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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.


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