When you look at the full moon, what do you see? Many people throughout the ages have described the shape they see, made from the darker and lighter shades of the lunar surface, to be a rabbit. If you look closely at the painting of Chang’e that I included in my last post, you’ll also see a rabbit near her. But how did a rabbit end up on the moon?
How the rabbit found its way to the moon is frequently told in a story about an old man in need of food. A group of animals, sometimes an otter, monkey, fox, and a hare offer to help the man. The stories vary, so some will have a different collection of animals, but the story is the same. The animals gather food for the man. The otter captures a fish. The monkey gathers fruits, and the jackal catches a lizard. The hare didn’t know how to gather anything other than grass, so in an act of selflessness, offered himself to the man. The old man, as it turns out, isn’t just any old man, but the Jade Emporer who had come to the forest seeking a noble and trustworthy animal to help him make the Elixir of Life. The Jade Emperor is moved by the rabbits act of selflessness, and brings the rabbit to the moon to teach him to make the elixir.
Imagery often shows the rabbit pounding herbs with a mortar and pestle making the Elixir of Life.
The Jade Rabbit is a frequent companion to Chang’e in stories, and like the story of Chang’e has persisted in mythology for thousands of years.
If you search NASA records, you can find a transcription of communications between Mission Control and the astronauts of Apollo 11:
Mission Control – Capsule Communicator (Cap Comm): Roger. Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s 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 4000 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.
Lunar Module Pilot – Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. : Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.
Years later, the Chinese space program’s lunar program named its spacecraft in honor of Chang’e. Chang’e 3 through 5 have all landed on the lunar surface. These are fully robotic spacecraft. So photos of them on the lunar surface beg a question. Who took the photos? As it turns out, China’s lunar landers were accompanied by a lunar rover, Yutu (玉兔) or Jade Rabbit, and it was Yutu that snapped the photos that we can find of the Chang’e lunar landers on the moon!
Many mooncake mold sets include at least one decorative plate that includes a rabbit. So, if you’ve ever wondered why the rabbit, and not the other 11 animals of the Chinese zodiac seem to be featured on mooncakes, it’s because the Jade Rabbit is Chang’e companion on the moon!