BEIJING (China Daily / Asia News Network): Although the full moon is cherished as a symbol of reunion in the hearts of Chinese people, in some way in Chinese mythology the moon evokes loneliness and desolation.
One might be familiar with Chang’e, the moon deity who ingested the elixir of life to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, and flew to the moon and lives in the Palace of Great Coldness. for eternity, or Wu Gang, the Chinese counterpart of Sisyphus, who is punished by the slaughter of a self-healing laurel.
Another moon resident, the Jade Rabbit, who grinds herbs and concocts the elixir of longevity, often disappears in the background as Chang’e’s mere pet.
Beijing folklore, however, does the rabbit justice. Not only do Pekingese respectfully and affectionately call him tu’er ye, the rabbit god, but he has also gained special status with his statues which have caught the attention of the city’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in over the past 400 years.
Many scholars who grew up in Beijing at the turn of the last century have spoken of their fond memories of the rabbit god. Author Lao She wrote that the rabbit statues are very beautiful, as if they are outlaw heroes of the rabbit world.
Calligrapher Qi Gong once said, “I have loved the Rabbit God from a young age … In the past, at every Mid-Autumn Festival, the shops in Beijing’s Dong’an Market displayed an infinite number of rabbit god statues.
Legend has it that the capital was once riddled with plague and that no centuries-old remedy has proven its usefulness. The compassionate Jade Rabbit came down to Earth and healed people using his expertise in making medicine to make healing pastries, also known as moon cakes.
Regardless of mythology, worship of the Moon Rabbit in the capital dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with texts indicating that on every Mid-Autumn Festival in the capital, people made clay statuettes that had a human body with the head of a rabbit and paid homage to them.
Unlike other statues of holy figures, the rabbit god does not have as many taboos associated with it. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it gradually evolved into a children’s toy.
The statues have also become more elaborate and diverse. The most classic represents him in armor or in a combat robe and seated majestically on a tiger or an elephant. These have been designed to provide good health and safety.
Zhang Zhongqiang, a 58-year-old representative of the painted clay sculpture art from Beijing, has been making rabbit god statuettes for over 30 years and now operates two artifact stores in central Beijing.
He recalls that growing up in the city, the rabbit god was a rare object sought after by children. Due to financial difficulties and the disappearance of traditional crafts, he could only make his own animal statues with clay, the most common material he could get his hands on.
When he started his career in the 1980s, a few Beijing craft masters called for the revival of traditional folk art, and he started making the rabbit god as well as many other clay sculptures as keepsakes. .
“In the past two decades, as the standard of living of the Chinese people has improved and our country has launched its intangible cultural heritage protection projects, people are more willing to learn more about traditional culture and to own a handmade rabbit god statue, which I think is remarkable. Zhang said.
He is also amazed that more and more non-Beijing residents have become familiar with the rabbit god.
Its stores are now frequented by domestic and foreign tourists. As its stores allow customers to sit and paint their own rabbit god statues, many tourists will spend three hours there with their children to learn about the history of the rabbit and the traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival of the capital city.
Although the statues very rarely fulfill their original moon worshiping role, they are still seen as a symbol of blessing for the annual festival.
In 2010, the rabbit god was accredited by the Beijing Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center as an ambassador for the Beijing Mid-Autumn Festival.
To pass on traditional craftsmanship, Zhang also taught clay sculpture-making at an elementary school in Beijing and designed new forms of rabbit god statuettes as cultural merchandise for scenic spots.
“The rabbit god is a cultural symbol unique to our region, and I have been thinking about how to preserve and transmit it. Beijing’s culture, including its historical figures, ancient architecture and scenic spots, is a tank of inspiration for my god rabbit statuettes, ”says Zhang.