Inflation Bites Into Moon Cake Festivalby ipsintern ( )
By Antoaneta Bezlova
BEIJING, Sep 24 (IPS) - The beloved national tradition of nibbling sweet pastry mooncakes and admiring the fullness of the harvest moon in mid-Autumn, or Moon Festival, has been hit by China's runaway inflation, forcing vendors to opt for frugal variations of the rich treat.
The round pastries eaten and given away as gifts during the lunar festival, which this year falls on Sep. 25, have fallen prey to inflationary pressures along with all other food products. Inflation in China hit an eleven-year high of 6.5 percent in August, raising fears of rapid erosion of living standards and potential social unrest.
Producers of mooncakes have found themselves in a bind. As China's food prices have soared, the cost of raw materials to produce the cakes has increased by 15 to 30 percent too. But worried that surging prices could touch off unrest across the country, the government has issued stern edicts warning against price gouging and dictated that the prices of the traditional treat should be kept stable.
Once splurging on luxurious packaging of wood, silk and even gold to entice their customers to choose from a tantalising variety of mooncakes, vendors now have to reduce production costs by settling for plain and down-to-earth packaging.
Many producers, including established brands like Holliland and Guixiangcun, have joined a government-supported initiative to revive the traditional spirit of mid-Autumn festival by packaging their cakes in environment-friendly, recycled paper.
Others -- still hoping to offset the higher prices of manufacturing, have opted for pairing the cakes with health supplements, trumpeting a new, "green" way of celebrating the centuries-old tradition.
Mid-Autumn festival is believed to commemorate a Chinese uprising against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Plotting to overthrow the Mongol government, Chinese conspirators exchanged secrete messages about the day of the rebellion written on slips of paper and hidden inside mooncakes. The uprising, which brought down the Yuan Dynasty, took place on the 15th day of the eight month of the lunar calendar.
Long void of its rebellious meaning, the Mid-Autumn festival has come to celebrate the end of the summer harvest season when the moon is closest to the earth. Families would gather together to enjoy the beauty of the full harvest moon and snack on little cakes with a round shape that imitates its fullness.
The small pastries with a thick sticky filling either of lotus seed or red bean paste are so rich in taste, that tradition dictates they have to be cut into slivers and consumed with sips of tea.
This accompaniment has inspired several companies to include brands of famous Chinese tea into gift packs for the festival. A packet of aged Pu-erh tea -- China's mystery tea famous for its health-giving benefits, added to a simply adorned box of mooncakes, has become the hot trend of this lunar Mid-Autumn festival, according to several vendors.
"It is only natural that as people become more concerned about their health and well-being, they prefer healthful selections of mooncakes rather than any of the modern versions that are so rich and fattening," says Zhu Yanhua, a sales lady for Holliland mooncakes staffing a stall in front of local supermarket in suburban Beijing.
Recent years have witnessed the rise and fall of fashions in trendy new cakes made in every imaginable style: ice cream mooncakes marketed and sold weeks ahead of the festival by ice-cream giant Haagen-Dazs, chocolate mooncakes produced by Belgian chocolatiers, jelly mooncakes and even foie gras and champagne mooncakes.
But the explosion of taste varieties is only part of the mooncakes transformation story. Purists have deplored what they call "the fashion of waste and decadence", which has dictated ever more elaborate and pricey packaging year by year.
Chinese press has reported about the resourceful producers from the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou who had come up with mooncakes made of silver and adorned with 56 precious stones selling at a price of 6,900 yuan (920 US dollars).
Not to be outdone, their counterparts in the northern city of Changchun had produced a 1800-yuan mooncakes box containing also a golf club, while mooncake makers in Yunnan province have also managed to pack a digital camera to go with the traditional pastries.
"Such travesties have caused the degeneration of mooncakes as a symbol of family reunion during the harvest season," argued Beijing Youth Daily columnist Pang Hongqi. "These are no longer family mooncakes but by-products of a vulgar, gift-bearing culture".
Announcing their price-cutting campaign to sell mooncakes in simple, recycled paper rather than lavish wrappings and boxes, government officials have tried to present the inflation as a crisis with a silver lining.
The packaging drive would help spread the concepts of frugality, rationality and health, Liu Jian, a marketing official with Beijing municipal bureau of commerce told the Xinhua News Agency.
"Luxurious packages not only distort the meaning of mooncakes, but are necessarily wasteful," he was quoted as saying.