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【Learn Chinese】The Year of the Rabbit
“Each person has one, each family has several, and the whole world has 12.” Without much knowledge of Chinese culture, guessing the answer to this ancient Chinese riddle is difficult. For those in the know, however, the answer is obvious: it’s referring to the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Brief introduction to the Chinese zodiac
In Chinese, these 12 zodiac animals are called 12 生肖 (shēngxiào). These animals, in their order of appearance, are the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat (also translated as Ram and Sheep), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
There is little consensus regarding the origins of the 12-year Chinese zodiac calendar. Some believe it grew out of the story of a Great Race between various animals organized by the Jade Emperor.
Others claim that each animal’s place in the cycle relates to the specific time that each is most active during the day. These are just two of the countless origin stories that have circulated throughout China and other Asian countries for centuries.
Regardless of its origins, the Chinese zodiac calendar has played and continues to play a significant role in shaping the traditions, holidays, and foods enjoyed in Asian communities all over the globe.
Rabbit years
According to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Rabbit (兔年 tùnián) comes once every 12 years. Last century’s Rabbit Years were 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, and 1999.
The most recent Year of the Rabbit was in 2011 and the next one will be in 2023. People born in any of these years are said to have been born under the sign of the Rabbit (兔子 tùzǐ).
The rabbit in Chinese culture
The animals of the Chinese zodiac are more than lucky numbers and personalities, they symbolize a deep connection with China’s ancient cultural heritage. Like all the Chinese zodiac animals, rabbits have a unique place in Chinese history, mythology, and customs.
To better understand the meaning behind the Year of the Rabbit, it helps to first explore the importance of rabbits in Chinese culture.
The legend of the Jade Rabbit
When Westerners gaze at the 月亮 (yuèliang; moon), they may jokingly say that the moon is made out of cheese or that they see the Man in the Moon. When a Chinese person looks at the moon, however, they most certainly will see the Jade Rabbit (玉兔 Yùtù) standing under a cassia tree holding a precious elixir.
Like the Chinese zodiac itself, the legend of the Jade Rabbit has many different origin stories. One of the most common stories in China begins with the Jade Emperor disguising himself as a beggar. Once disguised, he embarks on a journey to find a worthy animal to help him prepare the elixir of life.
In this tale, the Rabbit willingly attempts to sacrifice himself as food for the beggar by jumping into a fire. However, the Rabbit is saved by the Jade Emperor, who then carries the Rabbit to the moon where he helps create the elixir of life.
Those looking for the Jade Rabbit will find his outline on the moon with his pestle and mortar, mixing the divine elixir to this day.
The concept of the Chinese zodiac has spread to other Asian countries, but other cultures have slightly different interpretations regarding the Jade Rabbit. In Japan, the Old Man of the Moon brings the Rabbit back to the moon to live with him because of the Rabbit’s great kindness.
According to this myth, the image seen on the surface of the moon is of a rabbit pounding out mochi rice cakes, not the elixir of life.