Chinese archaeological and cultural interpretation of rabbit

By YUAN JING, LYU PENG and HAN DING / 04-20-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: A detail of “Magpies & Hare” by the Northern Song artist Cui Bai (1004–1088)

As 2023 marks the Year of the Rabbit, a variety of bunnies have stormed China’s shopping malls, parks and social media platforms. In Chinese culture, the rabbit is not only a symbol of good luck, but is also connected to longevity and fertility. 

Rabbits in archaeology 

Lyu Peng: I specialized in zooarchaeology, and my research mainly focuses on remains of animals from archaeological sites. Both rabbits (Lagomorpha) and mice (Rodentia) have continuously growing incisors throughout their life, indicating a close relationship between the two. In 1735, in his work titled The System of Nature, Carl Linnaeus, the “father of modern taxonomy,” classified rabbits and mice in the order Glires. However, a closer examination of their skeletons reveals significant differences between the two. For example, rabbits have four incisors, while mice only have two. In the 1970s, Li Chuankui, a renowned Chinese paleomammalogist from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, identified the Mimotona wana and the Heomys orientalis from the fossils (dated to approximately 62 million years ago) unearthed in Qianshan, Anhui Province. The Mimotona wana has been considered an ancestral genus of Lagomorphs and the Heomys orientalis approaching the ancestral genus of rodents. The similarities in skeletal morphology between the Mimotona wana and the Heomys orientalis indicate that rabbits and mice, though sharing ancestry, began divergently evolving at least 62 million years ago.

Academia has reached a consensus over the origin of domestic rabbits worldwide. The wild ancestors of domestic rabbits were the European rabbits, with the skull of domestic rabbits being extremely similar to that of European rabbits. Also, European rabbits and domestic rabbits have genetic continuity, and European rabbits cannot cross breed with wild rabbits or hares. The original habitat of wild European rabbits was in the Iberian Peninsula and southern France. Both European rabbits and domestic rabbits dig burrows, while other rabbit species do not. The earliest confirmed domestication of rabbits occurred in France about 500 years ago. Both European rabbits and domestic rabbits spread around the world through human activities.

My understanding of the origin of Chinese domestic rabbits is as follows: it has been widely accepted that the wild ancestor of domestic rabbits was the European rabbit, and there are no unearthed remains of European rabbits in China, indicating that Chinese domestic rabbits were probably introduced from outside. There are many historical records about rabbits in Chinese literature before the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and archaeological evidence shows the existence of hutches and other devices for keeping rabbits. However, it is believed that rabbits were mainly hunted for entertainment [in ancient China], indicating that the creatures recorded in ancient Chinese literature may have been hares. White rabbits often appeared in ancient Chinese literature as auspicious animals, symbolizing peace and prosperity, the respect for the elderly, and longevity. From a zoological perspective, however, these white rabbits could have been hares with albinism or just seasonally white coats—not domesticated. It is almost impossible to domesticate Chinese hares, as they are difficult to breed under captive conditions, timid yet untamable. Many Chinese domestic rabbit breeds were imported during the Ming Dynasty, mainly from Europe and some from Asia. The ancient Chinese also domesticated and bred Himalayan rabbits and other breeds.

Rabbits in Chinese writings

Han Ding: I’d like to start with a brief discussion on the earliest understanding of rabbits in ancient China, based on the earliest writings about them, the oracle bone inscriptions. Rabbits appeared frequently in the texts of divinations related to hunting in the oracle bone inscriptions, such as zhu-tu [chasing rabbits] and huo-tu [capturing rabbits], indicating that rabbits were important prey for hunting during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). Due to the symbolic nature of rabbits as hunting prey, the Chinese characters with the component of rabbit (兔) generally have a sense of capturing and chasing, far beyond the meaning of rabbit itself.

