NEW YORK - Over the past weekend, while I was chatting on Facebook with a friend of mine who lives in Hong Kong, the topic turned to dating. My friend lamented that the Hong Kong dating scene was full of ‘Fox Spirits,’ hulijing. The term fox spirit is colloquially used to refer to people of seductive beauty, similar to the way in English you might refer to a beautiful lady as a vixen, or describe her as foxy. A handsome man with gray hair might also be described as a silver fox. However, the term hulijing in Chinese has negative connotations.
(Left) Han dynasty tile showing Xiwangmu in the collection of the Sichuan Provincial Museum. (Right) Detail of the nine-tailed fox.
During the Han dynasty, foxes were depicted in attendance of Xiwangmu, The Queen Mother of the West. Xiwangmu is the earliest recorded goddess in the Chinese pantheon. The first mention of her appears in Shang dynasty oracle bone inscriptions dating to the fifteenth century BC, and by the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Xiwangmu had emerged as a goddess worshipped not only by the Han imperial family and the upper classes, but also by the common people.
Rubbing from an Eastern Han dyansty tomb door lintel in Suide, Shaanxi province, showing the fox in attendance.
By the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 AD), the religious Daoists with their belief in opposing and complimentary forces of yin and yang, had adopted her as the counterpoint to Dongwanggong, the King Father of the East. Xiwangmu become the personification of the yin principle, which represented femininity, darkness, passivity, negativity and coldness, which are the polar opposites of the yang principle representing masculinity, brightness, activity, positivity and warmth.
Bronze Circular Mirrors depicting Xiwangmu and Dongwanggong. (Left) Sold Sotheby’s New York, 19th March 2013, lot 74 (part). (Right) Sold Sotheby’s Paris, 12th June 2013, lot 88.
As a result of being attendants of Xiwangwang, foxes also became associated with yin forces, and in the popular imagination therefore, the yin fox spirits fed off the yang energy of men.
In the 10th century collection of stories called the Taiping Guangji, The Extensive Records of the Taiping Era, are gathered approximately eighty accounts of fox spirits dating from the Han till the early Song dynasty. The scholar Zhang Zhuo of the Tang dynasty also noted that ‘many commoners have worshipped fox deities. They offer sacrifices [to them] in their bedchambers.’ A saying popular during the Tang dynasty was “without fox demons, a village is not a village”, wu humei, bu chengcun, and the founder of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism Linji Yixuan likened young monks who did not understand Chan principles to those who believe in fox spirits. These Tang dynasty references show how prevalent belief in fox spirits was.
Veneration of fox spirits, though widespread, was a private affair and took place in bedchambers, small shrines, backyards and other private spaces. Those who venerated the fox spirits referred to them deferentially as Fox Immortals, Fox Kings, or Grandfather Fox. Although associated with the yin principle, not all fox spirits were female. They could take the form of either young or old, men or women, and unlike Buddhist and Daoist deities, whose worship incorporated moral teachings and came with a strong sense of right and wrong, fox spirits were believed to be amoral, and it was therefore acceptable to go to them with requests that polite society and upright deities would frown upon. Such requests were rooted in greed, lust, jealousy, vice, and vanity. Since most people had these base human feelings, it was not surprising that fox worship was popular not only among commoners, but even among the nobility. Daoist texts report that a temple dedicated to the Fox Kings, Huwang Miao, was erected in Kaifeng under the auspices of Emperor Shizu (937-942) of the Later Jin dynasty. However, because of this amoral (often considered illicit by Confucian standards) nature of fox worship, orthodox religion considered the cult of the fox evil, and Confucian officials often tried to suppress the cult. In the Song dynasty for example, an edict was issued to tear down more than one thousand temples to the Fox Kings in the Kaifeng area.
Illustration of the fox spirit Daji and King Zhou from a Chinese publication of Fengshenbang.
Because of repeated persecution, fox spirit veneration was often driven underground, but continued to survive into the Ming and Qing dynasties, and belief in fox spirits haunted the popular imagination of scholars and the literati. In the 16th century novel, Fengshenbang, Investiture of the Gods, which is a fictional account of the Zhou dynasty’s overthrow of the Shang, King Zhou of the Shang is bewitched by his concubine Daji, who is actually a fox spirit who has taken the form of a beautiful woman. He commits all sorts of atrocities under her influence. He is eventually overthrown by King Wu of Zhou, who with the help of his strategist Jiang Ziya, rallies a supernatural army to overthrow the Shang tyrant and restores peace to the land.
Actresses playing the role of fox spirits on television dramatizations of the Fengshenbang from Jilin TV and TTV. (Left) Fan Bingbing. (Right) Ruby Lin.
The late 17th century collection of stories written by Pu Songling called Liaozhai zhiyi, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, contain a great many that involve foxes. The tales are often told as being true accounts of something that really happened and have titles like Catching a Fox, Fox in a Bottle, Fox Enchantment, the Fox of Fenzhou, Fox as Prophet, Fox Control and Fox Trouble. Many other stories without ‘fox’ in the title also feature foxes. In these tales, fox spirits often take the form of beautiful young women or men who enchant their usually willing ‘victims’ by using sex and love to achieve their aims.
Illustrations from the late 19th century edition of the Strange tales of Liaozhai frist printed in 1886, reprinted in the translation by John Minford.
In 1874, the British consular official Thomas Watters reported that prostitutes in Fuzhou prayed to fox demons to ‘give them favour in the eyes of men,’ and it is this association with prostitutes that has led the term hulijing to be used in modern popular parlance to describe a homewrecker or person of loose morals.
A modern figure of the fox spirit depicted as an alluring young lady.
In this day and age, when increasingly more people live their lives broadcast on social media, and the lines between private and public life are getting blurred, it should therefore not be surprising that once private worship has now also become public. During a visit to Singapore last year, I came across a shrine to a fox spirit in a mall. The shrine was in a storefront and the fox spirit was portrayed as an elderly lady sitting on a snarling white fox. Portrayed with her were a snake, hedgehog, weasel and rat. This grouping of these five animals was popular in Northern China and Manchuria, and they were called Wudaxian, Five Great Immortals. Woodblock prints portraying these five animals in human form were hung in family shrines and prayed to for health and wealth. In this particular figure in the mall shrine, red ribbons with the names of devotees and the amounts of their donations to the shrine were draped over the figure.
The figure of the fox spirit depicted as an elderly lady from the shrine in a Singapore mall.
Also in today’s competitive environment, where resources and time always seem scarce, and finding the right partner can be difficult, it is no surprise that there are websites with instructions on the proper veneration of fox spirits, which if followed faithfully promise not only a rich love life, but also health and wealth. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to fox spirits with over three thousand ‘likes’.
Belief in fox spirits has been around for over two thousand years, with the fox spirits being feared, revered and reviled. The cycle may have come full circle and maybe in order to improve his dating prospects, my friend in Hong Kong should embrace the fox spirits and seek their assistance , rather than fight them.
Another modern figure of the fox spirit from the Yongan Arts Factory in Fujian province. This figure portrays the fox spirit looking like a bodhisattva and influenced by Japanese depicting of Dakini Ten, a Japanese deity.
Xiaofeng Kang, The Cult of the Fox, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005.
Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, translated and edited by John Minford, London 2006.