What’s the Moon Rabbit Doing on the Moon?

September 5, 2014

Imagine there’s a Rabbit Hall of Fame. Who would you nominate? In the west, the rock star might be the bunny that brings kids decorated eggs on Easter Sunday-the Easter Bunny! However in East Asia, most votes may go to a rabbit that is also related to a traditional festival: the Moon Rabbit. Who is the Moon Rabbit?

The traditional image of the Moon Rabbit making elixir of immortality in a mortar. Found on an 18th-century embroidered Chinese emperor's robe. (image: Wikipedia)


The Moon Rabbit is also called the “Jade Rabbit.” It lives on the moon, and is said to always be pounding something in a mortar. This legend comes from markings on the moon that look like a rabbit standing over a mortar, similar to the “Man on the Moon” in the West. People in East Asia have long seen the Moon Rabbit as a symbol for the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is a celebration of the full moon and the fall harvest. He is sometimes associated with other Moon Myths in Asia, like the story of the immortal woman Chang’E. You can read more about these legends in Cheng & Tsui’s Readings in Chinese Culture series of graded Chinese essays, particularly volumes 2 and 3: How Far Away Is the Sun? and The Moon Is Always Beautiful. Like the Easter Bunny in the west, the Moon Rabbit legend may be tied to the use of rabbits as ancient symbols of fertility, new life, and prosperity, because of their prolific ability to reproduce. Moon Rabbit Traditions Across China, Japan and Korea The Moon rabbit is a cultural symbol widely-spread across East Asia. However, with time, the stories behind the famous hopper differ across the neighboring countries. What are the Chinese, Japanese and Korean names for the Moon Rabbit?

  • Chinese: 月兔
  • Japanese: 月の兎
  • Korean: 옥토끼

How did the rabbit end up living on the moon?

  • China: The Moon Rabbit was brought to the moon by Chang’e, a woman who accidentally took too much of the Pill of Immortality and floated to the moon.
  • Japan & Korea: The Moon Rabbit was once studying Buddhism with a fox and a monkey. To test their faith, the Emperor of the Heavens asked them to bring him food. The fox caught a fish, and the monkey returned with fruit. The rabbit, who could find nothing but grass, jumped into a fire and offered himself. The Emperor was touched by its commitment, and appointed the rabbit as the guardian of the moon.

What is the rabbit pounding in the mortar?

  • China: Chinese herbal medicine to make elixir for Chang’e.
  • Japan: Mochi pounder.
  • Korea: Rice to make rice cakes.

What do people usually eat when appreciating the full moon on Mid-Autumn Festival?

  • China: Moon cakes (月饼).
  • Japan: Pumpkins (南瓜),  taro potatoes (里芋), chestnuts, and tsukimi dango (月見だんごsmall white rice dumplings, piled high on a tray).
Rabbits in Japanese confections. (image:


  • Korea:  Songpyeon (송편, rice cakes in crescent shapes with various fillings), jeon (전) and japchae (잡채).
Korean Songpyeon for the moon festival. (image:


The Moon Rabbit in the Modern Days The moon has always been a muse for artists, writers, and even scientists. The romantic mythology of Moon Rabbit has also catalysed people’s imaginations and creativity. In Japanese animation, the moon rabbit symbol is often reimagined to create modern cultural symbols. In the Dragon Ball episode “Boss Rabbit’s Magic Touch,” Monster Carrot and his henchmen are exiled by Goku to the Moon, where they are shown pounding on rice cakes. The main character’s name in Sailor Moon: Tsukino Usagi, who is the guardian of the moon, literally means “the Moon’s Rabbit” in Japanese. In 2005, a series of Korean flash animations about a rabbit called “Mashimaro” became viral in China and Korea. The most well-known episode reinterprets the traditional story of the Moon Rabbit to include Mashimaro. What’s more, the Moon Rabbit has even inspired Chinese scientists to explore the moon. In 2013, China named their unmanned lunar rover after the “Jade Rabbit.” The rover safely landed on the moon on 14th of December in 2013, and is still gathering useful data. We’ll talk more about the Chinese space program in our next blog post. The traditional Moon Rabbit remains popular in contemporary East Asia. People’s ingenuity has given the traditional Moon Rabbit a modern twist, and the cultural symbol keeps inspiring people in different fields. Is there a famous rabbit in your culture? Please share with us in the comments.