The Year of the Rabbit: A Global Celebration Through Postal Art

Those of you born in 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999 know who you are—children of the “Year of the Rabbit.” Those of us with parents less gifted in family planning make do with celebrating the event every twelve years as the fourth of the twelve-year cycle of the Chinese New Year. This cycle’s “Year of the Rabbit 2011” began on February 3, 2011 and will end on January 22, 2012. One of the lovely ways it was celebrated around the world was through postal art.

As a collection, Year of the Rabbit stamps provide a great lesson in geography and artistic styles. They seem less about actual rabbits, except that many draw on the rabbit’s physical beauty. Most of the stamps are part of a cycle of twelve stamps, each of which celebrates the Chinese Lunar New Year Holiday with an animal from the Chinese zodiac. They are primarily intended to honor Chinese culture, often within countries where Chinese people are not the majority or where the majority uses the Chinese Lunar calendar. One may see a collection of over thirty-five color stamps from twenty countries for the 2011 Year of the Rabbit at the rabbit-rescue site This collection is an on-going project; and of this writing, one would need to go directly to the postal websites of Estonia, Slovenia, New Caldonia, Guyana (issued 2010), Serbia and the Marshall Island to see rabbit stamps from those countries. A good way to do that is to go to the website, which provides a comprehensive directory of post offices around the world, including links to their philatelic websites if they have them. One may also find an equally beautiful collection from the “Year of the Rabbit 1999,” at an Australian rabbit-defense website.

This year’s design from Canada by Paul Haslip was inspired by an embroidered medallion on a Chinese robe showing two dragons chasing each other in a circle. In one version of Haslip’s design, the chase is never fully completed, because each stamp shows the hind legs of a rabbit being chased by the rabbit on the stamp, but shows the full body of that rabbit only on the next stamp, and so on. In the other version, the chase is telescoped into a tight circle. The theme, “the endless circle,” is ancient; and the earliest example of rabbits chasing each other in a circle comes from 6th century Buddhist caves in China. There, and in countless succeeding representations (although not here), three rabbits chase each other in a circle around a triangle of three ears, an optical illusion in that all three rabbits seem to have a complete pair of ears.

The Australian design by Dani Poon was created from a stylized version of the Chinese character for the rabbit. One is filled in with pieces of cut paper, a popular form of Chinese art. The stamp was issued from the Australian territory of Christmas Island, southwest of the Indonesian archipelago, where the majority of residents are of Chinese descent. Ms. Poon states that she wanted to represent the familiar myth of the Jade Rabbit. This is a version of the same story familiar to readers of the House Rabbit Journal, the rabbit in the moon: one to three gods disguised as beggars ask three animals for food; only the rabbit has nothing to give, and so it offers to sacrifice itself (or it actually throws itself on the fire); the gods reward the rabbit by putting it or its image on the moon with the moon goddess.

The “jade” of the Jade Rabbit’s name refers to the coloring of the rabbit image on the moon and the reputation of jade as a cure for ailments—the Jade rabbit on the moon is mixing the elixir of life with mortar and pestle. Jade is also the reputed link be tween the spiritual and physical worlds. Many of the rabbit images from stamps of countries other than Australia play on the story of the rabbit in the moon. The stamps from Singapore show a golden rabbit rotund enough to be a full moon with fat ears that look like half moons. The rabbits in the stamps from Taiwan seem sprinkled with moon dust, and the rabbit from Thailand looks like a constellation.

Not surprisingly, many of the Year of the Rabbit 2011 stamps have a juvenile look, for example, those from China, Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia, which specifically makes the rabbit stamp part of series of childhood pets. Very attractive, more naturalistic or painterly stamps were issued by the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau (the stamps appear only on unofficial websites), by Hong Kong and France.

Our Year of the Rabbit stamp was a lackluster affair from a rabbit-appreciator’s point of view. The United States Post Office recycled its rabbit image from 1999. In that year, the stamp was lovely. It was a lacey-looking, paper-cut design of a rabbit created by Hawaiian artist Clarence Lee using a type of computer printer that delivers a fine stream of ink. The delicate rabbit image filled the frame. This year, that same image was demoted to the upper left-hand corner of the stamp, and the frame was filled with orange kumquats.

As attractive as many of the official government stamps are from so many countries, the world clearly needs a stamp celebrating rabbit rescue and adoption. The U.S. post office in the recent past has issued stamps advertising pet adoption at shelters and spaying and neutering of cats and dogs. It seems time for the post office to forget about kumquats and issue a rabbit rescue stamp, certainly before 2023, the next Year of the Rabbit.

By Julie Smith, PhD

House Rabbit Journal Volume 5, No. 8