The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture

Updated on January 11, 2018
A medallion on an 18th century Chinese emperor's robe depicting the Moon Rabbit mixing its elixir  of life at the foot of a cassia tree.
A medallion on an 18th century Chinese emperor's robe depicting the Moon Rabbit mixing its elixir of life at the foot of a cassia tree. | Source

Welcome!

Have you ever looked up at the moon and seen what looks like a rabbit pounding on a log or pestle? Did you know there are many legends around the world about this rabbit? Well there are!

From Asia (where it is most commonly found) to the Americas there have been many legends told about the rabbit in the moon over the centuries. It has been a popular Chinese legend for many centuries, has appeared in traditional Native American stories, and was even discussed during the Apollo 11 moon landing mission!

So what are some of the legends about the Moon Rabbit and traditions surrounding it? Hop on down and find out!

An outline of the rabbit in the moon. Can you see it?
An outline of the rabbit in the moon. Can you see it? | Source

What is the Moon Rabbit?

The moon rabbit is, simply put, the markings on the moon that look like a rabbit pounding in a pestle. This is what is known in science as a 'pareidolia', or an image or sound that appears to be something significant. The famous face on Mars or clouds that take different shapes are other examples of this.

A Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) era mirror depicting the moon goddess Chang'e with the moon rabbit.
A Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) era mirror depicting the moon goddess Chang'e with the moon rabbit. | Source

The Jade Rabbit of China

In China, the moon rabbit is usually called 'yuè tù' (月兔), which means "moon rabbit"! However, the moon rabbit is also called 'yù tù' (玉兔), or "Jade Rabbit", and sometimes Grandpa Rabbit, Gentleman Rabbit, Lord Rabbit, and the Gold Rabbit. Stories about the moon rabbit date as far back as the Warring States period (about 475-221 BCE).

According to legend, the moon rabbit is a companion to the moon goddess Chang'e and pounds the elixir of life for her in its pestle. It lives in the moon with the toad and can be seen every year in full view on Mid-Autumn Day, or August 15th.

In one legend told in and around Beijing, a deadly plague came to the city some 500 years ago and started killing many. The only thing that could save the city from this epidemic was the Moon Rabbit. Chang'e sent the Moon Rabbit to earth to visit each family and cure them of this plague. It did just that and asked for nothing in return except some clothes and often changed from man to woman. After curing the city of this plague, it returned to the moon.

To this day toy figurines of the rabbit wearing armor and riding a tiger, lion, elephant, or deer are popular toys among children and adults alike! They are particularly popular during Mid-Autumn Festival, or during Lunar New Year on the Zodiac Year of the Rabbit (2011).

In December 2013, China launched its first unmanned moon probe to explore a region of the moon known as Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows. This moon probe was named, appropriately enough, Jade Rabbit! Sadly enough, Jade Rabbit suffered some malfunctions on the moon's surface and completely down before the mission was complete. Fortunately, the mission was not a complete failure as it still managed to relay data back to Earth and ultimately left China's "footprint" on the moon.

The Moon Rabbit of Turtle Island

A number of First Nations (Native American) people in the US, Canada, and Mexico have stories about the moon rabbit as well.

The Aztecs believe that the god Quetzalcoatl lived on the earth as a man at one time. He started on a journey and after traveling on foot for some time, became tired and hungry. Since there was nothing to drink and no food around, he thought he would die. However, the rabbit was grazing and found the man. She offered herself as food to save his life. Quetzalcoatl, humbled by the rabbit's offer to sacrifice herself for his well-being, then took the rabbit to the moon and brought her back to Earth, telling her "You are just a rabbit, but you will be remembered by everyone. Your image is in the light of the moon for all people of all times."

The Cree also have a story about the moon rabbit. The rabbit wanted to ride the moon, but only the crane would take him. The big rabbit held on to the crane's skinny legs and as a result, its legs were stretched during the course of the trip. This is why the crane's legs are now elongated. When they touched down on the moon, the rabbit touched the crane's head with a bloody paw, rewarding him with the red marks on his head that the crane has to this very day. Up to this very day the rabbit still rides to the moon.

