Saturday, July 30, 2011

Just who exactly is Moon Hare / Jade Rabbit anyway?

hare with mortar and pestle in full moon
This character from Chinese folklore is known as 月兔 (usually translated as Moon Rabbit) or 玉兔 (commonly translated as Jade Rabbit). But while researching animal references for this illustration, I realized that the Chinese 月兔 was most likely NOT a rabbit ;-) Why? Because rabbits are not indigenous to China.1 There are rabbits in Southeast Asia and parts of Japan though.1

China, however, does have a number of native hare species.2 The rabbit/hare confusion in translation started with people applying the term 兔 tu to both indigenous hares and imported rabbits.3

Third century Chinese statesman and author Fu Xuan wrote about the Moon Hare in Ni Tian Wen: "What is in the moon? A white hare pounding medicine with a pestle." 4 Of the indigenous hare species living in/near China, only Lepus Timidus (aka Mountain Hare, Blue Hare, White Hare) has a white coat. (in winter)2  So this species conveniently became my reference for the Moon Hare.

So who exactly is Moon Hare/Jade Hare?

There seems to be no consensus, not even about the animal's gender. In one Beijing legend, Jade Hare  engages in repeated 'cross-dressing', casually switching between male and female attire (but more on that later ;-)

Some different versions of the Jade Hare myth:

1) Moon Hare is an earthly hare immortalized after an act of self-sacrifice

Three immortals transformed themselves into pitiful-looking elders. They asked Fox, Monkey and Hare for alms. Fox and Monkey gave the elders food, but Hare had no food to give. So Hare said, "Eat me!" and threw itself into the fire to feed the elders. The three deities were moved, so they installed Hare in the Moon Palace, where it became Jade Hare.5

2) Moon Hare is Chang E

The lady Chang E stole the Pill of Immortality from her husband Hou Yi and flew to the moon. The Jade Emperor changed her into Jade Hare as a punishment. Every full moon, she must pay penance by pounding medicine for the gods.4

3) Moon Hare is Hou Yi

After Chang E flew to the moon, she began to miss her husband Hou Yi. Hou Yi changed himself into a hare in order to keep her company on the moon.4

4) Moon Hare is the 4th Daughter of Mr and Mrs Hare

There was once a Mr and Mrs Hare, who had attained immortality after a thousand years of meditation. They had four white-furred daughters. One day, the Jade Emperor summoned Mr Hare to the Heavenly Palace. When Mr Hare came to the Gate of Southern Heaven, he happened to see Chang E being escorted by armed guards.

Upon learning that Chang E had been sentenced to an eternity of solitary confinement in the Moon Palace, Mr Hare felt compassion for her. He went home and discussed with his wife the possibility of sending one of their daughters to be Change E's companion. So the youngest daughter Jade Hare went to live in the Moon Palace.5

5) Moon Hare is a soul of Bo Yi Kao

Bo Yi Kao was the eldest son of Duke Wen of Zhou. In the Ming Dynasty fantasy novel 'Investiture of the Gods', Duke Wen was imprisoned by his liege lord King of Shang. Bo Yi Kao went to the Shang kingdom to plead for his father's release. But the vicious Queen Dayi of Shang framed the upright Bo Yi Kao after failing to seduce him. Enraged, the king of Shang had him chopped into minced meat.6

The King of Shang sent the meat patties made from Bo Yi Kao's flesh to Duke Wen, intending to test Duke Wen's reputation for clairvoyance. Duke Wen knew the nature of his breakfast but feigned ignorance and forced himself to eat. When the Shang King heard of this, he assumed that claims of Duke Wen's abilities were false, and seeing him as less of a threat, released the Duke.6

The moment Duke Wen set foot on the land of Zhou, he vomited up three small white hares, which he knew to be the three souls of his son Bo Yi Kao. One of these hares hopped down the road to the Duke's palace and presented itself before the Duke's wife and mother. The mother and grandmother of Bo Yi Kao did not recognize the hare, but felt an inexplicable sorrow. At nightfall, the hare went into the courtyard and raised its gaze to the sky. Lady Chang E, as commanded by the goddess Nu Wa, was descending to Earth to take Bo Yi Kao's soul to the Moon Palace.6

Bo Yi Kao's other two souls were housed in the Palace of the North Star.6

[The circumstances of the death of the historical Bo Yi Kao are apparently unknown6, btw]

So, which of the above Jade Hare origin myths do you prefer? The character from Version 1 was what I had in mind for this illustration.

There are still more origin myths for Moon Hare/Rabbit, from China as well as other cultures. But I should stop rambling ;-)

Moon Hare comes to Earth - a regional legend

There was a year in which Beijing was hit by the plague. No household was spared, and the people found no cure. Chang E of the moon looked upon this and was grieved. So she sent her companion the Jade Hare to heal the people. Jade Hare took the form of a young maiden. It went from house to house curing the sick.7

The people were very grateful and offered Jade Hare many gifts. But Jade Hare would take nothing. All it asked was to borrow a change of clothes. Whenever Jade Hare came to a new place, it would appear in a new costume. Sometimes it dressed like an oil peddler, sometimes like a fortune teller; sometimes it wore men's attire, at other times women's clothing.7

After Jade Hare had visited all Beijing and its suburbs, ridding the city of pestilence, it returned to the moon. To commemorate the event, people made clay figurines of Jade Hare in its various guises - some clad in armor, some dressed like laborers and artisans. On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, households give thanks to Jade Hare, whom they call 'Master Hare' or 'Mistress/Granny Hare', making offerings of vegetables and fruit.7

Other Moon Hare lore

The Moon Hare/Rabbit also appears in Thai, Japanese and Korean folklore, as told to me by individuals from those countries; these traditions differ from the Chinese account with regards to the animal's occupation. The Thai version of Moon Rabbit/Hare is threshing rice. The Japanese and Korean versions have Moon Hare pounding rice cake flour with the pestle.

  1. Rabbit on wikipedia
  2. tu on Baidu
  3. Rabbit (zodiac) on wikipedia
  4. Jade Hare pounds medicine on Baidu
  5. Jade Hare enters the Moon Palace on
  6. Bo Yi Kao on Baidu
  7. The Tale of Master Hare on

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