Of lanterns and mooncakes

lanterns and mooncakes © Adrian Cheah

"The Chinese people have never demanded a clear separation of the worlds of myth and reality – indeed, they are so closely bound up that it is hard to say where one begins and the other ends." – An Introduction to Oriental Mythology, Clio Whittaker et al

"The moon, along with fine wine and beautiful women, is a favourite topic for the Chinese poets." – Chinese proverb

A lunar fascination

Since ancient times, man has looked up towards the night sky and wondered about the stars and the moon. Indeed, the moon has, over time, wielded her influenced on a gamut of artists, from poets (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, To The Moon, Moon's Ending); songwriters (Asmara Datang Bersama Sang Bulan, Fly Me to the Moon), authors (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and film-makers (Moonstruck, La Luna). On the other hand, the moon has also been blamed for horrors like moon madness, lycanthropy, or the slicing off of human ears.

Incidentally, how many of us will instantly recall that our very own national anthem, Negaraku, is based on a tune called Trang Bulan?

Different cultures ascribed different and fascinating properties to the moon. It all depended on what they claimed they could see. The Germans believed the man on the moon was one who offended God by working on the Sabbath and was swept up to eternal imprisonment on the moon. And then there are certain Christians who believed that the man on the moon was none other than Judas Iscariot, punished for his treachery! The Masai of Kenya claimed that the moon was actually a woman's face with swollen lips and a missing eye – injuries inflicted in a quarrel by her husband the sun. The Chinese claim that the moon was barren save for a rabbit pounding the elixir of immortality under a cassia tree.

The moon plays a fascinating role in two major Chinese festivals – the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar (also known as the Chinese Lantern Festival) and the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (also known as the Mooncake Festival). The latter festival, which some non-Chinese locals refer to as Pesta Tanglung, is celebrated in grand style by all Malaysians with lantern competitions, mooncake making demonstrations and street processions.

The Lantern Festival

lanterns and mooncakes © Adrian Cheah

This time-honoured festival takes place on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese calendar. Known as Chap Goh Meh among Malaysians (particularly among Penangites), the festivities take place under a full moon and mark the end of Chinese New Year festivities.

There are many legends about the origin of the Lantern Festival, and one of them credits the lantern with saving an entire village from being burnt to the ground by a vengeful god. Upon the advice of a kindly celestial being, the village folk lit lanterns throughout the village so that from up in heaven, it looked as if the entire village below was in flames! The Jade Emperor was fooled and the village was spared from a fiery end. From that day on, so the legend goes, Chinese people celebrate the anniversary of their deliverance by carrying lanterns of different shapes and colours through the streets on the first full moon of the year.

lanterns © Adrian Cheah

John L. Nevius, writing in China and the Chinese, attempted to describe the jocund air of the lantern festival during his visit to China in the 19th century: "A great number of shops and a variety of lanterns are exhibited for sale in the shops. They are made with a light frame of bamboo covered with transparent paper and represent birds and animals, and other objects of interest. Some of them are made to run on wheels. Others are so contrived that the motion of the air produced by the burning of the candle sets wheels and machinery at work, and makes the object appear like a thing of life. A great deal of ingenuity is manifested in these toys which please the old as well as the young. An unusual number of people are seen in the streets, and they retire to their homes at a late hour."

lanterns and mooncakes © Adrian Cheah

Among many Chinese, the lantern festival is also fondly remembered for the tang yuan (or tong yuen in Cantonese). In the popular local version, tang yuan consists of glutinous rice balls coloured brightly and poached in a sweet ginger flavoured syrup – a truly scrumptious experience! Traditionally, tong yuan sometimes contains a filling of sesame, peanuts, vegetable, or meat, cooked in red-bean or other kinds of soup. Whether traditional or localized, sweet or savoury, the round shape of the tang yuan ball symbolises wholeness and unity.

The Mooncake Festival

lanterns and mooncakes © Adrian Cheah

The Mid-Autumn or Mooncake Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month in the Chinese calendar. Traditionally, it is celebrated to signify the end of the harvest season. Because lanterns are used during the festivities, it is also referred to as the lantern festival in some parts.

