Chinese people celebrate the Harvest Moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of their lunar calendar. The exact date in the Western calendar changes yearly, and in 1999 it falls on September 24. On that day the Chinese community in different countries celebrate by peaceful gatherings with their loved ones.

Like many other agricultural societies, historically the Chinese regulated their planting and harvesting by the phases of the moon. They made the moon a timepiece for their seasons, giving special attention to her in their calendar of worship.

Because of differences in climate, in Montreal's Chinatown the Harvest Moon festival day is celebrated publicly around mid August with sidewalk sales and musical performances in Dr. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park. This year the celebration was extended indoors to the ground floor of Complexe Guy Favreau at René-Lévesque and St. Urbain.

On this special day, Chinese people worship in temples and hold happy reunions at home. After nightfall they stroll under the stars to view the brightest and fullest moon of the year. Children run around with bright, colorful lanterns in many different designs and shapes. The adults usually indulge in eating many varieties of moon cakes with hot tea. Other traditional treats include pomelo, persimmon, steamed taro dipped in sugar and roasted chestnuts.

Families, relations and friends gather to enjoy the full moon, a symbol of promise for abundance, of harmony and luck. Some will beseech the beautiful Moon Goddess of Immortality for protection as well as family unity.

The traditional food of this festival is the moon cake, of which there are many different varieties. Moon cakes can be bought in Chinese grocery stores and bakeries. The small cakes are very rich, with fillings made of lotus seed paste with anywhere from one to four salted egg yolks in the centre, lotus seed paste with melon seeds, black bean paste with mincemeat (like the filling of a Christmas pie), and all of the above with assorted nuts. Prices vary depending on the ingredients.


How to make mooncakes

This is not a recipe but simplified steps for the curious. There are five steps.

Syrup ingredients (for the dough that forms the body of the cake)

sugar, water, lime juice and maltose.

Put sugar, water and lime into a pot and bring to a boil till sugar has dissolved. Lower heat and simmer till thick and syrupy. Switch off heat and add maltose; stir to dissolve, and leave to cool.

Pastry (dough)

Syrup you've just made, bicarbonate of soda, lye water (dissolved yeast), peanut oil, and flour.

Put syrup, bicarbonate of soda and peanut oil in a mixing bowl, add in lye water and mix well with a spoon. Fold in flour gradually and stir to form a firm dough. Let dough rest for five hours.

Paste Filling

Lotus seeds or red/black beans, lye water, peanut oil, sugar, maltose, cooked glutinous-rice flour and boiling water.

Add lye water into lotus seeds, mix well and leave aside for 20 minutes. Pour in boiling water and cover for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain and remove the skin of lotus seeds.

Boil lotus seeds till soft, put into blender with some water and blend to a thick paste.

Heat wok (pan) with a quarter portion of oil and a quarter portion of sugar until sugar turns light brown. Put in blended lotus paste, add remaining sugar, stir constantly until paste is smooth and thick in consistency. Pour in the rest of the oil gradually, stirring the paste until thick. Stir in maltose and blend well. Sieve in cooked glutinous-rice flour for a thicker and firmer consistency in the paste. Leave overnight before use.

Egg Glaze

Egg yolk, water and a pinch of salt.

Put all in a bowl and beat until smooth.

Making of Mooncake

Divide dough into even pieces of approximately 40g each. Roll the dough into a ball and flatten out. Divide filling into even portions to match the number of dough pieces. In the case of lotus seed paste, if you like a cooked salted duck egg yolk, one yolk can be placed in the center of each cake.

Place the filling in the middle of the flattened dough and carefully wrap around it. Seal the edges and roll dough lightly between your palms until all filling is hidden.

Dust cake mould lightly with flour, press dough ball into the mould. When the cake shape forms, dislodge the cake. Bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees C for 10 minutes. Remove and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Brush on egg glaze, return to oven and bake for another 10 minutes or till golden.

