Origin and Brief History of Mooncakes

Moon cakes are symbols of harmony, family reunion, and good fortune, and these meanings are important to the Chinese people today. (Image: daniel64 via Pixabay)

The Mid-Autumn Festival usually falls in September or early October. In China, mooncakes have blanketed markets. Were it not for the Mid-Autumn Festival and its traditions, the mooncake may have been banished by today’s populace who seek low-fat, low-sugar foods. They are symbols of harmony, family reunion, and good fortune, and these meanings are important to the Chinese people today.

The mooncake had several names. Previously, before it was called mooncake, it was called the Hu cake, royal court cake, small cake, or reunion cake. It was primarily used as an offering to the Moon God. As the culture changed throughout history, it became a food item for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Along with many other folk traditions, mooncakes have lost their divinity and poetic values, and have become increasingly secular.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Receive selected content straight into your inbox.

The earliest mooncake appeared to be associated with Wen Zhong, a legendary teacher from the Shang period (1600-1046 B.C.). In Zhejiang Province in southern China, a type of thin-edged cake named “Teacher’s Cake” was developed. This is the origin of the mooncake.

Mooncakes were called 'Hu' cakes until the Tang Dynasty.
Mooncakes were called ‘Hu’ cakes until the Tang Dynasty. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

When Han Dynasty official Zhang Qian visited the western regions of China in the second century, he brought back sesame seeds and walnuts, which became common ingredients in mooncakes. Because sesame seeds and walnuts were from ethnic minority areas (also called “Hu”), they were called “Hu cakes.” This lasted until the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The emperor’s concubine Lady Yang suggested the name mooncakes

At that time, there were many cake shops in the Tang capital of Chang’An. One Mid-Autumn Festival, Emperor Xuanzong tried a Hu cake and marveled at its taste. His concubine, Lady Yang, looked up in the evening sky and saw the full moon. She suggested naming the confection mooncakes.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), mooncakes were also called “small cakes” and “moon balls.” Although the famous poet Su Dongpo wrote a poem about “small cakes,” people still called them mooncakes.

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (16441911) dynasties, cosmetic improvements were made to mooncakes. The shell of the mooncake became more delicate, but not much else has changed over the years. Like many other forms of art, once it reached its artistic height, it became difficult to improve on it.

As time went by, they have also developed regional characteristics based on local foods and customs. There are now Beijing-style, Suzhou-style, Guangdong-style, Chaozhou-style, and Sichuan-style mooncakes. Beijing-style have a crispy brown shell, while Suzhou-style have multiple layers of thin, pale crust. Guangzhou-style have a thick, soft shell and a variety of fillings. In Muslim areas, residents use beef as fillings. In Taiwan, sweet potatoes are also used for the filling in them.

As time went by, moon cakes have also developed regional characteristics based on local foods and customs. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)
As time went by, mooncakes have also developed regional characteristics based on local foods and customs. (Image: varintorn via Pixabay)

In recent years, as technology has improved, some new types of mooncakes have emerged. Such new inventions include ice-shelled ones that do not require baking, but need to be kept frozen, vegetable or fruit ones, abalone or fish fin filled seafood ones, coconut milk ones, and animal-shaped ones.

The packaging has also become more luxurious. It almost feels like it is trying to compete with the mooncakes themselves. Hopefully, this is only a process of exploration, and the makers will return to focusing their attention on improving the mooncake.

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest

Recommended Stories

Old computers.

What Really Happens When You Recycle Computers

The U.S. is one of the biggest generators of e-waste in the world. Rather than ...

Origami fashion.

The Exquisite Art of Origami-Inspired Fashion

Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. The aim of origami is to transform ...

'Su Li's Intent' by Zhou Wenmo

The Regret of a Traitor (Part 2)

Years later, the relationship between the Han Dynasty and Xiongnu improved. Su Wu was allowed ...

Li Ling dancing.

The Regret of a Traitor (Part 1)

The story of Su Wu (140-60 B.C.), a Chinese diplomat and statesman of the Han ...

Hong Kong protest against the extradition bill.

Hong Kong Officially Withdraws Extradition Bill

After over 20 weeks into massive protests that have rocked the semi-autonomous city of Hong ...

A large company building.

Learning How to Be Grateful

A woman with excellent academic achievements, but who had never learned how to be grateful, ...

A painting of a mountain.

A Grateful Wolf

This story about a grateful wolf took place in the time of the Daoguang Emperor ...

An elephnat and its baby.

A Grateful Elephant

During the Song Dynasty, a hunter from Yangshan County (in present-day Guangdong Province) had caught ...

a username and password.

Easy Security Hack: Cracking Firewalls Using Spy Chips

A cybersecurity expert has revealed a way to secretly implant spy chips in popular hardware ...

Send this to a friend