‘Here Comes a Rabbit’ exhibit opens at folk museum to celebrate 2023
It’s the Year of the Rabbit.
Originally, it was hares with gray and brown fur that inhabited Korea. The cute white rabbit people often see today were a rare species back in the day. They were an alien breed with albinism that only began to be imported to Korea in the early 20th century.
The occasional white rabbit must have been very strange in the eyes of older Koreans. Perhaps that is why a Joseon scholar Hong Man-seon (1645-1715) wrote in “Salrimgyeongje,” that “a rabbit lives for about a thousand years and it is said that its fur turns white at 500 years.”
Koreans began to associate white rabbits with longevity during this time. That is why many rabbits that appear in Hwajoyeongmodo (Paintings of flowers and birds), a representative painting style of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), are white.
The National Folk Museum of Korea in central Seoul has been holding an exhibit annually that centers on each zodiac animal. For this year, the exhibition “Here Comes a Rabbit” kicked off at the museum’s Seoul branch on Dec. 14 and will run through to March 6.
“In Korean folktales and proverbs, white rabbits are often depicted as clever and cunning creatures and are also symbolic of the moon,” said Kim Jong-dae, director of the museum. “This has to do with their biological characteristics — twitching ears, which sensitively respond to even the smallest sound, represent timidness and vulnerability, while their short forelegs and long hind legs, which enable they to quickly hop on the mountains, represent agility. This special exhibition interprets the rabbit’s folkloric symbolism in connection to its biological characteristics in an attempt to show how people back in the day understood the animal that has long been a part of Korean life, and how their understanding affects our lives today.”
The exhibit explores the rabbit as a folklore symbol of wisdom, agility, the moon, and conjugal affection in light of its biology including anatomy and behavior.
Different paintings from Joseon Dynasty that depict rabbit in various ways are displayed in the first section of the exhibit.
“Visitors can enjoy and compare how rabbits are depicted in the paintings,” said Oh Ah-ran, curator of the exhibit. For example, in “Flowers, Birds and Animals — Rabbits and Peony,” a pair of white rabbits are depicted underneath large peonies. This painting symbolizes conjugal love and harmony. In this painting, visitors can clearly see the red round eyes of the rabbits. Though we know today that the red eyes of white rabbits are due to albinism, it was a mysterious feature for the people of Joseon.
“Their big, round eyes symbolize the vigilance of herbivores and Koreans often use the expression — ‘the eyes of a startled rabbit’ to describe someone on high alert,” said Oh.
That startled appearance can be seen in “Paintings on Spiritual Animals – Rabbit and Apricot Tree,” while the rabbit’s short forelegs and long hind legs are well portrayed in“Flowers, Birds, and Animals – Rabbits and Peony.”
Various literary works of Joseon that feature rabbits are also on display.
The most famous work involving a rabbit is one of five surviving pansori (traditional Korean narrative singing) pieces called “Sugungga.” The piece sings about how a rabbit’s liver is an elixir to cure the Dragon King’s illness, a famous folklore story in Korea.
Rabbits for Koreans were not only a subject for art or literary works. Since the 20th century when rabbit breeding became popular, consumption of rabbit meat has even been recommended by the government. A promotional pamphlet that was distributed to Koreans sometime after the country’s liberation in 1945 includes a recipe of how to cook rabbit meat and reads that it is “low in fat, rich in protein and cheaper than beef.”
Rabbit fur was also used widely, especially among the royals, for winter clothing. Fur hats and vests for the royal women of Joseon were created using rabbit. Such winter clothing of Joseon is also on display at the exhibit.
There’s also a special corner called “Moon Rabbit” in the exhibit that retells the story of the mill-pounding rabbit that lives on the moon.
This popular legend is famous in other Asian countries as well, such as Japan. Koreans have long believed that a rabbit lives on the moon and consider the animal as spirits of the moon or the moon itself. The story of the rabbit that ended up living on the moon has its origin in the “Tale of Jeseokcheon” and the “Tale of Hanga.” The exhibit displays various items engraved or painted with a mill-pounding rabbit.
“What do modern day people make of the rabbit’s symbolism, which lies somewhere in between agility and frivolity, and wisdom and trickery?” asks Oh, to introduce the next section that centers on the unique physical features of rabbits used as motifs in children’s stories and product design.
“Today, rabbits are considered one of the cutest and most admirable animals,” said Oh. “A recent survey shows that both children and adults deem rabbits friendly and likeable, which might be why they are such a popular motif for various children’s products and daily appliances.”
The National Palace Museum of Korea is also showcasing a valuable item, “Silver Ewer with Incised Rabbit and Crow Designs” to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit. A ewer is similar to a jug.
It is being displayed in the Korean Empire Gallery located on the first floor of the museum.
According to the museum, silver ewers were used to serve liquor or water during ancestral rites and at banquets in the royal court. Visitors can take a close look at the sophisticated design of the rabbit on this silver ewer. The design of a three-legged crow and a rabbit pounding something with a mortar and pestle is engraved on the ewer’s body, both in the front and back.
“The National Palace Museum has a number of interesting items related to rabbits,” said Cho Ji-hyun, an official from the museum. “Visitors can have fun looking for all the rabbits currently on display.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]