MADE IN CHINA OUTFOXED
Foxy spirits have weaved their way in and out of Chinese legends since time immemorial. Come chase a fox's tail along a winding road that showcases their presence in Chinese myths, films, and fables.
The year before the beats of the Chopsticks Brothers’ “Little Apple” began pulsating through every park and public square in China, middle-aged ladies across the nation were square-dancing to a lilting ballad of starcrossed love between a fox spirit and a human scholar. It’s a little difficult to imagine that “White Fox”— the theme song to a 2013 film critically panned for schmaltzy sexual content, referencing a mythical figure synonymous with “homewrecker” in modern Chinese language—could become a beloved vehicle of healthy exercise and folk dance. But then again, stories about the fox in China have always changed in the telling.
By the time of its release, “White Fox” was in good company concerning its reinterpretation of the fox. The version preferred by square dancers is actually a cover of the ending theme to a 2007 TV series, Liaozhai 2, which told tales of romance, revenge, and moral redemption in the interactions of mortals and spirits in the style of Pu Songling’s18th century anthology Liaozhai Zhiyi《聊斋志异》( , Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio). On the big screen, the two-part blockbuster Painted Skin franchise (with a third part due to be released this year) transformed Strange Tales’ famous horror story of the same name into a love triangle between a female fox spirit and a human couple, amply acted by dueling co-stars Vicky Zhao and Zhou Xun, ending with the fox redeemed (twice!) by compassion for a human but doomed as a result to disappearance or centuries of loneliness.
As expressed by the film review section of Sohu Entertainment, “the elements” of the first Painted Skin film—that is to say, the supernatural premise, period setting, and sexual tension between the male lead and both female co-stars—are the film’s marketing tools and “rather like a painted skin itself ”: the real “heart” of the film is about essential humanistic
Evolution of Chinese fox legends f rom religiou s icons to sexual warnings to modern epics
values, the necessary bridge between mere commercial cinema and modern classic in today’s media culture.
This wasn’t the first time that symbolism of the fox changed in the telling. Part of a millennia-old cult of worship in northern China, the early shamanistic traditions relating to the fox spirit (狐仙, h%xi`n) portray them as a neutral, powerful, and above all mystical manifestations of an essential force of nature. The fox could be an auspicious omen, such as the nine-tailed white fox seen by the legendary god-king, Yu the Great, that foretold the rise of his family and his momentous political achievements. In their interactions with humans, they have been shown to cure illness, save lives, share their centuries-old wisdom, and repay debts of kindness.
Foxes could also bewitch people, trick them, possess them, make them ill, seduce them, and steal their life force in their quest for immortality. Immortality, or becoming a “celestial fox”, is the ultimate goal that all fox spirits pursue through self-cultivation (or theft) over a period of 1,000 years. Like the association of foxes with the trickster archetype in Western mythology, fox spirits are neither good nor evil. Rather, as religious historian Xiaofei Kang detailed in her research on fox worship in Chinese history, fox magic is the ultimate representation of yin force in the universe; in the course of its cultivation, it is inexorably drawn to and seeks to unite with its opposite, the yang force, which it looks for among the society of humans.
Kang characterizes the fox as a figure that is “betwixt and between”. Not exactly deities to be worshipped, they were nonetheless treated with a properly fearful sense of awe. As beings on the peripheries of the mortal realm, taking on human characteristics yet transcending their mortality and morals, fox spirits also lent themselves to idealized representations of the boundaries of social behavior in any given era. Accomplished scholars and beautiful, refined women were two common forms taken by the fox in legends from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)—as were “foreigners” (胡, h%) from Central and Northeastern Asia who successfully made their home in Tang society, underlining their status as the simultaneously attractive and peripheral. The representations of the fox as alluring but dangerous sexual liaisons for humans, men especially, were likewise avenues by which societies sorted their feelings toward the illicit and unorthodox in human relations.
Stories of humans who had sexual relations with fox spirits were grounded in early shamanistic philosophies; according to these, the sexual union of yin and yang was considered to be the essential ingredient of the elixir of life. However, the rise of conservative doctrines, and especially neo-confucianism since the 12th century, condemned these traditions as heterodox and malevolent attempts of the forces of yin (now considered to be indecent and inferior) to subjugate and corrupt the yang. The figure of the fox began to transform from a neutral, amoral representation of the duality of the natural order to an active threat to the Confucian moral order.
According to Kang, modern storytelling about the fox is descended from a revolution in fox mythology that began in the 18th century. “The fox’s appearance in modern media owes itself to the work of Pu Songling,” she tells TWOC. “It’s where the romantic, narrative aspects of humans’ relations with the fox became emphasized, and the religious aspect was removed.” Regarding Strange Tales, she has written of it as a pioneering literary work in its genre, zhiguai (志怪, accounts of anomalous events), for incorporating elements of the Tang Dynasty’s chuanqi (传奇, narrative) tradition—“well-rounded characters and full development of narrative plots”.
