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Stories of The Rabbit In The Moon: A Look Into Chinese And Japanese Legends

Recently, the night sky unveiled a celestial spectacle—the “Super Blue Moon” on August 30th. Witnessing the awe-inspiring cosmic event and looking forward to the Mid-Autumn Festival and Tsukimi Festival, we think this may be a unique opportunity to delve into the enduring myths about the moon in China and Japan. Among these tales, the story of the rabbit in the moon holds a cherished place. So today, we will guide you through the captivating narratives about the moon rabbit, illuminating how ancient wisdom persists in modern times.

Feature Stories of the Rabbit in the Moon

Historical Context

To fully appreciate the myths surrounding the moon rabbit, a journey back to ancient beliefs in both Chinese and Japanese cultures is essential. This concept can find its roots in early texts and folklore, illustrating its long-standing significance.

In China, the notion of a rabbit linked to the moon traces back to texts like “Bowuzhi” and “Chunzhu Jiwen.” These works speak of a rabbit that “gazes at the moon to conceive,” a theory widely accepted in ancient China. Though debunked by later scholars, it was perhaps influenced by the phenomenon of pseudopregnancy in rabbits. Ancient Chinese likely associated this phenomenon with the moon due to the rabbit’s nocturnal nature.

Rabbit praying to the moon in a Ming Dynasty embroidery
Rabbit praying to the moon in a Ming Dynasty embroidery

Moreover, another theory that shadows on the moon’s surface resembled a rabbit prevailed in ancient Southern Asia. Later, this idea went into China and Japan. The Sanskrit terms “śaśin” and “śaśāṅka,” which mean “one who carries a rabbit,” were used as other names for the moon. The story of the moon rabbit originating from the Buddhist Jataka tales entered Japan and China. Thus, China and Japan have a similar legend about a rabbit in the moon. The difference is that the rabbit pounds mochi in Japanese legends and grinds herbs for the elixir of life in Chinese stories.

Photo posted by Araki Toru in his book Rabbit in the Moon
Photo posted by Araki Toru in his book “Rabbit in the Moon”
Moon photographed in Taiwan
Moon photographed in Taiwan. You can click to see the larger picture of the rabbit.

Chinese Legend of the Moon Rabbit

The story of the moon rabbit holds a sacred place in Chinese mythology. Let’s peel back the layers of history and tradition to unravel the legend.

The tale begins with a celestial being named Chang’e, as documented in ancient texts like “Huainanzi.” Chang’e’s husband Yi got the elixir of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West. And then Chang’e stole the elixir and fled to the moon. Initially, it was only Chang’e who resided on the moon, but the tale evolved over time.

The Qin Dynasty book “Gui Cang” said that Chang’e turned into a toad rather than a moon goddess. A curveball, isn’t it? Then, during the Warring States period, Qu Yuan’s “Tian Wen” suggested a rabbit to the moon’s residents, making the relationship between Chang’e and the rabbit a bit murky. (Qu Yuan used the word “顾菟,” which is commonly said to be a rabbit. However, there are also some scholars suggesting it is a toad.)

A rabbit and a toad on the moon on an ancient silk painting of Mawangdui in China
A rabbit and a toad on the moon on an ancient silk painting of Mawangdui in China. The toad is just below the rabbit and takes up most space on the moon.

With the arrival of Buddhism during the Western Han Dynasty, the moon rabbit’s narrative gained traction. Folklore began to assert that the Queen Mother of the West got angry because of Chang’e’s theft. Therefore, she transformed Chang’e into a moon rabbit. The rabbit grinds herbs for the elixir of immortality as punishment.

A moon rabbit gives the elixir of immortality to the Queen Mother of the West in a wall painting of a Late Western Han Dynasty tomb in China
A moon rabbit gives the elixir of immortality to the Queen Mother of the West in a wall painting of a Late Western Han Dynasty tomb

Another twist suggests that the moon rabbit is actually the transformed Yi, Chang’e’s husband, who finally reunites with her on the moon. This rendition adds a dash of romantic reunion to the otherwise punitive story. No matter what, the rabbit’s job is still grinding herbs.

Chang'e with her rabbit, painted by Tang Yin in the Ming Dynasty
Chang'e holding her rabbit, painted by Tang Yin in the Ming Dynasty

Japanese Legend of the Moon Rabbit

In Japan, the rabbit in the moon has roots stretching back to the Asuka period of the 7th century. The rabbit appears in works like the “Tenjukoku Shucho Mandala,” a historical Buddhist tapestry. This celestial rabbit doesn’t pound herbs, as in the Chinese version, but mochi, a sweet rice cake that holds cultural significance. Various paintings from the Kamakura and Muromachi periods also incorporate crows and rabbits as elements within the sun and moon, respectively.

