One of the biggest holiday in Korea is Chuseok, a mid-autumn festival that is celebrated on the 15th of August on the lunar calendar. In Korea, you cannot celebrate the mid-autumn festival without thinking about the Moon Rabbit. The Moon Rabbit has become a symbol for this special holiday. The folklore of the Moon Rabbit is not only a story in Korea but also a popular story all across Asia. Although most parts of Asia know of the story of the Moon Rabbit, each part region has their own version of the story but today, i’ll only go over the Korean version of the story.
The Moon Rabbit is also called the “Jade Rabbit” and is said to live on the moon, pounding something in the mortar. In Korea, the Rabbit is suppose to be pounding rice in the mortar in order to make rice cakes. This Legend/story comes from the fact that the markings on the moon looks like a rabbit is standing over a mortar, similar to the “man on the moon” in the west. You are probably asking yourself, “How did the rabbit end up on the moon?”. The story goes that the Rabbit once lived in a village along side a Fox and a Monkey. The three of them devoted themselves to Buddhism and spent most of their time studying and practicing. The Emperor of the Heavens asked them to bring him food to test their faith. The Fox decided to catch a fish and the Monkey decided to bring him fruits. The Rabbit on the other hand, could not find anything but grass so the Rabbit decided to jump into a fire to offer himself up. The Emperor was touched by this act of commitment so he appoint the Rabbit as the guardian of the moon. Although different cultures have a different variations of the story, the actions of the Rabbit remains consistent.
In the Korean version of the story, the Rabbit is always seen standing underneath a gyesu tree also known as the Korean laurel/cinnamon tree, pounding away at his mortar. Other folktales and legends also mentions the tree quite often, as it is known as a study, long living tree and it’s bark has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. It is not surprising that the tree is often paired up with the rabbit who signifies fercundit and the tree signifying a long, bountiful, and happy life. The Rabbit and tree is so steadfast in Korea that it shows up in famous children’s song such as “Half’Moon”, a song written in 1924 by Yoon Geuk-young. The lyrics are as followed:
High above the deep blue sky, down the Milky Way,
Rides a ship without a sail, with no oars they say,
Ship of white, its only crew, is a rabbit white,
Westward it floats along, silently through the night
Originally, there was only one Rabbit that would appear in the story and the people thought the rabbit was lonely so a modern day version of the story has two rabbits on the moon, happily making rice cakes which makes it even more significant during the mid-autumn festival where the friends and family come together.
3 thoughts on “Korean Folklore: Moon Rabbit”
Very interesting read. I try my best to study religion and folklore as much possible. However, I do find myself coming across the most prominent ones as if they were the only ones. Without a doubt I know a more about Islam, Christianity, or Judaism then I do about the Eastern religions. Seeing as they influence entire regions of the world, I know I must devote some time and effort to grappling with their idiosyncrasies. I will definitely look at each source you cited for further research. Thank you
A fun myth and one that’s surprisingly non-violent compared to many of the others. It’s interesting how despite being so far apart, that both the East and the West interpret figures when looking at the moon. I know that China and Japan also see a rabbit on the moon; there must be a transference of ideas between geographically-neighboring countries.
Very interesting folklore. Korea as a country has always fascinated me, in France there is this conception that South Korea is the most “European” like country in all of Asia (although I am not so sure how true this is). As a result, many college students in France (and all of Europe) tend to travel to Korea as international students, often completely 1-2 years before receiving their equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree. I personally would love to travel there, but perhaps not for school. I have heard of other Asian cultures that celebrate both the rabbit and the fox. Every culture celebrates certain kinds of animals by means of anthropomorphism. But while in Europe, animals come to represent characteristics like strength, in Asian cultures animals tend to represent speed and cunning. I find this dichotomy must be indicative of what both cultures believe to be meaningful, or important. It is interesting how many of Korea’s neighbors all share similar ideologies. I would love to learn how Korea has helped shape (and been shaped) by its geographical neighbors, such as, Japan, China, etc.