If there were ever an occasion that would get people more interested in Chinese tea, it would be the Mid-Autumn Festival, an annual event that falls on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar (this year, it will take place on September 30).
This popular harvest festival dates back thousands of years and there are several takes on its origin. One fabled version speaks of Chang’er, the long-suffering wife of an archer called Hou Yi, who received the elixir of life from the Queen of Heaven after shooting down nine of the ten suns in the sky and saving mankind from drought. Unfortunately, this feat made Hou Yi proud and evil, and to save the people from her husband’s eternal tyranny, Chang’er swallowed the elixir of life and began to float up to the moon, where she lives today. A more historical take on this festival dates back to the Yuan dynasty, when China was ruled by the Mongolians. Han Chinese rebels, who were plotting to overthrow the dynasty, garnered support by hiding revolutionary messages in mooncakes and giving them to people on the pretext of honoring the longevity of the Mongolian emperor. With these secret messages (a predecessor of social media perhaps?), the rebellion was successful.
What exactly is a mooncake? It is typically a pastry with a sweet filling. There are many types of mooncakes, the most common (and traditional) type being the baked, chewy one with a reddish-brown tone. There’s usually a thick lotus paste filling, with one or two salted egg yolks in the middle to symbolize the moon. But there are also other more modern mooncakes these days, such as the snowskin mooncake, which has a covering made of glutinous rice floor and sugar syrup, and tends to have more creative fillings, such as chocolate, champagne truffle, or green tea.
Whatever the case, these delightful pastries are indulgent treats that may sometimes get too cloyingly sweet and heavy after one mooncake too many. The solution? Drinking Chinese tea with mooncakes! It is the perfect beverage to cleanse the palate and “wash it all down” (for the next mooncake). In fact, many places that sell mooncakes during this season also offer tins of Chinese tea in their package because they recognize that this drink is a crucial part of celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. The Chinese teas that are commonly paired with mooncakes are Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tie Guan Yin), Big Red Robe (Da Hong Pao), and Shui Xian. I think it’s a great way for people to be introduced to these classic oolongs!
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a magical evening affair where friends and families get together outdoors during the evening, with lanterns, to admire a beautiful full moon. I have many fond memories of lighting the candles in paper lanterns and having long, contemplative conversations with loved ones after that. It is truly a setting that allows for tea to be discovered and appreciated – great company, a perfect night sky, and complementary sweets to be relished all through the night. It’s a precious tradition worth keeping!