The Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, is one of China’s most cherished traditions. Celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, it revolves around the legend of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, and her companion, the Jade Rabbit. Families reunite to admire the full moon, exchange gifts, and enjoy delicious mooncakes. Besides mooncakes, other types of moon festival gifts are exchanged on this special day.
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Why some Chinese consumers are shying away from mooncakes
Mooncakes came under scrutiny for their impact on health
Mooncakes, the quintessential treat of the Moon Festival, are facing scrutiny due to their unhealthy ingredients and high-calorie content. Traditional mooncakes often contain large amounts of sugar, lard, and lotus seed paste. A single mooncake contains almost 1,000 kcal, which is about 50% of an adult’s daily caloric intake. As Chinese citizens are becoming more health-conscious, many are turning away from these calorie-rich delicacies. Social media platforms like Xiaohongshu (小红书), have become hubs for discussions about the health implications of mooncake consumption, and how many rice bowls or hours of exercise it corresponds to.
Innovative mooncake flavors, but at what cost?
In recent years, mooncake producers have shifted their focus from traditional flavors to innovative, niche varieties. Mooncakes infused with ice cream, cheese, chocolate and meat floss, or even frozen fruits have seen explosive growth rates. While these unique creations may attract attention, they often prioritize aesthetics and buzz creation over quality.
Some non-specialized chains rely on Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) for mooncake production, resulting in a manufacturing process that compromises the quality and artisanal nature of these pastries. Moreover, the use of preservatives in mass-produced mooncakes can deter discerning consumers. Negative online reviews have highlighted the quality issues faced by brands such as Starbucks.
Controversy and Crackdowns on High-Priced Mooncakes
Mooncakes have also come under scrutiny for their high price tags. Extravagant versions of these traditional treats have sparked controversy, prompting the Chinese government to intervene. In the run-up to the festival, authorities focused on cracking down on vendors engaging in price gouging. According to local reports, authorities have specified that the average production cost for a box of mooncakes is approximately 70 RMB, and they should not be sold for more than 500 RMB at retail.
Other types of Moon Festival gifts
While mooncakes are still one of the most popular Moon Festival gifts, it is not uncommon to give other gifts. During the Moon Festival, people gather with their loved ones and share gifts as a gesture of their love and care. This tradition goes back to ancient times when imperial examinations were conducted during the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar, adjacent to the Moon Festival. The men who passed this examination would receive congratulatory gifts.
However, compared to other Chinese festivals like Chinese Valentine’s Day, the Moon Festival sees fewer gifts exchanged between partners and friends. Instead, the focus is on giving gifts to elders. This custom is reflected in the search for “Moon Festival gifts (中秋节礼物)” on Baidu, which is mainly conducted by 30-39-years-old (37.95%) and 20-29-years-old (35.65%). Likewise, companies might use this occasion to give gifts to their employees as a way to show their appreciation.
Gift-givers can opt for moon-themed items such as candles, bags, and cushions. These little gifts serve as tokens of appreciation and enhance the festive atmosphere. On Chinese social media Xiaohongshu (小红书), netizens show their enthusiasm for mooncake-shaped perfume, moon-shaped bags, clocks, cushions, rabbit-shaped candles, and lights which draw reference to the rabbit in the Moon Festival legend.
Beneath the social media posts featuring these themed products, numerous users are inquiring about bulk order pricing and the cost of personalizing the item with their company’s logo. Some express the hope that their company will surprise them with similar gifts for the Moon Festival.
Tea leaves, especially high-quality varieties, are a popular Moon Festival gift choice. It symbolizes warmth and hospitality, making it an ideal gesture of goodwill during the season. Tea is now recognized by the younger generation as a staple of the Chinese lifestyle, and as a beverage with many health benefits. Moreover, drinking tea along with mooncakes is very common, as it can relieve the greasiness after eating the delicious pastries. For the Moon Festival, it is best to gift black tea, oolong tea or Pu’er tea. As the weather is becoming cooler during that season, they are the most suitable as they have warming properties, unlike green tea.
Food items, beautifully packaged in decorative boxes, are common Moon Festival gifts. Common food items include fresh or dried fruits, crabs, meat, nuts, and alcohol. These gifts showcase the giver’s thoughtfulness and can be enjoyed with family and friends. Moreover, they often have a deeper meaning linked to their shape or the pronunciation of the word.
