The ‘Ballad of Mulan’ (circa 400-600), which recounts the story of a young woman disguising herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army, concludes with a musing on the difficulties of telling the sex of rabbits:

The male hare wildly kicks its feet,

The female hare has shifty eyes,

But when a pair of hares run side by side,

Who can tell a buck from doe? [1]

The difficulty of distinguishing the gender of rabbits (and hares, for distinction between the two species was not clearly made in the Chinese language) has led some ancient Chinese to believe that rabbits are androgynous. They become pregnant, some thought, by sucking on their fur and gazing at the moon. The Chinese name for rabbit, tu 兔, is said to derive from the idea that rabbits spit out (tu 吐) their young.

For the best iteration of beliefs related to the rabbit, one need look no further than the Biography of Mao Ying, written by the Tang dynasty statesman Han Yu 韩愈 (768-824), a well-known Confucian pedant and poet, but a forgotten humourist. Written in the style of a conventional historical biography, his piece turns out to be a fictitious account of a rabbit-fur writing brush: Mao 毛, can be a common surname but also stands for fur; Ying 颖 means intelligence as well as the tip of a brush. Crammed with clever double entendre, Han Yu’s parody resembles a literary riddle, and is written for the amusement of the educated reader. [2] Thus, its meaning must be carefully decoded to shine light on the author’s erudition and wit:

Mao Ying was a native of Central Mountain.

Translation: The rabbit-fur brush came from a region in Hebei famous for producing the best rabbit-fur brush.

His ancestor Ming Shi helped Yu the Great govern the East. For rendering service in the nourishment of living things, he was consequently enfeoffed with the lands of Mao.

Explanation: Ming Shi 明视 (‘bright eyes’) is another name for the rabbit, relating to the belief that they have keen vision. Yu the Great is one of the three mythical rulers of ancient China. Mao 卯 is a homophone of mao 毛 (fur), as well as the fourth of the twelve ‘earthly branches’ 地支 in the Chinese calendrical system, corresponding to the direction east and the animal rabbit.

Translation: The rabbit-fur brush descended from a lineage of ‘bright-eyes’ that had flourished in the land of fur since ancient times.

On his death, Ming Shi became one of the Twelve Spirits. He once said, ‘My descendants will be the posterity of a spirit-illuminate and cannot be the same as other creatures. They shall be born by spitting.’ [3]

Translation: Rabbit is one of the twelve zodiac signs, which also correspond to the twelve ‘earthly branches’. They are special because people believe that they give birth to their young by spitting them out!

By Han Yu’s time, the rabbit had been firmly woven into the myth of Chang’e 嫦娥, a female mortal who, after consuming her husband’s elixir of longevity, flew to the moon and became its guardian spirit. In some accounts of the story, a ‘jade rabbit’ 玉兔 — named for its pure white fur — was the original inhabitant of the moon; in other versions, it joined the goddess’ company out of sympathy for her loneliness. [4]

The pictured Tang dynasty bronze mirror depicts the moon goddess on one side and the jade rabbit, pounding the elixir of longevity, on the other. There is also a toad at the bottom, which according to Han Yu, gave the rabbit a ride on its back as they travelled to the moon together. In 2013, China’s third moon lander, named after the goddess Chang’e, took the toad’s role and delivered a robotic rover called ‘Jade Rabbit’ to the lunar surface.

Tang dynasty (618-906) bronze mirror with moon goddess and rabbit design, Honolulu Academy of Arts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sometime in the seventeenth century, the rabbit managed to cast aside its role as the moon goddess’ sidekick and transformed itself into a local deity — Lord Rabbit 兔儿爷 — beloved by those living in northern China, especially in areas surrounding the capital Beijing. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, colourful figurines of Lord Rabbit, made from clay or stitched fabric would begin piling up like mountains at the marketplaces of Beijing in the months leading up to the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. These figurines ranged from one to three feet tall, some were dressed in an official’s gown and cap, others in full armour with a military flag sticking up from the back. Parents would let their children choose one to take home. [5]

Although these figures of Lord Rabbit were anthropomorphically male in appearance; the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival — where offerings were made to the moon (associated with the feminine yin in Chinese cosmology), traditionally excluded adult men from participating in its rituals. As women made offerings to the moon, asking for its blessing and for the birth of (more) sons, their children knelt next to them, praying to the figurine of Lord Rabbit for protection from disease and plague. Then, the day after the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the rabbit figurine was respectfully removed from the altar and given to kids to play with.