Original Folk Tale of the Mooncake

In the 14th century (AD 1280-1368) in the Yuan Dynasty of Genghis Khan, mooncakes helped bring about a revolution. A Chinese rebel leader named Liu Fu Tong devised a plan to arouse the Chinese people to rise up against the ruling Mongols, to end the oppressive Yuan dynasty. He obtained permission from the Mongolian leaders to give gifts to friends as a symbolic gesture, to honor the longevity of the Mongolian Emperor. These gifts were round mooncakes. Liu's plan was to place a piece of paper with the date of the revolt inside each mooncake, to inform his followers when to rise up. The coup date was the fifteenth night of the eighth month.

When the people cut open the cakes and found the message, they set out on that appointed day to overthrow the Mongols, thus ending the Yuan dynasty.

Today, far from exotic and heroic deeds, Chinese communities all over the world make and eat mooncakes during the traditional Harvest Moon Festival to honor this tradition.

Legend of Chang-Er, the Moon Goddess

The story begins around 2170 B.C. after the great flood in the Hsia dynasty. Yu, king of many kingdoms, was credited with stopping the flood, and with teaching farmers how to cultivate their fields, thus commencing a prosperous epoch.

At the same time in Heaven the Jade Emperor wished to help the farmers raise animals and cultivate their fields. He gave orders to his ten sons to become ten suns and travel across the sky one at a time, each taking one day. The ten young men disobeyed; all ten of them came out every day, and the heat from ten suns shining all at once made the earth intolerably hot. People and animals died of heat, rivers dried up, land became barren and forests scorched and burned.

The farmers prayed, giving sacrifices and burning incense to Heaven for deliverance. The Jade Emperor heard their prayers and saw the destruction caused by his sons. He sent Hou Yi, his bravest god, down to earth to solve the problem of the ten suns and end the catastrophe. Hou Yi was a good, courageous god with a beautiful wife, Chang Er. Deeply in love with each other, they were known as the Divine Couple. Chang Er didn't like the thought of going down to earth, but she was unwilling to be separated from her husband, so together they descended to earth and became mortals among the Eastern clans.

Hou Yi was a great archer and brought his magic bow from heaven with him. Knowing that Hou Yi came from heaven, the people of the clans proclaimed him to be their leader.

Seeing how much suffering and destruction were caused by the heat of the ten suns, Hou Yi climbed to the top of Tienshan mountain and began negotiating with the suns to have pity on the unfortunate people. He pleaded to the suns to take turns and make their journeys across the sky singly, one for each day, and explained the white blaze of ten suns is much too much for the land to bear. He also told them how much Heaven loves all living things.

But the ten audacious suns considered it dull and boring to go across the sky one at a time and that much more fun was to be had by coming out together, so they refused to listen. They increased their heat and caused even more suffering. This angered Hou Yi. He took out his magic bow and arrows and shot down nine of the suns; the last sun begged for his life and promised obedience at performing his task of separating night from day.

Finally the earth was at peace and people enjoyed their work and lives. However, when Hou Yi made his report to the Jade Emperor, he was furious at Hou Yi for killing his nine sons, and refused to let the Divine Couple return to Heaven.

As leader of the clans, there was much for Hou Yi to do on earth. He taught the people many ways to defend their land and themselves. He was so busy with his duties he became neglectful of his lovely and lonely wife. Chang Er was especially unhappy to be an earthly mortal with all of mortality's suffering, aging and death in particular. Also, she was angry at Hou Yi for shooting down the Jade Emperor's nine sons, and the couple became unhappy and estranged.

To avoid arguing with his wife, Hou Yi spent his time travelling about the land alone. He became familiar to its people, performing many good deeds wherever he travelled. He also killed a gigantic, 100,000-foot snake and a nine-headed monster that had caused much distress and thousands of lives. Many times he prayed to the Jade Emperor to let himself and his wife return to Heaven, but the Emperor refused his plead and so Hou Yi and Chang Er remained as mortals, suffering as ordinary human beings do.

