In 1969, as Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon was preparing to land, the following message was relayed to the crew from Houston Capcom:
Houston Capcom: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.
Apollo 11 crew member, Michael Collins: Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.
This lighthearted conversation about the bunny girl on the moon was referencing two popular Chinese mythological stories: the story of Chang’e, and the story of the jade moon rabbit, a rabbit who later became associated as Chang’e’s companion due to the continuing popularity of both of these stories and their joint residence on the moon.
While there are various versions, Chang’e’s story begins in the heavens where she lived happily as an immortal with her husband Houyi, a gifted archer. One day, in an act of mischief, the ten sons of the Jade emperor turned themselves into ten suns and rose up over the earth. The blazing heat of their rays scorched the land and burnt the fields and threatened to turn the earth into a desolate wasteland. Houyi saw what was happening, and with Chang’e in tow, he descended to earth to help the people. Once there, he raised his bow and shot nine of the suns out of the sky, piercing them with his arrows, and thereby saving the people on earth.
The Jade Emperor was incensed by the loss of nine of his sons and cursed the couple to lose their immortality and remain living with the people on earth. The Western Queen Mother felt bad for Houyi so she gave him a bottle containing an elixir of immortality, but there was only enough for one. Houyi loved his wife Chang’e so much that he could not bear to be without her, and so the untasted bottle remained hidden in their home. One day while Houyi was out hunting, a thief broke into their home, intent on stealing the elixir. Faced with the risk of the potion falling into the thief’s evil hands, Chang’e had no option but to drink the contents. As the elixir took control of her body she began to float, drifting back into the heavens where the immortals belonged. Unable to bear being that far away from her beloved Houyi, Chang’e landed on the moon so that she could stay close to her love.
Chang’e was not alone though; a rabbit also resided on the moon. How he got there is a completely separate story, a Buddhist tale about a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit….
This story goes that one day on the full moon the animals decided that they would all partake in an act of charity, believing that they would be rewarded for doing so. Luckily for them, a beggar came along the path wanting food, so all the animals resolved to help. The monkey collected fruits from the trees, the otter caught some fish in the river, while the jackal crept off and stole a pail of milk. The rabbit, however, did not know what to do; he could only gather grass, something the beggar could not eat. So, in a desperate act of charity the rabbit threw himself over the beggar’s fire, intending to offer his own roasted meat to the beggar. The rabbit did not burn though; the Jade Emperor saw this great act of charity and saved the rabbit, drawing his likeness on the moon as a reward for his self-sacrifice, thus ensuring his immortality.
The rabbit can still be seen today, an outline visible to the naked eye when the moon is full. He lives up there with Chang’e, pounding a mortar and pestle as he helps her make the elixir of immortality. Their future stories now interwoven, both Chang’e and the Jade Rabbit are honored yearly during the mid-autumn lunar festival.
They also live on through the Chinese space program. The first two Chinese space probes were called Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 respectively, while a third lunar landing module called Chang’e 3 came equipped with a rover named Yutu – which translates to the Jade Rabbit.