For most of China’s long history, foxes are among five animals with a significant role in human affairs. Fox spirits operate under an apparent dichotomy—many tales show them to be benevolent, while in others they are deceitful and quite evil—but their ability to shapeshift symbolizes their true place in rural Chinese society and its existing Confucian framework. After a brief introduction, I will go into great depth about fox spirits as they appear in folklore during the Imperial era.
Throughout all the folktales regarding fox spirits (usually just referred to as foxes after translation), they virtually possess the same few characteristics. They are magical shapeshifters with the potential for immortality and god status. Fox spirits often seek to subdue male humans under a beautiful female disguise in order to get the male to ejaculate. Basically, the ejaculation allows the fox spirit to absorb the human’s life-force. Once enough life-force, or knowledge from mediation or study, has been collected, the fox can became immortal as a celestial fox. Although the fox spirits usually transform into females, particularly because the nocturnal aspect of the fox is heavily associated with yin, a feminine property, foxes can still transform into male humans, mostly of old age. I assert the transformation of foxes into elderly men or beautiful, fragile women feeds into their behavior of trickery and wile. This is especially the case since women maintain a subordinate position in imperial Chinese society and elderly men, although respected, do not inspire caution or suspicion from onlookers. (This hints at Confucian influence which I will discuss shortly.)
The scholarship on fox spirits categorizes them as both good and evil but favors the interpretation of them as usually more malevolent—evident when Rania Huntington, author of Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative says, “Foxes could be both positive and, more usually, negative omens” (11). However, it is important to emphasis the dichotomy and the reason for such. Foxes are both demon and spirit. There are important reasons for why foxes are given two, somewhat opposite titles. Each title describes how it functions in Chinese culture.
The tale from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, specially “The Alchemist,” although “The Boon-Companion” and “Miss Lianxing” as well, illustrates the virtuous aspect of the fox spirit. The main character of the story, Jia Zilong a scholar, befriends what he knows to be a man with knowledge of the immortals and magic, but what is later found to be a fox. The fox wanted to avoid making acquaintance with Jia based on his one bad quality of avarice, or extreme greed for wealth. This foreshadowing comes to greater fruition when Jia tries to steal the foxes’ black stone that can turn anything into silver or gold. Counter to what typically happens among fox tales, instead of death, immense suffering, or another severity, the termination of their friendship is the only punishment that Jia is dealt. A year later, Jia founds the black stone again to which, after encountering the fox, disobeys his wishes and falls into avarice again. However Jia reveals his plan to give the wealth away to the poor, and thus conquering his previous flaw. They continue to be friends.
In Pu Songling’s collection of tales found in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, there are three tales with an instance to which a fox does harm to the human in the story. In “Friendship with Foxes,” the human falls from the perceived-to-be second story of a tavern after deceived by a fox, and must get those present to pay his way home. The “Marriage Lottery” ends with the main character marrying a hideous women who he thought, from the advice of a fox, was extremely beautiful. And there is a brief appearance of a fox in “The Magnanimous Girl,” wherein a fox is hunted and killed by the god-like heroine of the story. In all the above cases (besides the last), the humans displayed the characteristic of greed, lust, and vain, and therefore behaved negatively towards the disguised fox.
Despite there being both good and bad instances of the fox spirit in Pu Songling’s collection, with the addition of “The Fight with the Foxes” and “The Marriage of the Fox’s Daughter,” fox spirits seem to treat the human characters of Chinese folklore in the same manner to which they treat the fox. One might even say it operates similar to the Golden Rule—an idea also linked to the Confucian ideology of the time; “do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself” (Freedman, 1). Confucianism, half-religion and half-philosophy (also called an ethic or political ideology), was created as a strict outline for the everyday life of Chinese people. Shortly, I will discuss how this framework was also used to provide stability.
Confucianism brings us to another function of the fox, though closely related to treating others with respect and kindness, is more specific in terms. Filial piety outlines important relationships in Chinese society and how the members in each relationship should interact. Typically filial piety is viewed as a son respecting and obeying his father—an ethics for the living—but this patriarchy extends to the dead. Ancestor worship is an important part of filial piety: the dead rely on the living for help in the afterlife, such as with obtaining food, money, and pardon from bad deeds. The fox achieves the function of somewhat enforcing ancestor worship, or at least reminding the listener of its importance. This originated because foxes frequently inhabited caves where ancestors were buried. Foxes are therefore known as spirits due to their proximity to ancestors and the fascination they inspire in people. This is evident in Edward T.C. Werner’s monograph Myths and Legends of China, where he says, “they are supposed to be the transmigrated souls of deceased human beings” (1). This is confirmed by Qitao Guo, in a review on Xiaofei’s previously-mentioned monograph, when Guo says this about the fox, “they intruded into the domestic arena…strengthening ancestral authority [etc.]” (195). Therefore, the worship of foxes due to their close connection to the dead, as either the spirit of ancestors or a medium for them (“coursers upon which ghostly being ride”), fulfills and integrates the Confucian value of ancestor worship with the natural world (Johnson, 38). Fox spirits were the bridge for Confucianism, a largely political ideology, to integrate the ideal of subservience to those superior with the individual households of rural China, who valued ancestor worship, a sense of community, and a respect for the distant and sublime.
