These peddlers appear on the streets after the fifteenth day of the seventh moon or month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. They sell the “yueh ping” or “moon cake” from this time until the fifteenth day of the eighth moon. This latter date is known as the “chung ch’iu chieh”, the “Autumn Festival” or simply as “pa yueh chieh”, the “Festival of the Eighth Moon”. Foreigners often call it the “Moon Festival”.
Aside from the New Year Festival, the Autumn Festival is the most important of the year. The third of the three main Chinese festivals is the one on the fifth day of the fifth moon. This is the “wu yueh chieh” or more correctly but not so commonly known as the “tuan yang chieh”. This is the festival in celebration of the first day when the sun’s rays begin to be warmest. It is the end of the Chinese spring and the start of their summer.
At the Autumn Festival the Chinese make much use of the “moon cake”. The outer crust of these cakes is made from sesame oil, flour and sugar. Inside is rolled a mixture of sugar, dried fruits and nuts of various kinds. The cakes vary in size from about two to six inches in diameter. They are about an inch thick. Large ones are made several feet in diameter for the purpose of placing on the tables prepared for paying homage to the moon. These large cakes have the traditional picture of a tree, house and rabbit painted on them in red – symbolic of the fable of the “t’u erh yeh”.
This old fable originated in very ancient times. The rabbit pounding medicine in a mortar dates back to the story of Ch’ang E who ate the medicine her imperial husband left in her care and hence was pursued by him to the moon. The play of “Ch’ang E Pen Yuek” or “Ch’ang E Fleeing to the Moon” is one of the famous theatrical productions.
The custom of painting the picture of the rabbit, tree, etc. on the large moon cakes comes from the time of Ming Huang, the most famous of the T’ang Dynasty Emperors. One night he dreamed that he went into the moon and there he saw a rabbit pounding medicine, spacious houses, and many beautiful maidens playing musical instruments. When he awakened he remembered the tune they were playing which he taught to the court musicians. This tune is known as “Ni shang yu i ch’u” and is famous to the present time.
Chinese legends are so intertwined that it is difficult to find the origin of many of the stories but suffice it to say that the use of the large moon cake with the picture of the “T’u erh yeh” fable came into being during the T’ang Dynasty and the cakes are now placed on the tables at the Moon Festival with the food, a paper picture of the rabbit, green bean stalks (mao tou chih) and cock’s comb (hung chi kuan tzu hua). The latter two items are placed there for the benefit of the rabbit who is supposed to be particularly fond of them.
These articles are arranged in the court of the Chinese house where the full moon will fall on them on the night of the 15th day of the 8th moon. The incense on the table is then lighted and when it is nearly burned out the paper picture of the rabbit is lighted. After this the large moon cake is taken from the table and divided, each person in the family eating a piece as a symbol of family unity or “t’uan yuan”. This accounts for the moon cake being sometimes called “t’uan yuan ping”. The remainder of the food, fruit and other eatables from the table are given to the household servants and this ends the celebrations of the Moon Festival.