September 28, 2010

Magic Herbs Under a China Moon

If I have my calendar right, yesterday was the last night of the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. I could not let it pass on by without making another small painting in celebration of this time of year. In this painting from my series of small book illustrations, the cat is being ridden by a white rabbit who holds a mortar and pestle. He is known as the Jade Rabbit. In bygone times, the Jade Rabbit was also celebrated at Mid-Autumn Festival for his association with the moon. According to Chinese mythology, the Moon Goddess Guan Yin, maintains her immortality by drinking herbs made by a magic rabbit. Mixing the elixir of longevity also ensured the rabbit’s celestial status which was accorded to him in return for his sacrificing himself in a fire one fine day when the immortals, disguised as beggars, requested food and the rabbit found himself empty handed.

When I lived in China, and for the few years after that when I returned as a guide and translator, the image of the rabbit mixing the elixir of immortality could still be found in shops, museums and temples. I often thought of this figure as an archetype of Chinese civilization’s roots in agrarian pragmatism despite having a pantheon of celestial beings. What other culture would hang the dependence of celestial immortality on taking supplements every day served up by a rabbit? It would of course seem no surprise for a culture that spent thousands of years of developing potable medicines.

Of all the images of the jade rabbit I saw in China, perhaps the one that made the greatest impression on me was a very tiny one housed in the Forbidden City Museum. He was carved out of luminous white jade like the glowing moon itself with eyes that were inlaid with tiny rubies. But what made him memorable to me was not his own shining precious eyes but the pair of eyes that looked upon him and fell in love with the idea of his gift of untiring service to the goddess. But this requires another tale.

Travel to a foreign country has a knack of bringing out the best and the worst in people. In my experience leading several groups to China and back and in living abroad for a number of years I have come to the conclusion that this is because leaving behind the cultural constraints of one’s home country frees people to make new rules for themselves and for the people they interact with. In this sense the foreign land can also be said to bring out the truth in the people who travel to it. For those who carried within them a moral compass, the trip abroad caused no challenges to their judgement. They adapted well, exploring new territory with open minds and natural curiosity. But for others, whose behavior was ostensibly regulated only by the external rules of their own culture, a residency abroad unleashed havoc. Those in the latter group included an American businessman I saw happily stealing the hats off of people passing by him on an escalator in an apartment store. It included enclaves of ex-patriots who, not being obliged by law to be fair to people of different cultures and other ethnic groups, established their own feifdoms of apartheid communities. The most egregious lapses in judgement and ethics that I witnessed I will omit for now, but suffice to say that the people who committed them made the rest of us embarrassed.

My jade rabbit tale is about such an embarrassed woman. On one of my return trips to China, there was a middle-aged couple and their teen-aged daughter in my entourage. Upon their arrival in China the father and the daughter both left any pretense to civility back home in New York. I don’t remember everything the father did but I do remember the daughter’s behavior with particular clarity because it was so outrageous. I recall, for instance, the day she came down to dinner carrying a bottle of wine that she swilled down in its entirety without asking anyone else if they wanted any. She then boorishly belittled the meal set before us by our Chinese hosts. The mother, I’ll call her Mrs. M., was chagrined by her family’s behavior but could seem to do nothing to curtail it. She grew increasingly sullen during the trip as a series of incidents of father and daughter behaving badly stung her own sense of dignity.

One day, the cloud of maternal hurt dissipated for Mrs. M upon a chance encounter with the Jade Rabbit. While we were touring the Forbidden City Museum her eyes fixed upon a tiny white rabbit with inlaid ruby eyes. She asked me what it was and what it was doing with this curious looking stick and a cup. I told her the story of the Jade Rabbit and his tireless eternal mixing of the elixir of immortality for the goddess of the moon. Mrs. M’s face brightened into a smile and she said,
“I want that rabbit.”
Throughout the rest of the trip Mrs. M forgot began to think less about her husband and her daughter’s noxious behavior. And every time she mentioned the little Jade Rabbit she smiled. I am not sure why just the thought of it caused a lightness of heart in her. Perhaps she could vividly imagine being a goddess herself with something or someone working vigorously on her behalf. Maybe the idea of sacrifice and service to a dignified celestial maternal being amused her. Or perhaps the notion that goddesses are works in progress - sustained by daily infusions of magic sustenance gave her hope for herself and her family. I like to think that upon her return to New York she attained something akin to a little magic Jade Rabbit, tirelessly working on the elixir of life.

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