On the second day of the Year of the Rabbit (a bit late, but I’ve been very busy editing a book), some thoughts on the significance of our long-eared little friends in Chinese culture.
For a start, it’d be better to translate this as the Year of the Hare - the familiar bunny rabbit clearly isn’t what the ancient Chinese were describing and depicting more than 2,000 years ago: early descriptions are of an animal with a long body and erect ears that sped around at great speed and sometimes stood up on its hind legs.
I had a look in my venerable Kangxi Dictionary this morning, and under the entry for ‘hare’ found some fascinating entries.
Besides its normal name in Chinese, tu 兔, the hare was also called mingshi 明視, i.e. ‘clear sight’, which is uncannily close to Bright Eyes. Hares were thought to be created through an accretion of yin, the feminine aspect of nature of which the moon was a supreme example, and it’s this link with yin that explains the long-standing belief in a hare which lives on the moon with the goddess Chang’e, pounding away at an elixir of immortality. The Kangxi Dictionary also records the work of an eleventh-century scholar named Lu Dian 陸佃, who wrote that...
“Ruminants have nine bodily orifices and bear live young. The hare uniquely has eight bodily orifices. In the fifth lunar month it spits out its young.”
The nine bodily orifices, if you’re wondering, are two eyes, two ears and two nostrils, plus the mouth, anus and urethra, (if that’s not an uncomfortably close grouping). The hare was understood to have eyes, ears, nostrils and a mouth, but then one all-purpose orifice for the rest, leaving it one orifice short. I’m no zoologist, and I don’t plan on going to Kenilworth Pet & Garden Stores to examine a rabbit’s vulva to check this out. Ever again.
Meanwhile, Wang Chong 王充, a Han-dynasty scholar who lived around the time of Christ, wrote that “the hare becomes pregnant by licking the downy hair upon plants. When it gives birth, it does so through its mouth.”
Those otherwise bizarre ideas can be explained by the belief that hares, being made up of only the feminine yin essence, could not be male (turtles too were made of yin, and had to have sex with snakes to reproduce, obviously). The word for ‘hare’, tu, is a homophone of the word for ‘to spit out’, and so the animal has traditionally been linked to the idea of spitting out young which weren’t conceived in the usually bunny-like way.