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Shapeshifting trickster foxes are part of Chinese and Japanese folklore. Often portrayed as women, their ...
2022-11-21 09:00:00

A Very Bushy Tale
The Huli Jing and Kitsune

“Yokkaichi (Woman Stroking a Stone Fox),” Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1845. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
A Very Bushy Tale
A Very Bushy Tale

In the culture of East Asia, foxes are credited with the ability to assume human form, most often that of a beautiful woman. But what lies behind these beliefs?

Read in 8 minutes

In March 2022, in Tochigi Prefecture to the north of Tokyo, the Sessho-seki stone––or “Killing Stone”––split in two. According to local tradition, the stone would kill anyone who touched it. Japanese netizens trading scare stories on Twitter revived another legend related to this special place, according to which the body of the notorious heroine Tamamo-no-Mae metamorphosed into a rock fragment. This demonic woman, possessed by the spirit of a nine-tailed fox, was the mistress of Emperor Toba, the ruler of 12th-century Japan. Enchanted by his courtesan’s charm and intelligence, the emperor began to lose his life-giving strength. He was saved from death by a Buddhist astrologer who exposed the true “foxiness” of the king’s mistress. According to one version of the story, the fox was said to have appeared previously in India, and also to be the incarnation of the cruel Daji, the wife of the Chinese ruler Zhou, who was enamored with mass executions. Beguiled by her charm and keen to satisfy his wife’s whims, Zhou made a series of bad decisions, which ultimately led to the fall of the kingdom and the Shang dynasty. Now, almost nine hundred years later, the fox’s spirit freed from the split rock is thought to be threatening the Land of the Rising Sun once again.

The fox’s spiritual journey from China to Japan coincides with the map of the spread of the Buddha’s teachings. Between the Middle Kingdom and the Japanese islands lies the Korean Peninsula, home of the multi-tailed fox, kumiho. However, the story of the fox is not limited to Buddhism; beliefs related to this tale can be found in Chinese philosophy, especially the concepts of yin and yang, as well as the Japanese religion of Shintō. As early as the fourth century BCE, the fox forewarns the tiger in a Chinese fairy tale: “The Sovereign of Heaven has privileged me among all animals by giving me greater cunning than to others. Should you devour me, you would certainly displease him very much.” The nine-tailed fox (huli jing) is presented for the first time in the bestiary and geographical description of Han China entitled Shan Hai Jing (“The Book of Mountains and Seas”), compiled between the fourth and first centuries BCE. In the oldest texts, the appearance of the multi-tailed predator is sometimes treated as a good omen­­––usually a prediction of a happy marriage for the emperor, or a fertile harvest. The belief that foxes can take human form was established very early in China. The animals perfect this skill with age, growing subsequent tails to prove it. The thousand-year-old fox becomes a spiritual being, loses interest in earthly matters, and resides mainly in the heavens.

Seven Years Beneath the Floorboards

Foxes accompany the Chinese in their everyday life. Away from the official doctrines and imperial palaces, a rich fox folklore (“fox-lore,” as English-speaking researchers call it) developed. Folk tales influence literature. Professional storytellers summarize texts for those who cannot read, and folk parables acquire literary forms. The most common motif, found in a number of variants, is the story of a wanderer who meets a comely woman in the middle of nowhere. After spending the night in her beautiful home, he awakens alone in the wilderness to the sight of the distant, fleeing fox. Meanwhile, in a Japanese medieval story taken from the illustrated scroll of Otogizōshi, a Buddhist monk, boasting that he no longer feels carnal desires thanks to his spiritual practice, meets a charming stranger, falls in love with her, and lives in her magnificent home for seven years. When the spell is broken through an exorcism, it turns out that the woman was a kitsune (a Japanese fox or fox spirit), and the monk had actually spent seven days beneath the floorboards of the monastery. The fox uses an illusion to reveal the gap between the protagonist’s declared abstinence and his suppressed desire. The monk’s story also contains the important theme of the link between the fox and femininity. This relationship is rooted in the concept of yin and yang. Foxes are traditionally attributed with the feminine yin, so search for their complement in yang. They take the female form to obtain male energy through sexual intercourse.

Morals imbued with ascetic ideas are also found in folk tales about villagers being offered a rice cake by a kitsune disguised as an old man. When the spell fades, the treats turn out to be horse dung, and the glutton is exposed to public humiliation.

Giggling Mistaken for Flirtation

Female foxes do not always wish mankind ill. In the Chinese moral short stories from the 17th-century collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, wives with hidden tails are rehabilitated. Their impeccable behavior sets an example for ordinary women. These stories, full of fantastical characters, constitute a commentary on the life of the clerical class during the Ming dynasty.

One of the stories from this collection, “Ying-ning, the Laughing Girl,” depicts the domestication of a half-vixen. During the Lantern Festival, young scholar Wang Zifu falls in love with the beautiful––and constantly giggling––Yingning. Seeing the young man’s interest, the girl walks away and drops a plum blossom. The student follows his chosen one and finds her in a mountain village. After confessing his love, he brings her home as his wife. Her constant laughter delights many, but drives Wang’s mother to despair.

