Monday, August 22, 2011

Mooncake festival celebrated grandly in Malaysia

The moon, long an object to curiosity and worship, has inspired many tales in ancient China. While on board a boat, Tang Dynasty poet Li Po was believed to have tried to embrace the reflection of the moon while he was drunk. He fell overboard and drowned. In days of yore, people regarded a round shape as family reunion; thus, an auspicious time for family members to get together was when the full moon appeared. At no other time of the year is the moon brightest and fullest on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. This year, that auspicious day falls on September 12, 2011 (Monday), which is also known as the Mid-autumn Festival. Lantern processions and the eating of mooncakes are highlights of the celebrations.

In Malaysia, which has a Chinese population, the Mooncake Festival is also celebrated on a fairly grand scale with prayers and reunion dinners. Altars are set up in the open air under the moonlight, and offerings of pomegranates, pomelos, steamed sponge cake, water-calthrops, mini yams and mooncakes are laid. The moon is worshipped, and there is feasting, moon gazing and, in modern families, partying and drinking. Children carry lanterns and sometimes competitions are held. According to older generations, on this day, the taboo of not pointing to the moon should be observed, lest a moon fairy will cut off one’s ears!

Weeks before the festival, mooncakes and lanterns are put up for sale. In the Chinese districts of many cities, particularly Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown, Malacca and Ipoh, red boxes packed with mooncakes are piled high on the sales counters of restaurants, and lanterns in the shapes of animals, flowers, butterflies and cartoon characters dangle in clusters from toy stores and incense shops. In keeping with the times, some of the lanterns are operated by battery though those lighted by candles are still popular. Mooncakes are bought not only for prayer and consumption but to be given to friends and relatives.

Shaped like the surface of a moon, mooncakes come in various traditional varieties. They can be filled with black-bean paste, brownish lotus-paste, yellow-bean paste and lotus-seed mixed with sweetened paste. Usually, a preserved duck-egg yolk is added to the stuffing. These mooncakes are of the Cantonese version, and in addition, there are also less popular Hokkien-style mooncakes that come in long, cylindrical rolls and Teochew mooncakes filled with yam. In Malaysia, halal mooncakes are also available. To cater to the increasing sophisticated taste buds of Malaysians, bakeries have made innovations in mooncakes such as ice-cream mooncakes, pandanus moncakes, green tea mooncakes and durian mooncakes.

The origins of the Mooncake Festival have been lost in the mists of time, but there are two legends associated with it. The first concerns its role in the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 960-1280) that was established by the Mongols in ancient China. Under the oppressive rule of the Mongols, gatherings of a group of people were forbidden, and it was decreed that each household be allowed to own only one kitchen cleaver, which was chained to a chopping block. It was impossible to organise any uprisings. Liu Fu Tong, a rebel leader of Anhui province, requested permission from the District Officer to distribute cakes to bless the longevity of the Mongolian emperor. The District Officer agreed, and Liu made thousands of round cakes which he called mooncakes. Each cake contained a piece of paper outlining the plan of an attack. He told the recipients to eat the mooncakes on the 15th day of he 8th lunar moon. On that fateful day, when the people cut the mooncakes, they were able to coordinate a rebellion on a local scale. Another rebel leader, Chu Hung Wu, capitalised on the chaos to overthrow the Mongol emperor, and established the Ming Dynasty in AD 1368).

Another myth concerns Chang Er, who was a daughter of a poor farming family. When she was 18, Hou Yi, a skilled archer from a neighbouring village, saw her attending to the fowls in her parents’ farm, and he was captivated by her beauty. Over the next few days, he deliberately rode passed the farm again and managed to introduced himself. She accepted his friendship, and soon they became lovers. During the period of their courtship, a phenomenon happened. The ten suns of the earth that took turns to bring warmth and light appeared together. Rivers dried up and the country became barren, causing famine and massive destruction.

Hou Yi climbed up to the highest mountain he could find and launched his mighty arrows. One by one, nine of the suns were shot down. The people rejoiced and made Hou Yi their King. He married Chang Er, and they lived happily for several years. However, Hou Yi changed into a despot, and tried to seek immortality. He employed sorcerers to produce an elixir of life for him. One prominent sorcerer told him Hou Yi that he needed children to be sacrificed as part of the process of creating the elixir. Hou Yi ordered his troops to snatch children from their families, and the elixir tablet was almost completed.

One evening, Chang Er sneaked in the sorcerer’s chamber that was housed in a tall tower in the palace. She rummaged everywhere and found the tablet. At that moment, the sorcerer burst in and Chang Er quickly swallowed the tablet. The sorcerer raised the alarm and in rushed Hou Yi who tried to force his wife to return the pill. It was too late. She had swallowed it, and in her attempt to escape from Hou Yi, she was forced to jump from a window. However, she did not fall but floated up to the moon, where she lives alone. Another version says that as punishment for stealing the elixir of life, Chang Er was turned into a three-legged toad. Her pet rabbit became her companion and is always pounding the elixir of immortality in a large mortar. Today, it is believed that people celebrate the Mooncake Festival to remember Chang Er.


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