DURING the Mid-Autumn Festival the whole family gathers together for a reunion meal according to ancient Chinese customs. After the meal, families offer prayers and enjoy looking at the moon together. In Beijing and the surrounding area, the ritual of worshiping the moon and offering moon cakes, melons, and other sacrifices has been served. In addition, people also pay respects to a clay figurine of the Rabbit God to pray for peace and good luck.
The Rabbit God is in the shape of a rabbit-man. In Chinese mythology, there is a rabbit that lived on the moon. Every day it made herbal medicine for the Queen Mother of the West. One year, a serious epidemic broke out in Beijing and many people were brought to the verge of death. In the face of such a crisis, the rabbit transformed itself into a human, came down, and cured the people, saving Beijing from eminent disaster. Out of their appreciation for what the rabbit had done, the people made clay figures with the head of a rabbit and the body of a human each year during the Mid-Autumn Festival and worshiped it. This folk tradition has existed for centuries. In 2009, the handcraft of making clay Rabbit God figurines was included into the list of Beijing's intangible cultural heritage.
The origins of the Rabbit God can be traced back to ancient traditions of moon worship. In Chinese mythology, Change or the Goddess of the Moon, lived in a moon palace with a jade rabbit and an osmanthus tree. For this reason, in Chinese culture, Change, the jade rabbit, and the osmanthus tree can all be used as metaphors for the moon. Later, beginning from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the symbol of the jade rabbit gradually developed its own significance. It evolved further artistically and personified, finally reaching a fixed image having the head of a rabbit and body of a human, wearing armor, banners on its back, and holding a mallet for grinding herbal medicine in its hands, usually also riding an auspicious animal.
Beijing Rabbit God figurines are traditionally made from clay. Some are made with molds, while others are handmade. According to ancient records, every year during the Mid-Autumn Festival, people in the city made ornate rabbit figures with loess and sold them. They called them Rabbit Gods. Some are clothed with fine attire, while others are painted wearing armor, riding tigers, or sitting. The larger sized figures can reach a height of three feet, while the smallest can even be less than one foot in height.
During the period from the Ming and Qing dynasties to the time of the Republic of China (1912-1949) there were many workshops in Beijing that made and sold various styles of the rabbit god figurines. About the time that the Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching, booths would be set up lining both sides of the streets in major business districts selling rabbit god figurines of all sizes.
Out of respect for the Rabbit God, people called the act of buying a rabbit god figurine, "inviting the Rabbit God home."On the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, families had dinner together and then waited for the moon to appear. When the moon appeared, women of the family conducted a moon worship ceremony. A table was set up in the south-east corner of the courtyard, on which candles, moon cakes and fruits were arranged, and most important of all, the honorable figurine of the Rabbit God was placed. After the ceremony was completed, the family ate the fruits and cakes, and the rabbit god figurine became a toy for the children.
Due to the fact that the figurines were made from clay, they were very fragile and easily broken. And even if they did not fall apart on their own, every year before the Chinese New Year's Day came, it would be intentionally smashed, to symbolify getting rid of all the negativity and ailments of the previous year and bringing good health for the coming year. Then, before the following Mid-Autumn Festival, people would once again "invite" a new statue of the Rabbit God into their homes. Since the rabbit figurine symbolized good wishes of the people, with the passing of time, it became a token of happiness.
A New Image
For a period before the 1980s, dissemination of traditional Chinese culture including folk customs and traditional handcrafts came to a standstill. Later after the reform and opening-up began, it all came back.
After the revival of Chinese traditional handcrafts, experienced artisans returned to their old jobs. As a result, the art of making Rabbit God figurines also revived, and once again they were seen in Beijing's market. The rabbit figurine displays strength and confidence. Having such exquisite details, and being a symbol of luck and good fortune, it evoked childhood memories of the elderly and sparked the curiosity of children. The presence of the Rabbit God at traditional temple fairs was warmly welcomed by everyone. It was after the return of the Rabbit God that the eyes of a young man from Fengxiang, Shaanxi Province, lit up with the possibility to seize a potentially lucrative business opportunity.
Fengxiang is also home to the handcraft of traditional Chinese figurines. It was there that a young man named Hu Pengfei fell in love with making clay figures, and at the age of 19 decided to come to Beijing to realize his life's dreams.