In his travel he chanced to meet a beautiful mortal woman, Mi Fei. She was the wife of Feng Yee, the God of Water, who had a reputation as a womanizer and for ignoring his wife. Both lonelyd, Mi Fei and Hou Yi became friends and later lovers. In legend, such things never remain unpunished. When Feng Yee returned and discovered his wife's infidelity, he was furious and transformed himself into a white dragon, roaring and plunging in the water, destroying fields and killing many people. Hou Yi thought the dragon was an evil sea monster. He took up his bow and shot, blinding Feng Yee in one eye. Thereupon, the god of waters registered a complaint with the Jade Emperor. The Emperor considered all the good deeds that Hou Yi had done for the mortals, and since he was already under punishment, the Emperor merely ordered Hou Yi to go home to Chang Er and never see Mi Fei again.

Hou Yi had no choice but to return home. Chang Er was angry with him for his unfaithfulness and unhappiness came between the once "divine" couple. Hou Yi knew that he had wronged his wife and tried to soothe her, telling her that tears would make her age faster, as they were now mortals. Chang Er looked at her reflection in the water, for in those days there were no mirrors. She was terrified to see wrinkles appearing around her eyes, and demanded that Hou Yi find some way to restore her immortality.

Hou Yi was desolate and dared not stay at home, but he couldn't violate the Jade Emperorís order by going to Mi Fei. He became violent and drunk. In his drunkenness he treated the people cruelly. There were two men among the people who began to plot against him, Feng Meng and Han Cho. Both were opportunists. Han Cho told Hou Yi that the Royal Goddess resided on top of Kunlun Mountain and had a pill of immortality.

Hou Yi decided that for the saje of peace at home he would climb Kunlun Mountain and begg the Royal Goddess for the pill of immortality. The Goddess, taking pity on him, gave him her one remaining pill. She instructed Hou Yi that if one person took the pill he would ascend to Heaven, but if he cut the pill into two halves and shared it with another, they could live forever. The pill had to be taken on the 15th night of the eighth month when the moon was fullest. Hou Yi was very happy and thanked the Royal Goddess exuberantly and went home to Chang Er. They decided to divide the pill and take it at the proper time so that they could both attain immortality.

Three days before the 15th day of the eighth month, Hou Yi heard of a medicinal solution called "jade elixir" that could be found on Tienshan mountain, an elixir that could could prevent women from aging and allow them to stay eternally beautiful. Hou Yi wished to please Chang Er and resume a happy life at home, so he decided that he could make the trip in three days to obtain this wonderful medicine and to surprise his wife. He left for Tienshan immediately.

On the 15th of the eighth month, Chang Er saw no sign of Hou Yi. She waited and later grew impatient, and sought out Feng Meng the schemer and asked where her husband was. Feng Meng lied and told Chang Er that Hou Yi had gone to see Mi Fei. Chang Er believed him and became furious at her unfaithful husband. As the moon rose Chang Er went into the garden, looking up to heaven and remembering the contentment in the life of immortality and the happiness of heaven, and then she thought of the sorrows of the earth. She was confused and filled with emotion. Thinking that Hou Yi had abandoned her, she swallowed the whole pill and at once she felt her body becoming lighter, rising upwards towards the sky. At this moment Hou Yi arrived back with the jade elixir and saw Chang Er ascending faster and faster.

The gods and goddesses in heaven despised Chang Er because she had abandoned her husband. Chang Er had to change her direction and head toward the cold palace in the moon. Hou Yi watched from the earth and took out his magic bow to shoot down the moon. He aimed but he could not bear to kill his wife. Frustrated and saddened, he destroyed his magical weapons and took to drink.

Hou Yi's enemy Feng Meng watch and waited until Hou Yi was senselessly drunk, then he attacked Hou Yi then and killed him. When Chang Er arrived at the cold palace in the moon and saw how her husband had been cruelly murdered she deeply mourned what she had done. She was cut off from the happy life in heaven and committed to eternity alone in the moon, becaming the moon goddess.

Each year on the 15th day of the eighth month, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest, people look at the moon and try to see in it the image of a beautiful maiden.

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