Yingning loves flowers. One day, as she is exploring a flowerbed full of roses, a neighbor falls in love with her. He interprets her constant giggling as flirtation, thinking she is inviting him to a tryst. In the evening, just as the suitor believes he is close to fulfilling his fantasy, he suddenly feels a sharp pain. It turns out that instead of the girl, he is embracing a tree trunk with a scorpion lurking in its hollow. The poor wretch dies. Yingning is reprimanded by her mother-in-law and vows to stop laughing. She reveals to her husband that she is the daughter of a vixen, and from then on transforms into an exemplary wife. The story of the fox-wife who has to adapt to her husband’s home reflects the experiences of many women in a culture governed by the principle of patrilocality (a custom that requires a newly married couple to live with the husband’s family). When a bride moves into her in-laws’ household, she must hide her true identity.

The otherness of the fox-wife also calls into question the humanity of a woman (or any new person in a group) who is closer to nature. To enter the family, she must temper her wildness. However, foxes cannot be completely domesticated. Sometimes, their otherness allows us to better see the heartlessness of the human world. In another story by Pu Songling, fox fairy Hong Yu seduces a young scholar, but instead of leaving him after the first night––satiated on his yang––she keeps returning to his chamber. When the affair is discovered by the man’s father, who opposes the relationship, the vixen must leave. Before she goes, she finds a replacement wife for her lover, but the woman is kidnapped by a local dignitary and commits suicide in despair; the scholar is wrongly accused of the subsequent murder of the kidnapper. As punishment, his infant son is to be thrown from a rock. Just in time, Hong Yu returns to save the child and her ex-lover from oppression. The fox is transformed from pest to savior.

Total Possession

Stories about kitsune-nyōbō, or fox-wives, were still being transcribed by Japanese ethnographers in the 20th century. Kunio Yanagita, the father of Japanese folklore research, cited a story in which a villager’s wife accidentally revealed herself to her children as a fox and had to leave the family. During the rice harvesting season, she returned as a fox, walked around the family fields, and cast a spell on them. As a result, the rice ears appeared empty so that no tax was levied on them, but during the threshing, they turned out to be full of grain. This greatly improved the family’s fate.

There is a reason that rice features in the ethnographic reports. In Japan, the fox is associated with the cult of Inari, appearing as a messenger or helper. This Shintō deity (kami) symbolizes fertility and looks after the rice fields. Fox statues can be found in front of temples dedicated to Inari. Good foxes (zenko) help Inari, and the two are sometimes equated. Kunio Yanagita formulated a theory of degradation according to which kami were desacralized to yōkai. The latter term pertains to a bestiary which is very popular in Japan to this day, and to which the kitsune also belongs.

The word yōkai, while present in the oldest historical texts, gained importance only in the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Japan opened up to the world after years of isolation and underwent significant modernization at the cost of the decline of traditional beliefs and customs. This great store of knowledge about the ghosts and goblins of Japanese folklore was preserved mainly thanks to Professor Inoue Enryō, a philosopher, Buddhist priest, and reformer. Propelled by the spirit of the Meiji era, Inoue was motivated by the idea of rationally explaining supernatural phenomena. The Society of Mystery Researchers which he founded became the nucleus of yōkaigaku, or “Mystery Studies,” which even aimed to divide yōkai into false and true forms. Paradoxically, the new discipline contributed to the survival of knowledge about the inhabitants of the rifts of reality and, as a result, to the current popularity of Japanese creatures, such as the faceless man noppera-bō, the water demon kappa, and the shape-shifting raccoon dog tanuki. So somehow, kitsunes––which are abundant in popular culture, from Pokémon to the Naruto anime series––have also slipped through, among the other creatures, to the present day.

Foxes are still a useful figure enabling commentary on the nature of Japanese society. Artist Tomiyama Taeko (1921–2021) took on Japan’s imperial heritage, giving voice to discriminated groups. The set of beliefs that have developed around the kitsune help to make clear that which is blurred in the social consciousness. The artist refers in particular to the above-mentioned theme of being possessed by a fox (kitsune-tsuki).

While it is known from historical texts, this topos has also been found more recently. Possession by a fox’s spirit mainly affected women from the lower social classes. The haunted person would bark like a dog, or devour adzuki beans (which, alongside thin slices of fried tofu, are known to be a delicacy for the fox). During the Meiji period, such behavior was described by the term “allopecanthropy,” a concept first used by the German physician Erwin von Bälz. The motif of possession, which was used to account for non-conformity, also helped to explain new phenomena in a transforming country. In the Japanese provinces, evidence was recorded of trains being controlled by kitsunes. Meanwhile, the foxes in Tomiyama Taeko’s paintings refer to another illusion in which Japanese society became engrossed. On her canvases, rich in military and imperial symbolism, the animals suggest the yielding of Japanese society to imperial ideas. Moreover, as recounted in the story of the possession of the Japanese monk, the victim of illusion often agrees to surrender to false images, which makes Tomiyama’s criticism of her countrymen––who see themselves as the victims of history––even more severe.

Evidently, foxes have the power to unmask reality. The question remains: what new illusion will the released kitsunes create?

Illustration by Cyryl Lechowicz
Illustration by Cyryl Lechowicz

Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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