Lyu Peng: Taking the discovery of rabbit bones at the Yinxu site [the site of the last Shang capital] in Henan Province as an example, a large number of the remains of the species related to rabbits (Lepus sp.) have been unearthed at this site, causing researchers to believe that rabbits were quite common at that time. However, it is difficult to determine whether they were wild or domesticated merely based on their bones. It has been confirmed that the Chinese character “兔” (rabbit) appears in the oracle bone inscriptions unearthed at the Yinxu site, with obviously pictographic features such as a neck too short to be visible, and a short, raised tail. It suggests that the Shang people were very familiar with the appearance of rabbits. In the oracle bone inscriptions, the meaning of “兔” is relatively simple: it is either used as a name (of a person, country, or place), or referred to an animal that was captured. Therefore, the remains found at the Yinxu site were most likely hares, rather than domesticated rabbits.

Yuan Jing: The character “兔” in oracle bone inscriptions reflects the physical characteristics of rabbits, such as their massive ears and small tails. The character “兔” written in bronze inscriptions also presents those physical characteristics, sometimes even directly outlines the shape of a rabbit. The earliest form of the modern character “兔” came into being with the emergence of the Lesser Seal Script.

Rabbits in traditional literature, culture

Yuan Jing:Rabbits are also mentioned in certain poems in the Book of Songs. For example, the poem titled “The Hunting Net,” which praises warriors, describes a scene of setting up nets to catch rabbits. In the poem “The Rabbits,” declining nobles lament that they were born at the wrong time by saying cryptically “The rabbits go scot-free,/ While pheasants fail to flee.” 

During the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern dynasties (220–589), the most famous literary work related to rabbits was the folksong titled “The Ballad of Mulan.” It tells the story of a girl named Hua Mulan who took her aged father’s place in the conscription for the army by disguising herself as a man. After prolonged and distinguished military service on the battlefield, Mulan was honored by the emperor but declined a position of high office. She retired to her hometown and reunited with her family. [After Mulan revealed her gender, much to the astonishment of her comrades,] the folksong ends with a humorous metaphor—“The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip,/ The she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled./ Two hares running side by side close to the ground,/ How can they tell if I am he or she?” (trans. Han H. Frankel). The Ming poet Xie Zhen highly praised this ending as giving the finishing touch and lending it charm and aesthetic conception. As a zooarchaeologist, I’m also impressed by the author’s meticulous observation of hares and the ability to summarize the distinctive characteristics of male and female hares from their behaviors.

Han Ding: Among all the animal-shaped jade carvings of the Shang Dynasty, the number of rabbit-shaped jade ornaments was only surpassed by bird and fish-shaped carvings, suggesting the affinity for rabbits among the Shang people. 

Images of toads and rabbits are often seen above the moon in Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) artworks. There has been debate about how the rabbit entered the Moon Palace [in Chinese legends, the Moon Palace refers to a fairy place on the moon where the Moon Goddess lives] and became the “Jade Rabbit” [also known as the Moon Rabbit]. Some believed that the earliest record of the linkage of rabbits and the moon is from a poem titled “Inquiries into the Universe,” written by the Chinese poet Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BCE). The renowned Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi believed that the term tu (菟) in Qu’s poem refers to a rabbit. Some scholars believe that the idea of a rabbit on the moon may be related to cultural exchanges between China and India, where there are also legends of the Moon Rabbit. The introduction of the Indian moon rabbit legend is still difficult to confirm, but the silk paintings unearthed in the early Western Han tombs No. 1 and 3 of the Mawangdui site in Hunan Province provide indisputable evidence of the legend of the rabbit on the moon at that time.

From the records of “chasing rabbits” and “capturing rabbits” in the Shang oracle bone inscriptions to the scenes of hunting rabbits with dogs depicted on Han stone carvings, as well as the literary descriptions of hunting rabbits since the Tang and Song dynasties, it can be seen that hunting rabbits has been a tradition throughout China’s history. The reason why hunting rabbits was so attractive may lie in their running speed (maximum 70-80 kilometers per hour), which makes them the fastest animals in the Central Plain. Hunting rabbits was a challenging task, which thereby provided the ancient Chinese a chance to show off their hunting skills. Rabbits perfectly showcase speed and agility, as emphasized by an old Chinese saying: “Swift as an escaping hare.” Therefore, people often name their horses with the character “兔,” hoping that the horses can move as fast as rabbits. In the historical texts Records of the Three Kingdoms, a famous horse owned by Lyu Bu, a general who lived during the late Eastern Han Dynasty, was named Chi Tu [lit. red hare].