traditional-style mooncakes, I'd give them away as a gift."

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Other Western companies have also gotten in on the mooncake business. Starbucks' Chinese stores have been selling them since 2005. This year, six cakes cost about $60 and come in a three-tiered box with a separate drawer for each flavor, almost like a jewelry or tackle box. "Most people just use these as a status symbol, to show they have money," said a Haagen-Dazs employee who gave only her last name, Li.

The packaging and brand are often more important than the taste or quality of the product. One elaborate package offered by a winery featured a heavy wooden box where each mooncake was individually encased in a round metal container. Because of the low cost to produce mooncakes and their high selling price, counterfeit mooncakes have cropped up. Last month, police in Guangzhou confiscated 8,000 boxes of mooncakes that had been made to look as if they were from a famous local restaurant.

The high prices commanded by the most prestigious mooncakes have crept even higher in the last year as food prices in China rose across the board. But the big buyers, mostly large state-owned companies, seem unfazed by the price increase. "Because of inflation, mooncake prices have increased a lot from last year, but we're actually selling more this year," said Sparking Lee, general manager at a Beijing mooncake wholesaler.

Lee's company has sold more than a million mooncakes this year, with the bestseller being Haagen-Dazs. Although he declined to name specific companies, Lee said his largest customers were state-owned telecommunications and technology companies. Gao G.Z., an executive at a state-owned tobacco company, represents the extravagance of the mooncake economy: A week before the mid-autumn festival, he went to pick up four boxes of Haagen-Dazs mooncakes worth about $140. "My company gave me all these mooncake coupons, I didn't pay for any of this myself," Gao said, gesturing toward his bounty of gifts. "I'd never pay for mooncakes!"

Mooncake Tax Sparks Uproar in China

A decision by Beijing authorities to impose tax on mooncakes has sparked an outcry AFP reported. Beginning in 2011, the cakes will be considered a non-cash benefit and subject to income tax, the Global Times said, citing the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau. [Source: AFP, August 28, 2011]

A poll conducted by the microblogging service Weibo found that 96 percent of users opposed the tax on the sweetmeat, and many Chinese said they would prefer not to receive them at all."Since when are mooncakes taxed? I'd rather not receive such benefits if I have to pay such tax," IT worker Wang Youhua told the China Daily newspaper.

The tax authorities gave no reason for the move, but the price of mooncakes has soared in recent years as retailers have come up with increasingly elaborate ways to make the traditional gifts more desirable. While the average box costs around 100 yuan ($16), a box containing a gold-plated knife can retail for well over 10 times as much.

Employees who receive the cakes as gifts from their company are now required to pay income tax based on their value. This had the side effect of bumping some people into a higher tax bracket. One man at a state-owned petroleum company had to pay an extra $47 in taxes for the month of September because of the gift of mooncakes, the New China News Agency reported. "As the Western saying goes, nothing is certain but death and taxes. I feel very uncomfortable about the 'mooncake tax,'" the news agency quoted the petroleum company worker as saying. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2011]

Mooncakes Target of Chinese Anti-Corruption Drive

In September 2013, AFP reported: “ China has banned officials from buying mooncakes with public funds during an upcoming holiday, as the Communist leadership promotes its crackdown on corruption. The cakes themselves are relatively cheap, around 100 yuan ($16) for eight. But in a culture where personal connections are often the key to getting business done, Chinese holidays - National Day follows soon afterwards - are often a chance for networking and sometimes for corruption. [Source: AFP, September 5, 2013]

“The boxes in which mooncakes come have been used as a vehicle for payoffs. Sometimes they have even been made of gold and contain silver chopsticks, according to previous Chinese media reports. "Sending mooncakes and other items as gifts purchased with public funds during the festivals is strictly prohibited," the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a statement. Officials are also banned from spending public funds on holidays, gym visits or entertainment activities, the anti-graft body said, and government agencies must not hand out excessive bonuses or benefits.

