Monster of the Week: The Chinese Fox Spirit

Beware -- or worship -- the hulijing. Tommaso Tuzj/Moment/Getty

"Poor man! A fox cast a spell on him and he is with us no more! Foxes can cast powerful spells. Young gentlemen in particular, such as you and your friend, should guard against them." - Pu Songling, "Fox Enchantment"

Fox spirits or hulijing play a host of curious roles within Chinese folklore. Just as their appearance shifts from an ethereal, multi-tailed fox to a beautiful woman, so too does their very nature depend on your societal vantage point. One of these stealthy creatures might seduce you, curse you with a spell, reward your worship or simply drain your vitality. They are, quite simply, the magical feminine -- creatures of the yin universal principle.

Taoist Division

As Harold Yeo points out in his excellent Sotheby's post on the topic, fox spirits enjoyed association with the revered goddess Xiwangmu during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) In the centuries toe follow, however, Taoist cosmology re-positioned Xiwangmu and her creatures into its principle of opposing forces: yin and yang. Yang embodies brightness, warmth, masculinity and action. Yin embodies darkness, coldness, femininity and passivity.

(Penguin Classics)

As such, the treatment of fox spirits largely reflects the treatment of females in general -- even when they occasionally manifest as males. Several, varied fox spirit encounters pop up in Pu Songling's classic 18th century collection "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio." They run the gamut from tenderness and sensuality to ruthless malevolence.

In John Minford's introduction to the English-language Penguin Classics edition, he argues that, for Songling, "the fox-spirit is a projection of the deeply ambivalent attitude of the Chinese male literati towards their women and towards the demands of physical and emotional love."

War of the Sexes

According to Minford, the fox spirit is an embodiment of the feminine enemy. The creature drains a man of his vital yang essence -- often quite physically through the ejaculation of semen -- in order to gain power and youth. How does one combat such a threat? On one hand, a fearful male could turn to Taoist "pseudo-alchemical sexual practices," many of which amounted to ejaculation control and semen retention.

Minford argues that this warlike approach to gender relations also led to centuries of foot-binding: that painful process by which a female's feet were broken and folded to maintain an idealized form of feminine beauty. This practice, explored more in "Higher Human Forms: Foot Binding," resulted in the wide-spread hobbling of females across Chinese society up until the early 20th century.

The attitudes toward fox spirits are just as varied today. The word hulijing may be applied to homewreckers and manipulative vixens. Yet you'll also find a heroic fox spirit at the center of China's "Painted Skin" film franchise* (trailer embedded below). Though at times forced underground, fox spirit veneration survives to this day. As Yeo points out in his post, fox spirit shrines persist in forefronts, family homes and perhaps the occasional bedchamber.

* The first film is loosely based upon a tale in "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio."

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.