"The rabbit and raven pounding mochi" by Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850).
"The rabbit and raven pounding mochi" by Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850). | Source

Tsuki no Usagi

The moon rabbit is also popular in Japan. However, in Japan, he pounds mochi (餅), or rice cakes in his pestle rather than the elixir of Life. In Japanese the rabbit in the moon is known as "Tsuki no Usagi". There is a famous story about him in Japan that goes:

"Many years ago, the Old Man of the Moon decided to visit the Earth. He disguised himself as a beggar and asked Fox (Kitsune), Monkey (Saru), and Rabbit (Usagi) for some food.

Monkey climbed a tree and brought him some fruit. Fox went to a stream, caught a fish, and brought it back to him. But Rabbit had nothing to offer him but some grass. So he asked the beggar to build a fire. After the beggar started the fire, Rabbit jumped into it and offered himself as a meal for the beggar to eat.

Quickly the beggar changed back into the Old Man of the Moon and pulled Rabbit from the fire. He said "You are most kind, Rabbit, but don't do anything to harm yourself. Since you were the kindest of all to me, I'll take you back to the moon to live with me."

The Old Man carried Rabbit in his arms back to the moon and he is still there to this very day exactly where the Old Man left him. Just look at the moon in the night sky and the rabbit is there!"

This story is said to originate from the Buddhist Śaśajâtaka, where Śakra is the Old Man of the Moon and the monkey, otter, and jackal are the rabbit's companions.

Also in Japan is the mid-autumn, or Jugo-ya, festival. As in China and Korea, people gather to watch the full moon and children sing a song about the moon rabbit called "Usagi", or "Rabbit".

Animated Story of the Moon Rabbit

The Moon Rabbit of Korea and Vietnam

The moon rabbit, known as the daltokki (달토끼) in Korean, is a popular legend among Korean children as well. As is the case in Japan, the Korean moon rabbit pounds rice cakes in its pestle as well.

Another Asian country where the moon rabbit can be found is Vietnam. They have a very similar legend to the Japanese and Buddhist legend about a white rabbit named Tho Trang. This legend has become a popular tale during the Mid-Autumn festival.

However, while much of the rest of Asia celebrates the Year of the Rabbit, Vietnam celebrates the Year of the Cat! There are many possible reasons why this major difference between the Chinese and Vietnamese zodiac calendars exists, but it's widely agreed that since rabbits are not native to Vietnam, cats have taken their place in the Vietnamese zodiac calendar.

The Moon Rabbit and the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Believe it or not, the moon rabbit - as well as the moon goddess Chang'e - were topics of discussion between the Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the mission controllers in Houston just before the space capsule landed on the moon! Here is an excerpt from the Apollo 11 transcripts of their conversation:

Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there's one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin: Okay. We'll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

The Moon Rabbit in the Media

The moon rabbit has been the subject of a number of movies, books, and more.

One movie featuring the moon rabbit is the 1972/1979 Kenneth Anger film "Rabbit's Moon" starring Claude Revenant, André Soubeyran, and Nadine Valence. In this movie, a clown named Pierrot longs for the moon (as well as the rabbit in the moon) and every night tries desperately to jump in the air and catch it. He does this until another clown named Harlequin comes along, teases him, and introduces him to a female clown named Columbina.

The 1966 children's book "The Rice-Cake Rabbit" by Betty Jean Lifton is about the moon rabbit, or Shiro as he's named in the book, and his quest to become a samurai rather than a rice cake-pounder.

In the 1972 Richard Adams novel "Watership Down", The Black Rabbit of Inlè is a moon rabbit, or of sorts anyway. His name means "moon" in rabbit language, but the rabbits in this novel worship the sun and believe it to be the giver of all life rather than the moon.

