The Year of the Rabbit is especially meaningful to Korean people. For example, the rabbit symbolizes the destiny of Korea located among historically aggressive countries. We believe the Korean Peninsula resembles the shape of a rabbit and Koreans are docile and suave like a rabbit, precariously surviving among ferocious predators.
Historically, Koreans have not been able to lead a serene, reclusive life due to Northeast Asia’s turbulent regional politics. Thus we conjured up a story of a smart rabbit who wisely survives by pitting two of the mightiest animals of the land and sea, the elephant and the whale, against each other. In the story, the rabbit, challenged by the two mighty, arrogant animals, proposes a competition to see who is stronger. Then the rabbit secretly ties the elephant and the whale together with a rope and beats a drum to push the two to compete to see who is strongest. Wrongfully assuming that they are tied to the rabbit, the elephant and the whale pull the rope in the opposite directions so hard that the rope is broken and they fall top over tail.
A cunning rabbit appears in another traditional Korean folktale. The Dragon King in the South Sea becomes sick in bed, and he is told only a rabbit’s liver will cure his illness. The Dragon King orders a turtle to bring him the cure. The turtle swims to land and succeeds in luring a rabbit to the Dragon Palace, promising him a box of rare treasures. Standing before the Dragon King, the rabbit realizes he has been enticed into a death trap. However, the cunning rabbit persuades the Dragon King that he has left his liver behind and is willing to bring it back for him. When the nave turtle takes him back to the seashore, the cunning rabbit runs away for his life.
Indeed, we Koreans are so fond of rabbits that we depict them favorably in our folksongs and folktales. Even when we look at the moon, we visualize a rabbit standing beside a Cassia tree, pounding rice into flour to make heavenly rice cakes. When we sing, we also like to sing about rabbits. One of our favorite children’s songs goes: “On the Milky Way in the blue sky/ glides a white crescent boat/ with a Cassia tree and a rabbit in it.” Another song goes, “Hare, hare, where’re you headed for?/ Hopping, hopping, where are you hopping to?” In Korean culture, indeed, the rabbit or hare symbolizes persons who are amiable, gentle, and mild.
Likewise, we believe that a person born in the Year of the Rabbit possesses the virtue of graciousness and kindness. Rabbit people, who are generally gentle and witty, rarely use foul language or vulgar words to make a point. The Chinese zodiac indicates that those who are born in the Year of the Rabbit make few enemies and seldom get into trouble. They have the good sense to avoid harm’s way and also are exceptionally astute in business and monetary transactions. That is why rabbit people make good politicians, diplomats, or businessmen. Queen Victoria, David Rockefeller, and Bob Hope are good examples of people born in the year of the rabbit.
But not all people fit the above descriptions. For example, controversial politicians such as Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and Johannes Vorster were also born in the Year of the Rabbit, but their images hardly match the rabbit.
Instead, they strongly evoke the image of the ferocious Tiger. Likewise, the image of Bugs Bunny is radically different from the image of a rabbit in Korea. Bugs Bunny is delineated as a witty, but mean and mischievous character that constantly tortures nave people like Elmer and gets his carrots at the end of each episode. But Koreans’ image of the rabbit is far from that of Bugs Bunny.
The Chinese zodiac also points out that Rabbit people are sentimental and compassionate. Moreover, they cry easily and profusely. These traits perfectly fit Koreans’ characteristics. Rabbit people, though agile, can also be timid and weak. And they can be passive and negative as well, rather than positive and aggressive.
Last year was the Year of the Tiger. Like the ferocious tiger, we experienced a host of clashes, both internally and externally. Inside the nation, our lawmakers once again shamefully fought with fists in the National Assembly, and our country was sharply divided into progressive and conservative camps. Outside of Korea, North Korea appalled the world with her insolent artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong Island, causing an unprecedented crisis on the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War.
In the Year of the Rabbit, we should stop acting like vicious tigers and restore our long-lost decorum and civility instead. This year, we should put an end to all the battles and hatred of the previous year. In the Year of the Rabbit, we want peace, prosperity and decency. We need to show the world that we are Rabbit people, not Tiger people.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Jong-han is a Hong Kong-based partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, an international law firm. He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and its law school. ― Ed.