Tenjukoku Shucho Mandala in Chuguji Temple
Tenjukoku Shucho Mandala in Chuguji Temple. The working rabbit on the moon is on the top left corner.

The first record of the Japanese moon rabbit is from “Konjaku Monogatarishu” (Collection of Tales of Times Past and Present). According to legend, a starving old man encountered three animals: a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit. While the monkey and fox offered him fruits and fish, the rabbit, unable to gather any food, chose to offer its own body and jumped into a fire. However, the old man revealed himself to be the deity Taishakuten and immortalized the rabbit on the moon, moved by its selflessness.

Compared to the Chinese moon rabbit story, this Japanese legend is more like the original version of the Buddhist Jataka tale. Some local folklore even suggests that the rabbit in the moon is actually the figure of Buddha training before he comes to this world as a human.

One of the Twelve Devas paintings in the Kyoto National Museum
One of the Twelve Devas paintings in the Kyoto National Museum. In front of the Deva of the Moon, there is a Deva who holds a little green rabbit on his hand.

Comparisons of Legends in China and Japan

Diving into the rabbit-in-the-moon legends from China and Japan, you’ll spot some cool overlaps and unique twists. Both stories are influenced by Buddhist tales, but here’s where they split: China’s moon rabbit grinds a magical herb, tied into a drama with Chang’e and the quest for eternal life. On the flip side, Japan’s moon rabbit pounds mochi, a sweet treat that’s a big deal at festivals and family gatherings.

The Chinese storyline reflects a theme, the quest for eternal life, which is often found in China’s ancient folklore. Meanwhile, the Japanese moon rabbit underscores Japan’s cultural importance of unity and family.

The tonal differences are also hard to ignore. While the Chinese legend carries a tone of punishment and redemption, the Japanese version leans towards benevolence, even divinity. It tells the virtues of self-sacrifice, culminating in celestial immortalization as a reward.

To sum it up, these moon rabbit legends offer us a cool peek into what each culture values. Whether it’s the quest for the eternal or the beauty of sacrifice, these tales show us that the same moon can tell very different stories depending on where you’re gazing up from.

Modern Spin on Ancient Myths

So, we’ve seen how these moon rabbit legends showcase the cultures and values of China and Japan. But don’t think these stories are gathering dust in some ancient time. Far from it! Both legends have leaped into the 21st century and found fresh life in modern entertainment and festivals.

In China, when the Mid-Autumn Festival comes around the corner, you can see various moon rabbit desserts—cakes, mooncakes, chocolates, candies, cookies… too much to name. TV shows themed around the legend also air, capturing the imagination of young and old alike. Far from being relegated to ancient texts, this rabbit serves as a tasty and entertaining reminder of the country’s rich folklore.

Rabbit lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival
Rabbit lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival
Rabbit shaped moon cake
Rabbit shaped moon cake

Over in Japan, the moon rabbit is pop culture gold. Anime and manga creators love incorporating this celestial bunny into their storylines. Ever heard of the “Touhou Project”? This video game series puts a unique spin on the moon rabbit, giving it supernatural abilities. Plus, during the Otsukimi festival, you’ll find rabbit-shaped decorations and sweets, linking back to the old legend.

Cage in Lunatic Runagate CH62
Moon rabbits in the Touhou Project
Rabbit shaped manju for the Otsukimi Festival
Rabbit shaped manju for the Otsukimi Festival

The rabbit-in-the-moon legends are not only survivors but also adaptors. They’ve hopped from ancient scrolls to modern screens and dessert tables in China and Japan, proving that good stories always find a way to stay relevant.

Final Words

As we’ve explored the enduring legends of the rabbit in the moon from China and Japan, it’s evident that legends can serve as universal connectors. They cross borders and touch hearts, uniting us in shared human experience. Whether you’re looking up at the moon during China’s Mid-Autumn Festival or Japan’s Tsukimi, remember that the same celestial body inspires diverse stories that span continents. In a world that often feels divided, it’s comforting to realize that some tales are truly global, bringing us closer together. Let these moon rabbit legends light up your imagination and deepen your sense of global community. Thank you for allowing us to be your guide on this fascinating exploration.

If you want to learn more about Japanese and Chinese culture, welcome to our “Japanese Fashion” and “Chinese Dress” channels. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas~ We are always here to exchange brilliant thoughts!


ハルトウイツヒエルンスト, and 荒木亨. “月輪中の兎.” 天界 7.78 (1927): 354-363.

黄明兰, et al. 洛阳汉墓壁画. 文物出版社, 1996.月の兎

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