Shaped like a full moon, mooncakes stuffed with white lotus paste, yam or yolks, served during the Mid-Autumn, or Moon Festival, symbolize the reunion of family and friends in traditional Chinese culture.
However, the tradition, more than 1,000 years old, has been much eclipsed in recent years as overpackaging has made the mooncake and its symbolic meaning merely a side dish to an extravagant trend.
Mooncakes are now seen more as a gift for friends and business associates than a traditional festive pastry.
Manufacturers have been racking their brains to add value to the once homely snack. Apart from using pricey ingredients for fillings, most manufacturers have resorted to overpackaging their products, "to gain face for gift-givers and receivers."
Hence, inside the luxury containers, sometimes made from rare wood, glass or high-quality paper, French wines, watches, tea sets and even pearls can today be found alongside the humble mooncake.
Prices are also soaring, with high-end products in Beijing costing between 300 yuan (US$36) and 1,000 yuan (US$120) a box.
Some of the more exotic and pricey mooncakes include those filled with shark fin or packaged with gold bars and carry a price tag of 9,999 yuan (US$1,210). The hefty price of such mooncakes has led to speculation that they will most probably be bought and given as inducements.
Most consumers, however, say they will not buy the novel mooncakes dreamt up by manufacturers to increase sales and profits.
"Over the years the custom has changed -- it used to be festival delicacies for families, but now it has become gifts from corporate partners to their clients," said Liang Juxiang, 46, a primary school teacher.
She said that elaborate packaging has pushed up the cost of mooncakes.
"I like eating mooncake because it is part of the mid-autumn festival tradition and it tastes really good," said Liang. But added: "For myself and the family, I will buy the mooncake which comes simply packaged. Its price is much closer to its actual value."
Liang said the cost of accompanying items included in the luxury mooncake boxes is several dozen times higher than the simpler variety.
"Why should I to pay so much to buy red wine or tea pots inside mooncake boxes?" she remarked.
A simply packaged mooncake with one egg yolk and white lotus paste normally costs seven (US$0.85) to 12 yuan (US$1.45). But, when it comes wrapped in a fancy box, the price soars to hundreds of yuan.
A survey conducted by the Shanghai Horizon Research Group, revealed that more than 29 percent of the respondents said they plan to spend less than 100 yuan (US$12) on mooncakes.
Those surveyed were 437 Shanghai residents, aged 18 to 59.
Nearly 29 percent said that they would not be spending anything on mooncakes as they would be given more than enough by friends and employers.
Around 82 percent considered mooncakes were overpackaged and extravagant, while 70 percent thought it would be necessary for the government to set rules on mooncake packaging to curb the trend.
Yan Xiaocui, a sales representative with a Beijing-based mooncake manufacturer said there is a demand for exotic mooncakes that it will continue to cater for.
She said the business of mooncakes is a highly competitive one. Every manufacturer is trying to offer something new.
"The mooncake is only available during the Mid-Autumn Festival," she said. "It is a symbol of culture now. Fancy mooncakes are popular because they are purchased and given as gifts. People always like luxury packaging on a gift, don't they?"
Her customers include large companies who order expensive mooncakes to give to partners and clients, said Yan.
Another said there were big profits to be made, but as it is a seasonal business, producers have to be creative and innovative to capture a good market share. Much of their profit comes from fancy packaging, said the supplier, surnamed Zhang.
The rising price of raw materials in recent years had also contributed to the hike in the price of mooncakes.
"The target customers of the lavishly packaged mooncakes are companies, but we also offer mooncakes of high quality yet low price to the general public," said Zhang.
A box of four mooncakes costing around 60 yuan (US$7.20) is what the general public tends to go for, she added.
Overseas firms are also trying to cash in on the market. For example Starbucks have coffee flavored mooncakes and Haagen Dazs an ice cream version.
"I will not buy them myself, but I am happy if someone give me a box of luxury (Haagen Dazs) mooncakes... I am crazy about the boxes," said Xiao Lin, a media professional in Beijing who was presented with an ice-cream mooncake beautifully boxed.
"It is a very interesting and pretty box and can be used as a vanity box and so on," she said.
Wu Gaohan, deputy secretary-general of the China Consumers Association said that overpackaged commodities have harmed consumers.
"It has hampered sustainable consumption and production and is a waste of energy and resources," said Wu.
Under international norms, the cost of packaging should not exceed 15 percent of the total value of the product.
In the case of some mooncakes, packaging accounts for a staggering 70 percent or more of the total.
China currently has no laws or regulations to govern this area.
"As long as the package carries the producer's name, expiry date and such, legal action cannot be taken against the manufacturer, there is no penalty for overpackaging," said Dai Wei, an official with the association's legal affairs department.
The United States and Japan, along with some other countries, have introduced packaging regulations.
Wu urged the government attention to address the problem and introduce legislation to deal with it.
When given a choice, Wu said, people should opt for the product that has the least or no packaging.
Environmentalists are also increasingly concerned about the amount of waste generated by overpackaged articles.
In Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, volunteers from 12 universities called on local residents to boycott over-packaged mooncakes.
The environmental campaigners highlighted the fact that excessive packaging accounts for 20 percent of the daily rubbish collected in Chongqing.
For every 10 million boxes of mooncakes 400 to 600 trees need to be cut down, their research revealed.
"Great waste reduction is possible in this area with very little effort," said Xiong Xibei, an English teacher at the university and a strong supporter of the students campaign.
In the south of China, in Hong Kong, a program has been launched to recycle empty mooncake packaging after the festival reports Hong Kong's information department.
Booths will be set up at 12 shopping centers from Saturday where people can leave them.
In return they will be given coupons for use at designated restaurants. Over 25,000 mooncake containers, mostly tin, were handed in at last year's recycling scheme.
(China Daily September 29, 2004)