Nothing in nature is inherently good or bad. We are all given choices–choices that lead to our ruin and choices that lead us towards the light. The huli jing fox spirit of Chinese mythology is a shapeshifter. They can either be benevolent or malevolent, but in folklore around the world, they have been depicted as cunning creatures that possess the capacity to intentionally harm others for their own selfish gain. The fox, however, can also obtain its power in righteous ways by choosing to travel on the right path. While the shape and form of the fox differs across mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, it is clear that they function within a shared cultural belief system.
In mythology, the fox spirit is usually portrayed as a beautiful creature with nine fluffy tails. The number of tails signifies their age and status. The older they are and the more tails they have; the closer they are to heaven and reaching their goal of becoming celestial foxes. In some accounts, the fox’s trajectory of transformation is from fox to fox-woman, then to nine-tailed fox, and finally to immortal fox. The way in which the fox spirit achieves wisdom and immortality is through the absorption of qi energy of their sexual partners. The fox spirit is associated with the yin principle and is seen as a dark feminine force.
With their shapeshifting abilities, they can transform into irresistible maidens who seduce young men. A fox spirit who chooses the wrong path is motivated by the desire to drain the victim’s life essence, usually through a sexual act. Although these magical foxes can transform into anything they want, they most commonly transform into beautiful, young women as this best suits their goal of acquiring life essence.
Pu Songling, a Chinese writer who lived during the Qing Dynasty, is the author of Strange Tales of Liaozhai, a collection of nearly five hundred mythical tales which include love stories of a fox appearing as a beautiful girl or a young human male. Fox spirits were seen as dangerous and even today, in Mandarin and Cantonese, the term huli jing is a derogatory expression for a woman who seduces a married man, in other words, a home wrecker.
By consuming enough life essence, a huli jing can one day transcend into a heavenly being. The celestial trick that is played on the trickster is that the energy required to transform into a heavenly being needs to come from Nature and not from human beings. Fox spirits that prey on people will never become part of the celestial realm. Only the foxes that self-cultivate and draw their power from Nature will ascend to the heavens.
Fox spirits can also be benevolent and even friendly. There are multiple legends which either show them helping people or themselves being the victims of cruelty. Perhaps when they are treated well, they are benevolent, but when they are mistreated, they can turn violent and vengeful.
If you ask me, foxes are foxes and they eat chicken, mice and rabbits. In colder climates, the fox’s coat also made good fur that kept us humans warm. But that is the scientific perspective of the fox. So why do I choose to dive into stories such as these that make no logical sense?
Nature is indifferent to the human gaze. From my perspective, the fox spirit is a mythical character that inhabits our minds. It is assigned these negative traits and qualities because we imagine that there exists something in the fox’s nature that we should we wary of.
Let’s think of the fox that eats mice. Mice are pests, right? If these foxes lived in the wild, we would probably thank them for keeping the rodent population in control. But as farmers and landowners, these same foxes which we once thanked would become a nuisance to us. They are known to hunt in the middle of the night and feast on our poultry for supper. Foxes hunt with great stealth. It is this stealth that causes us anxiety for they can pounce upon us with no forewarning. Before we know it, they have claimed what was once ours as theirs.
Modern scholars with a liberal mindset tend to say that these stories are sexist and portray women in a derogatory way. I disagree entirely with this view. Even in the modern era, there exist many women who will deliberately wreck a home by staking her claim on a married man. Sometimes, they are successful in wrecking the home, and sometimes they are not.
My view is that the stories tell us that men are not as all powerful or as bulletproof as we think ourselves to be. We are vulnerable, or perhaps we become vulnerable, when we are in the presence of a beautiful and seductive woman who promises to fulfil our innermost desires.
It is more socially acceptable for men to ‘sleep around’ than it is for women. Married men are more likely to cheat for physical reasons alone. Perhaps these stories were written to warn men not to get trapped and to exercise caution before becoming a prey to the spirit of the fox.
Can a woman lead a man down a path of ruin? Yes and no. If he is susceptible to such behaviour to begin with, the answer is yes. If he is not seduced by beauty, I suppose he must seek something that is more than skin deep.
I think what the stories are trying to tell us is that if we confuse lust for love, it will undoubtedly lead our collective ruin.