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The Mooncake: A Treat, a Bribe or a Tradition Whose Time Has Passed?

Is the mooncake just going through a phase or are these new variations on the Chinese treat here to stay?

Sienna Parulis-Cook had been living in China for nine months when, in the summer of 2007, she found herself in the belly of the country’s $1.42 billion mooncake industry.

A Chinese bakery chain had hired the 22-year-old American to market their contemporary take on the traditional palm-sized pastry that’s widely popular in China. Soon Parulis-Cook was hawking mooncakes door-to-door at Beijing restaurants, and advertising them to multinational corporations that were keen to delight their Chinese employees.

“It opened up a whole new world of mooncakes,” said Parulis-Cook from Beijing.

Growing up in Vermont, Parulis-Cook had read tales of mooncake that made the palm-sized delicacy sound “romantic and delicious.” But in Beijing, she discovered that mooncake traditions — like modern China itself — have changed considerably in a generation.

Every fall, people across China and the Asia-Pacific region buy mooncakes to mark the mid-autumn festival, an event that typically features activities like dancing and lantern-lighting. But while the cakes were traditionally baked during harvest festivals as symbols of fertility, today they are mainly produced in factories. Traditional mooncake ingredients like green bean and salted egg are yielding to trendier ones like chocolate and ice cream.

Her employer was selling boxes of mooncakes for the equivalent of up to $50, and the boxes featured pouches designed to hold business cards. Also: Some of those “mooncakes” were actually just mooncake-shaped hunks of chocolate.

The treats are increasingly seen as markers of status, signs of excessive consumption or even tools that abet corruption. Parulis-Cook says that in 2006, city authorities in Beijing banned the sale of mooncakes with “accessories,” in an attempt to prevent bribery and discourage wasteful behavior. Last year, the American law firm Baker & McKenzie cautioned western investors about the ethical implications of giving mooncakes and other gifts to Chinese clients, business associates or government officials. The title page of their report asked: “WHEN IS A MOONCAKE A BRIBE?”

The traditions of the mid-autumn festival, which began this past weekend, has been well documented by scholars, but it’s hard to definitively say how, when or why mooncakes came to be.

A mooncake is usually  the size and shape of a hockey puck, although some are square or shaped like animals from the zodiac calendar. (Chinese state media also reported last year on a mooncake measuring 80 centimeters, or about two and a half feet, in diameter.) Mooncakes may be baked, or not, but they are almost always stamped with a type of seal or emblem. In some cases the seal is a form of corporate marketing: On a recent morning at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, I purchased a coffee-and-egg mooncake at Starbucks, and the seal matched the green-and-black logo on the store’s façade.

Kian Lam Kho, a Chinese-American food blogger who grew up in Singapore and lives in New York City, says he’s not sure what to think about the commodification of the mooncake. “On the one hand the competition in commerce is generating a lot of creativity among the mooncake vendors to make new and innovative flavors,” he told me by email. “On the other hand I believe the commercialization has trivialized the spirit of the celebration.”

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