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Chinese Mythology 101: Jade Rabbit

By Celia Lee 25 September 2023

Header image courtesy of Kano Tsunenobu, “Rabbir, Wave, and Full Moon,” painting, 1683 (via Wikimedia Commons)

For as long as history has been recorded, we have looked to the sky in wonder and awe. The moon is certainly one of the most mysterious and inspiring bodies in the night sky, sparking many tales in different cultures. In this latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we explore the myths surrounding the Jade Rabbit, an ancient resident of the moon, the different interpretations of its story, and its relation to the Mid-Autumn Festival.

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Photo: Zeimusu (via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, a single origin

Unlike most personas of the Chinese mythological catalogue, the Jade Rabbit (玉兔; juk6 tou3) has a singular and incredibly simple origin story. As people looked up at the night sky, they eventually identified a rabbit-shaped shadow on the surface of the moon. Although most cultures agree that the Jade Rabbit myth originates from collective moongazing, differences arise when we look at the different interpretations that developed separately.

Hammer away!

In Asian interpretations of the Jade Rabbit myth, the shadow on the moon represents a rabbit pounding away with a mortar and pestle. However, the stories of how the rabbit was transported to the moon and what it is crafting up there differ.

Photo: Medallion, “Rabbit in the Moon,” 17th century (via Wikimedia Commons)
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Yùtù 1.0: Brewing up a storm

In Chinese culture, it is believed that the Jade Rabbit was an ordinary animal granted immortality and spiritual status by the Jade Emperor. Legend has it, the emperor needed help concocting the elixir of life for his fellow gods and goddesses and decided to search Earth for an animal worthy of the task. Humans were out of the question—the emperor thought they would be too selfish and greedy to perform well (and with good reason, as humans don’t exactly have a shiny track record when it comes to keeping their hands off immortality potions).

The Jade Emperor arrived on Earth disguised as a famished beggar and asked three animals to help him find food: a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit. The monkey returned with its arms filled with fruit it had gathered from the forest, while the fox brought back its share of bounty from a nearby river. The rabbit had little luck finding food suitable for the beggar, and when it returned to see the man already feasting on the fruit and fish, it felt sad and ashamed. Suddenly, the rabbit realised it could sacrifice itself as meat and charged toward the campfire by the man’s side.

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Photo: Katsushika Hokusai, “Woman watching a rabbit row the crescent moon,” surimono print, 1819 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Realising what the rabbit was doing, the Jade Emperor transformed back into his godly form and saved the animal from a fiery death. Having found his worthy brewer, the emperor carried the rabbit to the moon, where he taught it how to brew divine potions, far from the greedy reaches of humans. The rabbit quickly mastered the skills to perfecting an elixir of life. The Jade Emperor rewarded the rabbit by granting its fur a heavenly, jade-like glow, thereby naming it the Jade Rabbit.

Similarly, in Vietnamese folklore, the rabbit on the moon is also brewing potions of immortality with its mortar and pestle, having been carried to the moon by a fairy.

Photo: Kubota Shunman, surimono print, 1812 (via Wikimedia Commons)
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Kneading away eternity

In the Japanese version of the tale, the moon rabbit—or tsuki no usagi (月の兎)—has similarities with the Chinese version. Instead of the Jade Emperor, the Man in the Moon visited Earth disguised as a beggar, where the same trial unfolded. In the end, the Man in the Moon revealed his identity and invited the rabbit to come and live with him on the moon. There, the rabbit pounded mochi (餅; Japanese glutinous rice cakes) with its mortar and pestle.

The Korean legend of the moon rabbit—or daltokki (달토끼)—also has similarities with the Chinese and Japanese tales. Here, the three animals lived in a village together and were visited by Sang-je (상제; a supreme deity akin to the Jade Emperor) disguised as a beggar. The same series of events unfolded. Touched by the rabbit’s selflessness, Sang-je made it a guardian of the moon, and surrounded the satellite with smoke as a reminder of the noble sacrifice. There, the rabbit pounds tteok (떡; Korean glutinous rice cakes) with mortar and pestle. He is sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by another rabbit.

Photo: Kano Tsunenobu, “Rabbir, Wave, and Full Moon,” painting, 1683 (via Wikimedia Commons)
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Buddhism: The beginning of it all?

All of the various tales above can be traced back to one story found in the Jātaka (“Birth Tales,” a classic collection of ancient Buddhist literature). In this version, a fourth animal—a jackal—joins the party, while the fox is replaced by an otter. On a day with a full moon, the animals encountered an old man who begged them for food. The animals, believing that a show of virtue would earn them an attractive award, decided to help the old man. A similar series of events occurred, and the rabbit leapt into the fire, offering itself as sustenance. The rabbit was spared a painful death, and the man revealed himself to be Śakra, the Buddhist ruler of heaven. Touched by the rabbit’s act of sacrifice and to honour the noble animal, Śakra imprinted a picture of the rabbit on the moon—an image surrounded by smoke from the fire it threw itself into. Thanks to this tale, the rabbit is believed to be a bodhisattva (an enlightened being).

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Photo: Sammy Wong (via Unsplash)

Moon rabbits on the other side of the world

The moon rabbit has also been featured in several legends originating from North and Central America. Among the Mayas living in Chiapas and the northwestern highlands of Guatemala, the rabbit appears to be a son of the moon goddess, caught by his mother for pulling pranks on his siblings. In Mayan art, the moon goddess is frequently depicted holding a rabbit. In Central American myths about the gods Quetzalcoatl, Nanahuatzin, and Tecciztecatl, the rabbit appears as a noble and selfless creature. 

For the North American Cree people, cranes have long legs because they stretched themselves when taking a rabbit to the moon, and a red crown because the rabbit had blood on its paw when touching them.

Photo: Lake House

Connections to the Mid-Autumn Festival

In Asian cultures, legends surrounding the Jade Rabbit influenced variations of Mid-Autumn Festival tales. In Chinese cultures, the Jade Rabbit is a loyal companion to the moon goddess Chang’e. Both are frequently referenced in Mid-Autumn Festival-related matters—think mooncake boxes decorated with illustrations of rabbits and of a certain angelic figure on the moon.

In Japan, the tale of the tsuki no usagi inspired Tsukimi (月見; moon viewing), a traditional autumnal celebration of the harvest moon. In Korea, the daltokki is related to another family celebration of the autumn harvest moon, Chuseok (추석; autumn eve). In Vietnam, Tết Trung Thu is a variant of Mid-Autumn Festival where people gather for a feast and moongazing.

Photo: Front of Yutu rover on lunar surface, 2018 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Jade Rabbits in popular culture

It is no surprise that such a widespread tale is featured in several manga, anime, video games, and even international space travel. Notable references in manga and anime include Sailor Moon, with the protagonist’s human name, Usagi Tsukino, being a pun on tsuki no usagi; Kaguya Ōtsutsuki in the final Naruto arc; Monster Carrot in Dragon Ball; rabbit hero Mirko in My Hero Academia; and Carrot in One Piece. In the gaming world, the rabbit on the moon serves as inspiration for the Hummingways in Final Fantasy IV and for the Loporrit race in Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker. Last but not least, a series of Chinese lunar rovers have been named Yutu, the Chinese name for the Jade Rabbit.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.

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