Being passionate about making clay figurines, Hu Pengfei soon discovered that many local Beijing people liked Rabbit God clay figurines. Since there was a lack of artisans who could make them, he began to learn the techniques of the handcraft, collecting materials and pictures on them and learning from experienced artists. The more he learned about the craft, the more he came to like this cute little rabbit.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival of 2008, several of Hu's works of the Rabbit God were put on display at the temple fair at the Dongyue Temple. Hu's rabbits were arranged on a shelf several meters high (called Rabbit God mountain by Beijingers), some riding tigers, some riding horses, some wearing armor, and some carrying the Chinese character of blessing. They attracted passersby with their long ears, cute features, and charming appearance. Within a few days, all the rabbit figurines were "invited home" (sold out) by people. At the end of that year, the "mountain" of Rabbit Gods also made an appearance at the book fair at the Temple of Earth and the temple fair during the Spring Festival, and were appreciated by the attending crowds.
Hu Pengfei made up his mind that his future would be in Beijing. Starting with an office with a few partners, his company soon developed into a factory with several hundred workers, including a core team of professionals in charge of designing, marketing, and R&D of products. In addition to this, he also registered a trademark of Jitufang (literally meaning lucky rabbit workshop), turning the legendary clay rabbit god handcraft into an official brand. By doing this, he was also able to take this craft beyond Beijing.
Many tourists traveling through Beijing often purchase clay Rabbit God figurines as souvenirs. It represents Beijing as well as brings one good luck. Some young people who weren't familiar with the Rabbit God began to do research on its background, history, and cultural significance. Others found a new way to interpret it and gave it new meaning. As a result, the clay rabbit has continued to increase in popularity and number, becoming the brand ambassador of Beijing.
Passing on the Handcraft in Innovation
Hu Pengfei has a studio on the second floor of Baigongfang. The studio is divided into a working area and product display area. In the display area, Rabbit God figurines and products with the image of the Rabbit God are displayed. In the middle of the room there is long table with colored paints and unfinished figurines on it. If visitors that come to the shop are interested, they can try their hand at painting one themselves.
Hu's Rabbit God products can be divided into two categories. One is the figurine of the traditional design: the immortal creature looks imposing, riding on the back of culturally auspicious animals like a yellow tiger, white elephant, or Qilin (a mythical creature). The other style of rabbits exhibits Hu's innovative style, and include stylistic elements. Among these rabbits, diverging a little from its traditional look, he substitutes the majestic rabbit for a cartoonish figure, giving it a cute and playful look, a curved mouth, and grinning face. Instead of riding some animal, they have many other cute poses, making them more attractive to children.
According to Hu, if folk art wants to stay alive, it must be innovative. "Our innovativeness includes two aspects: the first is design, as you can see from many of our new designs on display here; the second is in the sphere of crafting techniques." Picking up a figurine, he said, "Even though they are made from clay, learning from Fengxiang clay handcraft, we added cotton into clay composition. In this way, the clay will not break so easily in the sculpturing process, and will even be stronger after being dried in the sunlight. We have also made some changes in the hand painting process to make the color last longer." Hu has a relatively young team, with an average age of below 35 years. Understanding the likes of the younger generation and their aesthetics, the young team can design products that are more attractive to young people.
Hu's business operation model is also different from that of traditional artisans. According to Hu, "Folk handicraft products are commodities, and in order to have vitality, they must have a market."Based on this business ideology, Hu registered the trademark of "Jitufang," and applied for patent protection for his company's Rabbit God figurine images. "Of course the traditional implied meaning of good luck and peace represented by the Rabbit God and its cultural connotations will not change. These elements we will always maintain."
Another area of work that Hu has continued is holding classes in high schools and elementary schools, teaching the culture and history of the Rabbit God handcraft. Hu's company also hosts activities for children. He hopes that more children can learn more about the Rabbit God craft, thus passing on the aesthetics, manufacturing skill, and folk beliefs represented by this ancient figurine.
The Beijing clay Rabbit God figurine is one of the symbols of Beijing folk culture of the Mid-Autumn Festival, exhibiting the special creativity of folk artisans and the optimistic and humorous disposition of Beijingers, who added this endearing and joyous element to the festival that represents reunion.†