The Myth of the Jade Rabbit

Text: “One day the goddess of the moon, Chang-e, needed help preparing the elixir of life. She knew that humans were too selfish for the task, so she decided to look among the animals. When she arrived, she asked all of the animals to bring her sacrifices, like vegetables and handmade gifts. All the animals offered her gifts, and she collected them, but when she got to the rabbit, the rabbit confessed that she hadn’t been able to find a gift. The rabbit felt terrible, so she jumped into a fire and sacrificed herself, becoming a roasted rabbit for Chang-e to eat. The goddess was so impressed with the rabbit’s bravery and sacrifice that she resurrected the rabbit and brought her to the moon to help her make the elixir. And today, if you look closely enough, you can see the image of the rabbit on the moon.”

Context: The informant is a 19-year old Chinese-American student who heard this at her local Chinese Christian church in Orange County when she was around 8 years old. She admittedly had some concerns about the accuracy of the story but told it how she remembered it. 

Analysis: Despite the story’s explicit condemnation of humanity, an interesting tension arises in how the animals in the story are still indirectly anthropomorphized as they display the ability to understand language and comprehend success/failure on an intellectual level. There seems to be an inherent contradiction embedded in the fact that a human is not able to carry out this task but an animal, who is humanlike in every other sense, gets chosen instead. To explore this further, the central focus of the myth seems to be selflessness and the search for the ideal selfless being. Pure selflessness seems only to be attained by creatures and beings that are simultaneously like and unalike us, such as Jesus Christ, the quintessential Christian sacrifice who was both human and God, or an anthropomorphic rabbit, a non-human animal that exhibits humanlike traits. The rabbit also seems to be a sort of Messiah figure who lays down her life and ascends to heaven to dedicate her life towards serving humanity. Perhaps the story suggests that as humans, we recognize and strive towards goodness/selflessness within ourselves, but at the same time acknowledge that this ideal is unattainable for us as imperfect beings. This fundamental tension embodies the paradigmatic approach to the myth pioneered by Claude Levi-Strauss, who explains how dichotomies inherent in myth are reflective of larger social and cultural paradigms. I believe the tension demonstrated here is the fundamental tension between mortality and the soul: our spiritual capacity for good but our mortal folly that prevents us from always acting on it. Only very special messianic figures, like Jesus and the rabbit, who are simultaneously both human and not, are able to act with this degree of selflessness and bridge the gap between mortality and the divine by performing the ultimate sacrifice. The difference between humans and the messiah is that humans are composed of both body and spirit, only part divine, whereas the messiah is both fully human and divine simultaneously, which is a great paradox beyond our ability to comprehend. Perhaps, this was why humans were not chosen in the story, because such a selfless task requires a being ontologically separate from (but still related to) humanity all together: a creature that physically embodies this Straussian dualism where mortality and divinity simultaneously inhabit the same being. Nonetheless, the connections to contemporary Christianity seem striking, and perhaps these messianic themes have more polygenetic roots than initially thought. This could also serve as a reflection on Christianity’s influence in China and an attempt for the Chinese people to reclaim their own form of cultural agency in the messianic narrative.