Monday, January 10, 2011

Fox spirit, mid-metamorphosis

Fox Fairy, Fox SpiritGrew up reading Chinese folktales about fox spirits/fairies/demons. In Chinese mythology, practically any animal or inanimate object can, after an extensive period of meditation, acquire the spiritual power to shapeshift into human form.1 Foxes seem to be the most popular subjects of shapeshifter lore.

Saw many beautiful illustrations for these fairy tales done in classical Chinese style, but none of them showed fox spirits in the process of transformation. The fox fairies were either portrayed in fox form or in full human form. (Not counting modern animation/comic book fox fairy characters drawn as humans with fox ears and tails.) Thought it would be interesting to visualize a fox spirit in mid-metamorphosis and in contemporary garb.

The reference used is an Arctic Fox, which has a shorter muzzle than the red fox.

Male fox spirits in Chinese lore

Contrary to the common stereotype of the fox spirit as a seductive young woman, the fox spirits of folklore can be male or female, young or old, benign or sinister. One reference to a male fox spirit appears in Rulin Gongyi (Public Discussions of the Scholars), court history document by Song Dynasty civil servant Tian Kuang (1005-1063).2 In Rulin Gongyi, Tian Kuang wrote of the talented Northern Song phonologist and courtier Chen Pengnian (961-1017): "people of his time saw him as a nine-tail fox."3

Rulin Gongyi's equating of Chen Bangnian to a nine-tail fox indicated a negative public perception of foxes: Chen was described as a cunning power-hungry official who sought favor at court, "deluding and confusing the Emperor through charm and flattery."4

However, Chinese views of fox spirits were not always negative. Earlier references to fox spirits/deities, in particular the white nine-tail fox, were generally auspicious.5 (More on that in The Fox Phonologist.)

Back to the subject of male fox spirits/demons, they appear multiple times in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (aka Strange Tales from Liaozhai  or Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio) a collection of supernatural tales by 17th century writer Pu Songling.  Here are some Liaozhai tales involving male fox spirits/demons taking the form of men:

The Swindlers
Synopsis: Two male fox spirits use their supernatural abilities to help their human friend turn the tables on a team of notorious swindlers. (Click here for a longer summary)

Translated excerpt: "In the town dwelt a Wu Sheng, courtesy name Anren, who lost his spouse at 30. While he was living alone in his empty studio, a scholar came by to converse with him.  Before long, they became close friends.  The scholar had a servant boy named 'Demon Head' who was on good terms with Wu's young attendant  Bao'er.  After a long time, Wu realized that the scholar and his servant were foxes..."

The Merchant's Son
Synopsis:  A human boy uses a combination of physical courage and cunning strategy to get rid of the fox demon who bewitched his mother.  There are three male fox characters in this tale: The adult fox who haunts the merchant's wife; his brother, who has enchanted a married woman from another household; and a servant boy working for the two fox brothers. (Click here for original classical Chinese text.)

Huang Jiulang (9th son of the Huang family)
Synopsis:  A human man He Shishen becomes infatuated with a handsome young male fox fairy Huang Jiulang. Jiulang initially resists his advances but eventually gives in to Shishen's seduction out of pity. A chain of bizarre events follow.   (Click here for longer summary of Huang Jiulang.)

Xin Shisiniang (14th daughter of the Xin family)
Synopsis:  Feng, a human youth, spies a beautiful young woman fording a stream. He  approaches Mr Xin, the maiden's old father, asking to marry her,  not knowing that the old man and his 19 daughters are foxes.  Mr Xin refuses and throws him out of the house, but Feng meets an unlikely ally in a long lost relative, the wife of his paternal grandmother's brother... (Click here for original classical Chinese text)

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  1. "The difference between ancient gods, ghosts, nature spirits, demons and immortal sages" on Baidu Knows
  2. "Discourses of the Scholars" on Wikipedia Library
  3. "Discourses of the Scholars" on Wikipedia Library, "Chen Pengnian" on Baidu Encyclopedia
  4. "Discourses of the Scholars" on Wikipedia Library
  5. "Nine-tail Heavenly Fox" on Baidu Encyclopedia

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