Today is New Year’s Day and the Year of Rabbit in the Chinese lunar calendar.
Looking up at the moon, Chinese people often see a beautiful woman with floating robes and a little cute rabbit by her side, as depicted in the painting below, in the Freer Sackler Galleries’ collection.
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer,
F1909.244a, The Goddess Chang-E in the Lunar Palace, mid-10th century
There are many stories as how the rabbit got to the moon:
A Buddhist story says that one day three fairy sages disguised themselves as hungry old beggars and ran into a Fox, a Monkey and a Rabbit. The sages asked them for food and both the Fox and the Monkey shared theirs with them. Only the poor Rabbit who was starving himself at the time didn’t have anything to give. So he threw himself into the fire to make food for the old beggars. The sages were so touched by the Rabbit’s sacrifice; they brought him back to life and granted him eternal life. Then they sent the Rabbit to live in the Moon Palace with the moon goddess, Chang E.
A Taoist legend tells a different story. Chang E, the moon goddess, ate the elixir of immortality that was given to her husband by the Queen Mother of the West. Afraid of her husband’s indignation, she fled to the moon. All of a sudden she began to cough, and spit out the covering of the elixir of immortality, which was changed into a rabbit as white as the purest jade. She and the rabbit took up their abode in the Palace of Coldness. The rabbit was seen pounding a mortar and pestle, preparing the pill of immortality by the side of Chang E. As a result, the rabbit came to be rendered as unselfishly making medicine for the sick; later representing healing and happiness.
The Chinese like to compare a rabbit to the moon also because the rabbit’s lip is similar in shape to the crescent moon. In an analogy, as the moon changes shape all the time, but never diminishes, the rabbit becomes a symbol of longevity.
Here, on behalf of all the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, we wish you a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!