The mooncake festival is quite a major one in Malaysia. Here, the Chinese celebrate the festival with family gatherings, prayers to deities and ancestors, serving of mooncakes and the lighting of lanterns. Gifts of mooncakes, in different varieties, are presented to family and friends. To foster closer ties with the Chinese, the Malaysian Ministry of Culture and Tourism often celebrates the festival on a grand scale with events taking place in several states, plus numerous lantern competitions and processions.

lanterns and mooncakes © Adrian Cheah

lanterns and mooncakes © Adrian Cheah

During this time, shops in Penang will be busy assembling lanterns out of coloured cellophane paper (mostly red and yellow, for these are auspicious colours), wire and paint. The lanterns assume various shapes that children will love, from cartoon heroes du jour to a carnival of animals. Hung outside shops by the score, they serve the same purpose as colourful barber poles, beckoning all to come, see and buy.

I have fond memories of the Mooncake festival when I was growing up in Ipoh. Back then, I never knew what festival it was or when exactly lanterns were available. All I knew was that once every year, I would look forward to the day when my pigtailed amah cheh would bring me and my two sisters to the old-fashioned sundry shops in the central market in Jalan Laxamana. There, amidst excited chattering and badgering the poor amah, we would choose our lanterns. I think my favourite design was the space rocket, while my sisters preferred 'gentler' ones of animals like rabbits, cockerels and fishes. The purchase would, of course, not be complete without a box of short candles. So with lanterns and candles in hand, we eagerly awaited nightfall so we could wander around the garden with our lit lanterns like little treasure hunters. It was fun!

lanterns and mooncakes © Adrian Cheah

During the festival, wealthy friends of the family would also, without fail, present my mother with a large octagonal hanging lantern. These were really grand and opulent things! The hanging lanterns were usually made of red cellophane paper wrapped tightly around a hexagonal bamboo frame and decorated with brightly coloured ribbons, trimmings and tassels on the outside. On the inside, auspicious figures from Chinese mythology, made from paper, are stuck to the spokes of a wheel-like contraption. This wheel was balanced on a pointed tip resting on a metal thrust pad. When the candles are lit, the heat from the flame would waft through the wheel and cause it to spin round and round on an axis much like a carousel. The figures cast moving shadows on the wall as they spun! It was really very lovely to look at, and it was with much sadness when the festival came to an end, and the lantern was taken down and burnt.

lanterns © Adrian Cheah

Myths and legends behind the mooncake festival

There are several stories to explain the mooncake festival:

From a religious standpoint, the mooncake festival is a time when offerings of prayer, mooncakes, roasted meat, yam, kuaci (watermelon seeds) and Chinese tea are made to deities and ancestors. The air is suffused with the scent of burning joss-sticks and paper.

A Chinese mythological legend tells us of a certain woman called Chang'e who, in her quest for immortality, drank her husband's share of a rare and precious elixir. The act transformed her into an immortal and she found herself floating towards heaven. Fearing that she would be reprimanded by the gods for her selfish misdeed, she decided to make an unscheduled stop on the moon. Upon arrival, she found the place to be desolate except for a hare under a cassia tree. Her powers had abandoned her and she was doomed to keep her lonely vigil till the end of time. And since then, she has been fondly associated with the moon cake festival, and some moon cake boxes even feature a drawing of Chang'e's ascension to the moon.

The mooncake has also earned a place in Chinese history for playing a key role in overthrowing the Mongols during the Yuan dynasty. Secret messages hidden in moon cakes started a rebellion which eventually led to the fall of the Mongolians! However, this story is most probably also another myth. 

© Written by Raja Abdul Razak
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated 24 August 2021

Explore the rich history and legends behind the Lantern Festivals, as well as the enchanting story of Chang'e and Houyi the Archer. Discover the fascinating tales that have shaped these celebrated traditions and the enduring significance of the moon in Chinese culture.

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