The Jade Rabbit, 玉兔 – Yùtù
The Jade Rabbit is a character from Chinese folklore, who lives on the moon with Chang-e, and is always seen preparing the elixir of life for the immortals. He is a noble and benevolent creature to whom offerings are often made during Mid Autumn Festival.
How the Jade Rabbit got to the moon
One day, the Jade Emperor decided that he wanted some help preparing the elixir of life for the immortals. Fearing that humans would be too selfish and untrustworthy for such an important role, he thought an animal would be better suited to this responsibility. The Jade Emperor came down to Earth disguised as a beggar and went to search for a worthy animal in a forest. As a famished and frail man, he cried out for help and food, and eventually three animals came to see if they could help; the monkey, the fox, and the rabbit.
The animals were sympathetic to the old beggar’s plight and went into the forest to search for food. The monkey returned laden with fruits he had gathered from up in the trees. The fox returned with some fish he had caught in a nearby stream.
Despite searching throughout the forest, the rabbit could not find any food for the old man from the woodland floor. When he returned much later, and saw the beggar sat next to the fire eating the fruits and the fish, the rabbit felt sad that he had been unable to find him any food. Realising that he could sacrifice himself so that the man could eat, the rabbit threw himself into the fire in an ultimate act of selflessness.
But at that instant the beggar turned back into the Jade Emperor and stopped the rabbit from being burned. Having found the most noble of creatures to take on the role of creating the elixirs, the Jade Emperor carried him up to the moon, where he learned to make divine medicines and he could be kept safe from humans wishing to steal the elixir of life.
The rabbit worked hard and learned to create the divine medicines, eventually mastering the skills required to pound the right ingredients together to create the elixir of life. The Jade Emperor was so delighted with the rabbit that he made the his fur a dazzling white. The heavenly glow from the rabbit’s smooth, soft fur was so bright and beautiful, that it looked like precious jade, which is why the other heavenly beings came to call him the Jade Rabbit.
If you look up at the full moon and squint slightly at the markings, you can still see the Jade Rabbit with his pestle and mortar, making the elixir of life for the immortals.
The Moon Rabbit in other cultures
The Jade Rabbit appears in many other cultures across the world.
- In Korea and Japan the Moon Rabbit does not make divine medicines, but rather pounds mochi rice cakes in his mortar. Here, he has a similar origination story as in Chinese culture, all seeming to stem from the Jataka Tales of India.
- In Vietnam, the Moon Rabbit is called Thỏ Trắng who was taken to the moon by a fairy.
- Native Americans and the Aztecs are also known to have stories about a rabbit on the moon.
Did you know?
A recent unmanned Chinese lunar rover was named 玉兔 – Yùtù, after the Jade Rabbit following an online poll. It formed part of the Chinese Chang-E 3 mission to the Moon, and makes an apt name, as the Jade Rabbit is Chang-E’s companion on the moon in Chinese folklore.