Throughout the festival, presenting seasonal fruits is a cherished tradition. For instance, peaches are a symbol of health and longevity, making them a thoughtful gift, particularly for elders. Persimmons, resembling small lanterns, convey the wish for a smooth and prosperous life. Pomelos are associated with good health, while pomegranates are a symbol of fertility. Apples symbolize safety and well-being, while longan fruit represents the essence of the Moon Festival, which is the joyous reunion of loved ones.
The custom of gifting crabs has been around for a long time, as ancient as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The delicacy was served during royal banquets, with a vinegar-based dipping sauce. It is said that during the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar, crabs are tastier, fragrant, tender, and crab roe is fattier. Moreover, the pronunciation of crab in Chinese (蟹 xiè) is the same as the characters in the word “thank you” (谢谢 xiè xie). Therefore, gifting crabs is a way to express one’s gratitude to loved ones during Moon Festival.
The popularity of this gift can be seen by the peak of research for “crab” on Baidu, every year during the period of the festival. However, the quantity of search queries appears to be decreasing progressively over the years. The surge in this trend can be attributed to the steep cost of crabs, exceeding 100 RMB per kilogram for the hairy crabs typically consumed during the Moon Festival. Additionally, there have been reported cases of fraudulent practices wherein sellers deceive buyers by selling lower-quality crabs at premium prices, masquerading them as high-quality alternatives.
Alcohol is a gift of choice for elders who love drinking. There is a Chinese saying that says “There is no etiquette without alcohol” (无酒不成礼), which reflects the country’s profound love towards alcohol and its importance at a dinner table. The consumption of alcohol is usually associated with celebrations and follows certain rules. Moreover, alcohol (酒 Jiǔ) has the same pronunciation as 久(Jiǔ）which means long-lasting. This gesture can symbolize a desire for the enduring nature of the relationship between the individuals involved or convey well wishes for their long and healthy life ahead.
Meaningful gift-giving customs
When giving gifts during Chinese holidays, certain customs must be followed. They also apply to the Moon Festival.
Firstly, the concept of “送双不送单” underscores that good things come in pairs. Accordingly, it is customary to present gifts in pairs, symbolizing completeness, and unity. Giving an odd number of gifts is deemed unlucky while giving six or eight of something is considered auspicious. On the contrary, presenting four of something is discouraged due to its pronunciation, which resembles the word for “death.”
Secondly, the principle of “送礼盒不送散装” is the most relevant to the Moon Festival. It signifies the practice of offering gifts in boxes or carefully designed packaging rather than loose or bulk form. This underscores the significance of the presentation’s aesthetics, even when giving gifts to close family members or friends. Selecting elegant packaging enhances the festive atmosphere and conveys a sense of appreciation towards the recipient. This custom sheds light on why certain mooncake companies invest an entire year in crafting and perfecting their packaging designs.
Lastly, the principle of “送寓意好的不送寓意差的” highlights the importance of selecting gifts with positive and auspicious meanings. As previously mentioned, items like crabs, peaches, pomegranates, and alcohol are associated with favorable symbolism. In contrast, gifts such as pears, plums, umbrellas, shoes, and clocks carry inauspicious connotations, which could potentially be offensive to the recipient, particularly among older generations.
What we can learn about Moon Festival gifts:
- The Moon Festival continues to be a cherished tradition in China, marked by mooncakes, family reunions, and the exchange of gifts. Families gather to appreciate the full moon, exchange gifts, and savor mooncakes. However, mooncakes have recently faced criticism due to their unhealthy ingredients, high-calorie content, and the growing health awareness in Chinese society.
- As alternatives to mooncakes, other types of Moon Festival gifts can be given. Gift-givers often choose moon-themed items, tea leaves, or various food items including fruits, crabs, meat, nuts, and alcohol, which are gifts that showcase thoughtfulness and carry deeper meanings. These evolving gift customs reflect the changing tastes and values of modern Chinese society while preserving the essence of this cherished tradition.
- When giving gifts during the Moon Festival, several customs are followed. Gifts are typically given in pairs to symbolize completeness and unity, and they are presented in elegant packaging to add to the sense of ceremony. Thoughtful gift-givers ensure that the items they present carry positive and auspicious meanings.