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It’s another Chinese lunar festival here in Singapore. On Saturday I asked a taxi driver why there were lanterns strung up everywhere and he simply said ‘It’s the mid-autumn festival’. ‘And the tradition of giving mooncakes?’ I asked. ‘Because….’ he said with a little shrug. ‘It’s like the festival of the hungry ghost’. Can’t be, I thought, last I heard the ghosts had checked back in to the underworld.

Ned and Millie have both been tasting mooncakes at school and yet neither of them seemed to have touched on the stories behind it. The cakes are incredibly calorific – sweet and dense and traditionally made with lard and full of red lotus paste – that would explain it.

With Millie at home poorly she was in need of a new story and I wanted to know – why a mooncake?

I think my love of stories has come down from my father. His bedtime stories were legendary. His version of Beowulf was not for kids of a delicate disposition. It’s not a cheery tale. He always gave a spin on a story which is what made them so fantastic to me – Rumpelstiltskin was done over by the princess. They had a binding contract and she broke it. Jack used his beanstalk for greed and serial burglary on an unsuspecting ogre. By the time I was old enough to still want him to weave a tale but had grown too old for fairy stories, he would tell us about battles and rebellions over the dinner table and so I give you two versions of the Moon Festival – one for my father and one for me. If my parents weren’t 16,000 miles away they would have a mooncake too.*

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For my dad

In the 14th Century the Mongolians had invaded China and set up a ruling force – the tyrannical Yuan dynasty. The Han Chinese set about planning their revolt but were crushed from every side. But there was one man who had enough cunning and dared to mastermind the rebellion. Liu Fu Tong was the secret rebel leader who sold a story to the puppet Emperor that the people would make small, intricately designed golden cakes full of lotus paste in honour of their Mongolian rulers. These would be given out by the people on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month – the moon festival; the night that the moon is at its brightest; the autumn equinox. The Mongolians had no desire to join the people and eat these crude peasant cakes but as a token of patronising generosity they allowed the people to pass them to each other. Stamped on the bottom of each cake were the details of the rebellion and they were passed freely amongst the masses. As one, on a night where the moon shone down like daylight, the Han Chinese rose up, defeated their invaders and threw the Mongols out of China. Every year since, mooncakes are given to family and friends in gratitude to the moon and Liu Fu Tong.

For me

Once upon a time there were ten suns that spun around the earth. One fateful day they aligned over China and their heat scorched the earth and killed the crops. The Emperor summoned his best archer Hou Yi to shoot down the nine extra suns. Hou Yi obeyed and his arrows saved the people and the cooling rains came from behind the suns. The gentle Goddess of the Western Heavens went to Hou Yi from where she was hiding from the heat and gave him a gift of thanks – an elixir of eternal life. But Hou Yi had a beautiful wife whom he wanted to stay with on earth. He had no desire to live forever alone. They made a pact that they would share the potion at the end of their mortal life and go to the heavens together for eternity. Now Hou Yi’s fame spread far and wide and soon apprentice archers came to him. One of them was a man called Feng Meng. Feng Meng knew the rumour about this elixir and desired it with all his heart. On the longest night, Hou Yi took his apprentices hunting. Sneaking away from the pack Feng Meng made his way to Hou Yi’s home. His wife – Chang-e – had spied him as he came out of the shadows and into the bright light of the moon. She took the elixir from its hiding place. Confronted by Feng Meng, Chang-e drank the potion. Hou Yi didn’t trust Feng Meng and when he discovered he was missing, he rushed back to his home. As he rode into his courtyard he was in time to witness Chang-e begin to float to the heavens. She didn’t want to leave Hou Yi so she prayed to the Goddess to allow her to stay with him. The Goddess answered and allowed Chang-e to float only to the moon. There she can still be seen on the 15th day of the 8th month – on the longest night – dancing intricate patterns on the surface of the moon. The patterns she makes are put on the mooncakes in her honour.

archer

*As with all good myths and legends, there are an abundance of versions. These two are my interpretations and written here for Millie and Ned. All inaccuracies, historical fudging and mis-myth quotations are all my own.

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