Also harkening to the Tang narrative tradition in which the fox appeared as the idealized, exterior self of fallible mortals, there is a huge variety in the manner of mortals’ interaction with spirits in Strange Tales: their honorable or foolish behavior toward spirits lead them accordingly to a good or bad end, though sometimes they are gifted a good end despite acting foolishly due to the nobler character of the spirit. Somewhat unfairly, this aspect of Pu’s work has been overlooked by many modern cultural analyses of Strange Tales, which stereotype the
stories as records of humans being led astray by malevolent—and almost exclusively feminine—deviant powers. By extension, the book itself becomes seen, in Kang’s words, as symbolic of the “perpetual struggle for human control of unbridled desires”.
Ironically, these misconceptions are influenced both by the critical tradition against “feudalistic” values in modern Chinese scholarship, which in extreme cases generalize all ancient traditions as rigidly Confucian, and by the first English translator of Strange Tales, British sinologist Herbert Giles. Working under Victorian social mores (which had much in common with neo-confucianism), Giles’s translation not only excised many passages in which the narrator of Strange Tales critiques the behavior of the human protagonists, but also infamously replaced all references to sex in the original stories with euphemisms like “drinking” and “chatting”. It conveyed a much more prudish sentiment to the stories than there was.
In their original telling, Pu Songling’s fox representations included malevolent seducers in “Painted Skin” (though the narrator still blamed the man for cheating). There are also tales where spirits treat humans with hospitality and respect (“The Fox’s Wedding”), give help to humans whom they love (“Miss Lianxiang”), repay humans for a life debt (“The Laughing Girl” and “Xiao Cui”), and enchant them only because it was in their nature to do so (“Hong Yu”). In cases where the nobler nature of foxes compels them to aid humans, the fox usually disappears from the humans’ lives thereafter. The humans are left to enjoy prosperity and love in their own society, but the fox, eternally peripheral in the metaphoric if no longer religious sense, journeys alone into whatever less worldly and petty existence there awaits.
Likewise, as numerous reviews of the Painted Skin film franchise have pointed out, loneliness, rather than love, is the primary theme of the fox’s narrative arc. Borrowing themes from “Miss Lianxiang” and “Xiao Cui”, the fox spirit in the first film falls in love with the human general who “rescues” her from steppe nomads (actually her victims), but her “redemption” through love leads her to resurrect the general and his human wife at the end of the film with the magic she had been cultivating for 1,000 years, which robs her of the ability to transform into a human. The final shot of the film, in which a white fox looks on from the steppes as the vista of a bustling Han-era (206 BCE – 220) city fades out, leaves no doubt the fox’s lingering association with the marginal and outcast. In the second film, she merges with the implied reincarnation of the human wife of the first film and achieves happiness, according to the film’s narrator, from “living a full life as a human” rather than in lonely pursuit of immortality.
Meanwhile, the song “White Fox”, based on the story “Xiao Cui”, tells the story of a fox that was released from a trap by a poor scholar who later—and due to the blessing of the fox, it’s implied—achieves the top score in the imperial examinations and raises a prosperous family. The fox, however, watches these achievements from afar and meditates alone for 1,000 years until she can become human and be with the scholar in another life.
These adaptations reuse metaphors and plot points from ancient literary and religious sources, but are decidedly modern adaptations in an important way: the power relation is inverted between humans and spirits and, by extension, the mystery and uncertainty they symbolize of the natural world. Whereas shamanism saw both human and fox essence as manifestations of the cosmos, whereas the neo-confucians feared for the morals of men seduced by deviant magic, and whereas Pu Songling explored the emotional ramifications of humans’encounters with the spirit world—in modern adaptations it is the fox who grows and changes by assimilating to the humans, who are now the idealized embodiments of morality, compassion, and love. The centuriesold religious and narrative exercises that helped humanity negotiate its precarious place in the cosmos have become modern epics about civilization’s triumph over the natural world.
The redeemed fox remains peripheral, even in modern retellings. To Kang, this signals a “continued interest with exploring issues of deviance in a symbolic way”. Alternatively, as noted by Sohu’s film reviewer, it’s perhaps necessary for narratives to explore the supernatural and sorrowful in order to “awaken the mortal’s feelings” for values that are timeless and humane.
The fox, after all, has always a reminder of the coexistence of all of these things.
IN MODERN ADAPTATIONS IT IS THE FOX WHO GROWS AND CHANGES BY ASSIMILATING TO THE HUMANS, WHO ARE NOW THE IDEALIZED EMBODIMENTS OF MORALITY, COMPASSION, AND LOVE