The American electronic group Rabbit in the Moon also derives its name from the legend of the moon rabbit.

Florentijn Hofman's giant Moon Rabbit at the Taoyuan Land Arts Festival in Taoyuan, Taiwan. (used per CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 Intl. license)
Florentijn Hofman's giant Moon Rabbit at the Taoyuan Land Arts Festival in Taoyuan, Taiwan. (used per CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 Intl. license) | Source

Florentijn Hofman's Giant Moon Rabbit

In 2014, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman created a giant moon rabbit that went on display in Taiwan at the Taoyuan Land Arts Festival.

Hofman - who is famous for his mega-sized rubber duck that skirted the coast of China and made its way across the straits of Taiwan in 2013 - created the rabbit out of 12,000 pieces of Tyvek and left it on the side of a bunker at the former naval base where the art festival was held. With the breeze blowing its "fur" and lying on the bunker, the rabbit looked as if it was staring at the clouds in the sky and daydreaming.

Sadly enough, just a day after the festival concluded on Sept. 14th, a fire broke out at the bunker and destroyed the giant moon rabbit. The rabbit may be gone, but it lives on in the many pictures that were taken of it, and in the hearts and memories of those who were lucky enough to see it up close!

Thank You For Your Visit!

Just as it has done for many millinea now, the moon rabbit is still pounding rice cakes and the elixir of life in its pestle and is still up there in the moon for everyone on Earth to see during the nights of the full moon.

Thank you for your visit and if you haven't seen the moon bunny before now, just be sure to go outside and look at the next full moon. It's sure to be there looking back at you!

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        lolo 

        6 weeks ago

        I need the history

      • profile image

        Puggles 

        23 months ago

        I'm surprised that in the media section there wasn't anything about sailor moon

      • NBYomi profile image

        N B Yomi 

        2 years ago from Dallas, TX

        Oh you were referring to the Native Americans... That makes more sense... -_-

      • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

        truefaith7 

        2 years ago from USA

        Hi NBYomi,

        I think you completely misread this hub, or at least the section about the moon rabbit in the Americas. I was talking about legends of NATIVE AMERICAN cultures (i.e. indigenous tribal cultures) who have been here for thousands of years, not mainstream American pop culture or American folklore. I have yet to hear of any moon rabbit legends among European-Americans (i.e. Americans descended from European settlers) either and if I had, I would most certainly have mentioned them in this hub.

      • NBYomi profile image

        N B Yomi 

        2 years ago from Dallas, TX

        "From Asia to the Americas..." You're implying Americans know of the legend about the Moon Rabbit, when, as an American, I didn't learn about it until a year to two years ago... Plus if that was the case of Americans knowing about this legend, then DiC Entertainment would not have omitted all the references to said legend in their localized dub for Sailor-Moon.

        And to add insult to injury, Ocean Group and Funimation did maintain the moment in the ninth episode of Dragon Ball, where Goku took a rabbit and his henchmen to the moon to make treats for the children of earth... And watching that as a kid, the reference flew right over my head.

        But maybe you know something I don't, because I have yet to meet an American who knows this myth.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        What an enjoyable hub. I was born in the year of the Rabbit so anything rabbit is dear to me.

      • profile image

        Jaguarazul 

        3 years ago

        the Maya indians also saw a rabbit in the moon sitting cross legged although it was described as a scribe it also the god of intoxicating liqueurs

        the Celts and Druids also saw the Rabbit

      • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

        truefaith7 

        6 years ago from USA

        Thank you for the feedback Vinaya. It's interesting how legends of the moon rabbit have spread far and wide around the world (particularly in Native American tribes), and not all of them are alike. I wouldn't be surprised if there are more legends about the moon rabbit than meets the eye!

      • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

        Vinaya Ghimire 

        6 years ago from Nepal

        Wow, this is very interesting article. I knew one legend about moon rabbit, but not the things associated this this myth.

        Thanks for sharing.

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