A clay figure of Lord Rabbit, Beijing. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the spoken dialect of Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Beijing, ‘rabbit’ became a slur for catamites, male actors (particularly those impersonating women on stage) and more generally, male prostitutes. (Interestingly, the same association between rabbits and homosexuals existed in ancient Rome. [6]) According to one elaborate theory, the association between rabbits and homosexuals came from the fact that, as previously mentioned, rabbit correspond to mao 卯, the fourth of the twelve ‘earthly branches’. The mortise and tenon joints commonly used in traditional Chinese architecture, meanwhile, are called sun mao 榫卯. Apparently, the practice of inserting one a piece of wood into a hole in another piece of wood became euphemism for anal sex. [7] A simpler explanation could be that the rabbit was still widely perceived as androgynous, and therefore a suitable metaphor for men who were in some way ‘feminine’. In modern-day speech, some still use the phrase ‘son of a rabbit’ 兔崽子 as an insult.

In 2006, a Daoist priest named Lu Wei-ming 卢威明 founded a shrine dedicated to the Rabbit God 兔儿神, patron saint of homosexuals, in Yonghe City, Taiwan. According to Lu, the Rabbit God is based on a historical person in the Qing dynasty, a man from Fujian province called Hu Tianbao 胡天保, who fell in love with a young, handsome imperial inspector. One day, the story goes, the inspector caught Hu peeping at his naked buttocks through a hole in the privy wall and had Hu beaten to death.

In eighteenth-century Fujian, which is just across the strait from Taiwan, there was indeed an organised cult centred on Hu Tianbao, believed to have the power in the afterlife to grant the wishes of men wanting have sex with younger men. However, according to Harvard professor Michael Szonyi, the association of Hu Tianbao with the Rabbit God was entirely invented by the poet, painter, and gourmet Yuan Mei 袁枚 (1716-1797). [8] In Yuan’s famous anthology of tall tales — What the Master Did Not Talk of  子不语, a reference to a passage in the Analects of Confucius: ‘The Master never talked of wonders, feats of strength, disorders of nature or spirits’ — we find the following account:

A month after Hu’s death, he appeared in a local man’s dream and said: ‘I certainly deserved to die for my feelings have violated propriety and my actions have offended an honourable man. But it was truly a feeling of love, a momentary obsession. This is not the same as causing harm to someone. Officials in the Netherworld all mocked and made fun of me; but none was angry with me. Now they have made me the Rabbit God, charged specifically with supervising the affairs in the world of men who appreciate other men. You may erect a temple for me, and call on the people to burn incense.’ [9]

Offering at the Rabbit God Temple, Mid-Autumn Festival. (Source: Rabbit God Temple, Twitter)

We do not know whether Yuan Mei wrote this tale for his own amusement, or to express his sympathy for Hu, as hinted by the attitude held by ‘officials in the Netherworld’. Having spent nearly a decade in the capital as a student and official, and formed friendships with male actors, he may have been subverting dominant culture by fusing the popular Beijing deity Lord Rabbit, and the slur for homosexual, with the cult of Hu Tianbao, which he most likely heard from his friend, Zhu Gui 朱珪 (1731–1807), an official tasked with eliminating the cult in Fujian. [10] Regardless, Yuan Mei’s idea eventually found an audience in Taiwan through Lu Wei-ming, who elevated role of the Rabbit God to the protector of the LGBTQ community, as part of his greater fight for recognition and inclusion of LGBTQ into the Daoist faith, as well as Taiwanese society at large.

Just as the rabbit became a symbol for LGBTQ pride on Taiwan, it has also taken on an additional set of associations in mainland China. Around 2010, in a handful of online forums dedicated to military affairs and foreign relations, the word ‘rabbit’ became synonymous with the PRC. One explanation stipulates that this usage was originally employed by patriotic netizens to describe China’s international image as a cuddly bunny, ‘harmless to humans and animals alike’人畜无害. Another theory traces its origin to a viral video of a hare kicking an eagle as it tries to dodge an attack, which has since been interpreted to mean: China, minds its own business but will fight back if provoked by America, the predatory eagle.