Furthermore, the idea of demons used to police people’s behavior, especially in a poor, rural area as imperial North China, is not a new concept. Xiaofei Kang, author of The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China, adds, “As deities of demonic origins, they are worshipped on some occasions and exorcised on others” (3). Fox spirit worship has existed in China for centuries. Although the worship is very personal to each household, the practice is connected to a fox cult—defined as “any kind of human interaction with fox spirits, [including] worship as well as exorcism, devotion as well as fear, disgust, and suspicion” (Kang, 11). For many people, fox spirits symbolize many characteristics that merge into one complex identity. They are quasi-intelligent, yokai-like creatures that live on the verges of civilization while also inhabiting sacred places such as tombs (as I said earlier). Therefore, surrounding the fox cult, is the belief that the teachings of foxes are to be adhered to out of both fear and reverence.
Foxes, both good and bad, serve to reiterate the before-mentioned Confucianism as it is orally passed on from one generation to another, and as an integral part of the identity of the community. In addition, fox spirits, again, were used to influence the behavior of those who heard fox tales. But who was trying to police whose behavior? And in what way exactly were they doing this besides through the Confucian ideology?
Secondary sources on fox tales display the wide range of meaning behind the use of fox spirits. Xiaofei Kang, in “The Fox [hu] and the Barbarian [hu]: Unraveling Representations of the Other in Late Tang Tales,” conveys that fox spirits found in folklore and legends were viewed by the educated class as a backlash against foreign elements to China during the time, and a desire to return to Confucianism and its old Chinese identity. However in The Cult the Fox (already mentioned before), she says, “The complex and often contradictory representations of foxes in early periods have had a long-lasting impact on Chinese history” (14). There are examples of foxes used to both support and undermine political authority (Kang, 15-16). In addition, foxes are possessive, metamorphic, and sexual enchanting, but also a model of humaneness and eternal peace (Kang, 15-16). Foxes were a common part of almost every household—there’s the saying “where there is no fox demon, no village can be established” (Huntington, 14)—yet foxes were said to be an advocate for marginalized groups (Kang, 7-8). Therefore, because foxes can be found supporting or denouncing a wide range of groups, ideas, and characteristics, I conclude that the fox’s role in Chinese culture was virtually ever-changing as much as the foxes were in the various tales themselves.
The fox’s shapeshifting characteristic is symbolic to its role in Chinese lore. Many groups of varying class and status use the fox differently to fulfill obviously different agendas; the main two being as demons or benevolent spirits. Mainly, demons act as proponents for Confucianism or manifestations of foreign elements to inspire Chinese cultural pride; the spirits connect to ancestral worship and how people view the sublime—in that they attached it to a strange, reclusive animal, living on the fringes of their space in time.
“Confucianism and Ancestor Worship.” Southern Illinois University Carbondale, pp. 1-18. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2050&context=ocj
Freedman, Russell. Confucius: The Golden Rule. ed. 1, 1 September 2002, Arthur A. Levine Books. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://www.arthuralevinebooks.com/book.asp?bookid=6
Guo, Qitao. Reviewed Work: The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2007, ed. 67, no. 1, pp. 193-201. Harvard-Yenching Institute. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25066844
Huntington, Rania. Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative (Harvard East Asian Monographs). Harvard University Asia Center: 1 March 2004. Print.
Johnson, T.W. “Far Eastern Fox Lore.” Asian Folklore Studies, 1994, ed. 33, no. 1, pp. 35-68, DOI: 10.2307/1177503. Nanzan University.
Kang, Xiaofei. “The Fox [hu] and the Barbarian [hu]: Unraveling Representations of the Other in Late Tang Tales” (1999). Journal of Chinese Religions, 13 July 2013, pp. 35-67, ed. 21, no. 1, DOI: 10.1179/073776999805306777.
Pu, Sung-ling. Chinese Ghost & Love Stories. Tuttle Publishing, 1946.
Xiaofei, Kang. The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China. Columbia University Press: New York, 1 January 2006. Print.
Werner, Edward T.C. Myths and Legends in China. Dover Publications, revised ed., 16 June 1994. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/mlc/mlc17.htm