Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Fox Phonologist

Nine tail fox changes into Chinese court official

Chen Pengnian (961-1017), Chinese courtier and scholar, was labeled a nine-tail fox.1 The 11th century Chinese court history document Rulin Gongyi states: "Chen Pengnian had a talent for interpreting omens concerning the nation, and was skilled at flattering and misleading (the emperor), therefore people of his time saw him as a nine-tail fox."2

The excerpt above probably refers to Chen's term as the vice-chair of the Department of Augury, the post he held prior to his death.3 The editor of Rulin Gongyi was Tian Kuang (1005-1063).4

Apparently, "nine tail fox", as used during the Song period, was not intended to be a flattering metaphor. But things had not always been so.

The 3rd century BCE text Annals of Lu mentions how Da Yu, founder of the ancient Xia Dynasty, encountered a nine-tail fox at Tu Mountain (in present day Henan, China); he regarded it as a good omen, and so married a woman of the Tu Mountain tribe.1 During the Han Dynasty, the 9-tail fox was still seen as an auspicious creature, portrayed together with other mythical beasts in the entourage of the goddess Xi Wangmu.1

Fox temples thrived during the Tang Dynasty, though people were starting to view fox spirits as demonic entities.1 But the image of Heavenly Nine Tail Tox, greatest of the foxes, remained untainted.1 By the Song Dynasty, Chen Pengnian's time, the 9 tail fox too had lost the public esteem it once held as a mainstream deity. 1

As for Chen Pengnian, he made significant contributions during his long career as a civil servant, at least according to his Baidu Encyclopedia entry: He reformed the Imperial Civil Service examinations by making the names and provincial origin of candidates confidential, so as to avoid examiner bias.

A noted phonologist, Chen was also a key contributor to Guangyun, a state-sponsored reference book on Chinese phonology; it remains an authoritative text for scholars today.3

When Chen died, the Emperor came to his residence for the funeral, and was shocked to see the house in a state of disrepair. Chen, unlike other bureaucrats, did not enrich himself through corruption. He spent his pay on books, leaving his descendants no inheritance.3

As a tribute to Chen's work, and to bring an additional dimension to a character labeled as a nine-tail fox, the background text in this illustration is taken from Guangyun.

  1. Nine Tail Fox on Baidu Encyclopedia
  2. Rulin Gongyi on WikiSource
  3. Chen Pengnian on Baidu Encyclopedia
  4. Tian Kuang on Baidu Encyclopedia

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