In 2011, the year of the rabbit, a webcomic entitled Year Hare Affair 那年那兔那些事儿 became a sensation on the Chinese internet, attracting a total of one billion views. Drawing on historical events of the twentieth-century, It tells the story of the Rabbit family (representing the Communist Party of China and its supporters) working hard to defend their ‘flower-planting household’ (zhong hua jia 种花家: a homophone for 中华家, the family of the Chinese nation) against attacks and oppression from Chickens (Japan, vilified from the nation of the crane to that of the chicken), Bald Eagles (the United States) and Bears (the Soviet Union bear has the hammer and sickle of Communism on its stomach, while the Russia bear, featured later, has the number ‘1’ on its stomach, signifying that it is the eldest son of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is also represented by a bear with the number ‘2’ on its stomach, meaning that it is the ‘second son’.)

During the US-China meeting in Anchorage, 2021, a still taken from Hare Year Affair was juxtaposed with news footage of the meeting. (Source: unknown)

The creator of Year Hare Affair, Lin Chao 林超 told an interviewer that he was a huge fan of military aircraft as a child. When he became older, he loved chatting on military forums, and his comics was inspired by discussions in these forums. When asked why he chose to use the rabbit to represent China as opposed to the more obvious national symbol of the dragon, Lin replied, ‘There’s an old saying, “we must go through the year of the rabbit to get to the year of the dragon that follows”. This may be true for our country: only after going through a phase of being “rabbits” can we fully emerge as “dragons”.’

In 2015, Lin’s comic was adapted into an animation series by the same name, and was promoted by the official accounts such as Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Youth League on Weibo. As of 2020, the animation series has attracted more than 800 million views on video streaming sites in China. Lin won an award in 2018 for being a model of online ‘positive energy’, a term central to media and ideological control in the Xi Jinping era.

Sandwiched between the fearsome tiger, whose place it is taking in 2023, and the magnificent dragon, which is due to take over in 2024, the rabbit may seem rather common or garden. Nonetheless, ideas and beliefs relating to its image help bring to the fore some of the unorthodox and even queer aspects of the Chinese tradition. The inherent ambiguity of the rabbit, which traces back to its difficult-to-discern gender, suggests that symbols and meaning ascribed to it will constantly mutate and change. The rabbit thus stands for heterogeneity in a country that has always strived for the opposite. Whatever new meaning it takes on, we welcome the year of the rabbit, hoping that it is a year where ambiguities and multiple voices will flourish.

Notes

[1] Translation modified based on Wilt L. Idema in Shiamin Kwa and Wilt L. Idema trans., Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2010, p.3.

[2] Von Herbert Franke, ‘A note on parody in Chinese traditional literature’, Oriens Extremus 18, no. 2 (1971): 247.

[3] Translation of Han Yu’s text and related notes modified based on two educated readers, sinologist William H. Nienhauser Jr. and James R. Hightower: see William H. Nienhauser Jr., ‘An Allegorical Reading of Han Yü’s “Mao-Ying Chuan” (Biography of Fur Point).’ Oriens Extremus 23, no. 2 (1976): 155-156; James R. Hightower, ‘Han Yü as Humorist’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, (1984): 10-11.

[4] Yang Lihui and An Deming, Handbook of Chinese Mythology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 88-89.

[5] There are ample records of Lord Rabbit in the ‘jottings’ 筆記 of the Ming and Qing. Here we base our descriptions from those mentioned in 侧帽餘譚 (1878) and 燕京歲時記 (circa 1900).

[6] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, p.306.

[7] Zhang Jie 张杰, Investigation into Depictions of Homosexuality in Pre-modern China 中国古代同性恋图考, Yunan: Yunan renmin chubanshe, 2008, p.228.

[8] Arthur Waley, Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet, London: Allen and Unwin, 1956, p. 120.

[9] Translation modified based on Michael Szonyi, ‘The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the Eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality, Late Imperial China 19, no. 1 (1998): 6. doi:10.1353/late.1998.0004.

[10] Ibid.