The moon rabbit, linked to the Chinese Moon Festival, is an Asian folkloric character popular in Taiwan. In some countries, it also became intertwined with rice cakes! The idea that a rabbit inhabited the moon first appeared in Chinese folklore nearly 2,000 years ago. It eventually spread to other cultures like Japan and Korea. And, well, no wonder. Just look up at the full moon on a mid-autumn night and—voila—the moon rabbit is right there!
There! See it?
No? Here, let’s outline the rabbit for you.
The Moon Rabbit and the “Bunny Girl”
In Taiwan and China, people believe that the moon rabbit is a companion of the moon goddess, Cháng’é. In the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA mission control humorously asked the US astronauts to keep an eye out for the duo. The exchange with mission control in Houston went like this:
Flight Control in Houston, Texas:
Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is 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 4,000 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.
Michael Collins (Apollo 11 Crew):
Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.
The Story of the Rabbit’s Sacrifice
According to one legend, the king of the gods deified the rabbit for an act of selfless sacrifice.
There once was a monastery where a monk resided with a fox, an otter, a monkey and a rabbit. Everyday, the four creatures visited the monk to study with him.
One day, the monk came upon the food stores to discover they were empty. And so, the four animals frantically began scouring the surrounding lands for food. But alas, none were successful.
In an incredible act of self-sacrifice, the rabbit dove into a bonfire, thereby turning himself into food for the others. As a result, he was able to save his friends from starvation.
It was then that the monk revealed his true identity as the king of the gods. The king was very moved by the rabbit’s selfless sacrifice. And so, he raised the rabbit from the netherworld and installed him on the moon—effectively deifying him.
And that’s why the moon rabbit resides on the moon!
Mochi Rice Cakes
The Koreans and Japanese associate the moon rabbit with rice cakes. This is true in Taiwan as well, where both rice cakes and the more famous mooncakes are part of Moon Festival celebrations. Why is that? The answer, if you look at the outlined full moon above again, is in that rectangular shape in front of the moon rabbit. For centuries, people believed that to be a mortar, which is used to grind up herbs and grains!
Consequentially, in the original Chinese mythology, the rabbit uses the mortar to grind up herbs to make an elixir to sustain the moon goddess Cháng’é.
In Japan and Korea, however, the story of the Chinese moon goddess doesn’t exist. Instead, the rabbit is making delicious mochi rice cakes!
That same tradition exists alongside the Chinese version in Taiwan—perhaps born of Taiwan’s Japanese colonial experience or simply due to the proximity of the island nations. In any case, the Taiwanese moon rabbit makes elixirs for the goddess (as in the Chinese stories), but also (like the Japanese and Korean rabbits) treats itself to delicious rice cakes on occasion!
Rice cakes—known commonly in English as “mochi rice cakes” (from the Japanese mochi)—is called moa-chi in Taiwanese. This popular traditional treat is made with a sweet dough from pounded sticky rice, and is often enjoyed by all Taiwanese with a simple coating of sweetened peanut flour!
So, next time you look up at the full moon on a mid-autumn’s eve, try to make out the outline of the rice-cake-loving moon rabbit!