Lunar New Year: Down a Rabbit (Hare?) Hole

Lunar New Year: Down a Rabbit (Hare?) Hole

Japan and Korea are among the many cultures in Asia which traditionally celebrate the lunar new year, with New Year’s Day falling this year on 22 January. Each new year is associated with an animal in a 12-year cycle which is found across the eastern Silk Roads and 2023 is the year of the hare or rabbit.

This recalls a design which is found across the Silk Roads in Buddhist, Christian and Islamic contexts, the so-called ‘Three Hares’. I first came across this when researching the rock-cut Buddhist temples at Dunhuang in eastern central Asia. Several of the caves, as shown to the right, show this design on the apex of the ceiling: three hares chasing each other in a circle, each sharing an ear.

The apex of the ceiling in Cave 407 at Dunhuang, dating to the late 6th/early 7th century. Courtesy The Dunhuang Academy.

At the heart of the Buddhist iconography, its position in the temple suggests it had some religious significance. Yet, when I delved further, I discovered myself in a rabbit hole, especially when I discovered the occurrence of the same motif in Islamic, Jewish and Christian contexts, many of the last in churches in England, as shown below.  

Holy Trinity Church, Long Melville, Suffolk in East Anglia, UK, with stained glass showing the design of the Three Hares (or perhaps rabbits in this case). Thanks to the Three Hares Project. ©Chris Chapman.

Fortunately, the way had already been navigated by a group in Britain, The Three Hares Project. The project was formed in 2000 by Tom Greeves, archaeologist and historian, Chris Chapman, documentary photographer, and Sue Andrew, art history researcher. They aimed to document all known occurrences of this motif and to explore its spread across Eurasia. They found a cluster of the motif used as the roof bosses of churches in Devon, including that in South Tawton, shown below and discuss them in their 2018 book, The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Exploring, sadly now out of print.

The motif is also seen on a terracotta plaquefrom in Barikot in the Swat Valley. This dates from the 7th to 9th century and is another piece in the puzzle: as Anna Filigenzi explains, its cultic context is uncertain. But up to now, no examples have been found further east than Dunhuang and its significance and spread remain unclear. Given the position of Dunhuang on the Silk Roads and the spread of Buddhism—and its iconography—eastwards to China, Korea and Japan, as seen in the pensive bodhisattvas exhibited here, it would not be surprising if it was used in east Asia. But they are more usually seen in association with the moon: believed to come from an interpretation of the markings on the dark side of the moon as a rabbit.

In Korean and Japanese folklore, the rabbit lives on the moon. During the mid-autumn festival, it can be seen pounding rice to make cakes for the festival.

The hare also has a role in pre-Christian beliefs in Britain, also associated with the moon and with the goddess Ostara. But this is another rabbit hole…

So meanwhile, happy new year from all of us at Nara to Norwich.


새해 복 많이 받으세요 

Susan Whitfield

Further Reading

Filigenzi, Anna. 2003. ‘The Three Hares from Bir-Kot-Ghwandai: Another Stage in the Journey of a Widespread Motif.’ In Studi in onore di Umberto Scerrato in occasione del suo settantacinqesimo compleano, edited by M. V. Fontana and B. Gentino, 327–46/ Universita’ Studi Napoli.

Greeves, Tom, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman. 2017. The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding. South Moulton: Skerryvore Productions.

Schingloff, Dieter. 1971. ‘Das Sasa-Jataka.’ Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd-und Ostasiens 15: 57–67.