“The measures are in response to recent remarks by President Xi Jinping that officials' behaviour during major festivals and holidays was "a significant test of their working style", the statement said. Authorities will "punish every violation once it is detected, seriously hold those responsible or in charge accountable, and publicise typical cases to the public", it added. "(We) must resolutely put an end to the malpractices during the two holidays."

Mooncake Disposal Problem

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Neighborhood recycler Lu Shoujun knows mooncake season means one thing: more trash. About 10 days from now, Lu will start to get calls from his regular customers, clamoring for him to collect mooncake boxes along with their newspapers, cardboard and other usual items. "Some people get so many that we have to go upstairs to their apartments and haul them down," he said. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2012]

Mooncake-related refuse is just a small part of China’s total refuge problem. But much like Christmas wrapping in the West, it's attracting attention from activists seeking to raise public awareness, encourage greener business practices and nudge bureaucrats to enforce environmental regulations already on the books. In 2012, China's Zero Waste Alliance has launched a campaign to get users of Sina Weibo, the nation's Twitter-like microblog service, to take pictures of excessively packaged mooncakes. The group plans to collect the photos and compile a list of the most egregious offenders. "We need to get customers to change their habits," said Tian Qian, urban solid waste coordinator for Friends of Nature, which is part of the campaign. "Manufacturers are important too, as they are directly involved, and we believe some companies are violating the national law."

Mooncake sellers spent more than $300 million on packaging in 2010, including 200,000 tons of paper and 40,000 tons of tin, according to the China General Chamber of Commerce. Several years ago, China adopted regulations on mooncake boxes. Among the guidelines: Only three layers of wrapping are allowed, and cakes must occupy 40 percent of the box volume. The cost of the package should be no more than 25 percent of the wholesale cost of the cakes. But Tian noted that items like the plastic trays under the cakes, as well as the bags the boxes are placed in, are not counted as layers by government inspectors.

Lu, the neighborhood recycler, said increasingly elaborate packaging means more work and a lower profit for him. He and his workers often must use knives to separate the boxes' paper from plastic and other materials: leather, wood, fabric, even ceramic tile. "Labor costs are going up, the price we get for the materials is going down," said the 40-year-old Lu, who cut his staff from four to two men this year and now washes cars part-time. "Sometimes, we just have to throw the stuff out." Excess packaging not only contributes to solid waste but also adds to fuel use for transportation and, thus, air pollution.

High-End Mooncake Makers Go Eco-Friendly

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Yan Ning, director of food and beverage for the China World Hotel, has seen demand for his highbrow mooncakes grow rapidly in the last 10 years. This year, his hotel expects to rake in nearly $2.4 million selling 100,000 boxes in 13 styles and 33 flavors, up from 20,000 boxes a decade ago. Corporate clients account for half of his sales. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2012]

Each year, he works with a designer to come up with fresh look. Designs for 2012 include a $93 jewelry-box-like item with drawers, and a $74 red leather case with gold handle. "You have to make something elegant, something distinctive," he said. "You can't make the same design each year." Yan said he tries to stay away from metal and wood out of environmental concern, and this year the hotel is again offering a special "charity" box; the hotel will make a contribution to a wetland park for each purchase of that design.

Selina Lee, who oversees mooncakes for the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Beijing clubhouse and says sales have risen about 40 percent annually for the last five years, said she tries to keep the packaging to the minimum, using paper and environmentally friendly glue. But changing customer habits can be hard. In 2010, she said, the club introduced a box design that included a handle, so that buyers would not need a shopping bag to carry the mooncakes. "They didn't like it," she said. "We had to go back to bags. I don't think the market is looking at environmental concerns. But we are trying to make it eco-friendly."

Image Sources: 1) People celebrating, All Posters com Search Chinese Art ; 2) Spring Festival travel mess, China Trends; 3) Lantern Festival, CNTO; 4) Others, Taiwan Tourism Office, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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