Fox-Spirits and the Mosuo Women of China

 The Mosuo have a unique societal structure. For many generations, the Mosuo have been a matrilineal people. Mosuo families typically view romantic and sexual relationships as less important than blood relationships. For this reason, Mosuo families are structured in a unique way. Children stay with their mothers, take their surname and rarely have much interaction with their fathers. Maternal uncles take the place of fathers in the child’s life. The mother’s family works together to raise the children of all the women in the house. Households are typically comprised of one or more elders, several adult siblings or cousins and the children of these women.

Mosuo adults stay with their natal families all their lives, when the time comes in which they want to enter into a relationship, the man goes to the woman’s house at night and leaves in the morning to take care of his familial duties. These relationships could last for one night or for the person’s entire life. These relationships are viewed as voluntary and somewhat casual, so economics rarely involved. Some Mosuo people do marry in what Westerners would consider the traditional way, but this is not the norm.

In the 1960’s, Chinese researchers investigated the Mosuo people and wrote reports to the government about their findings. Their reports concluded that the Mosuo people were primitive and had not evolved. The researchers claimed that the Mosuo were still in the early stages of social formation, calling them “living fossils”. The Communist Party reacted to these reports by attempting to force the Mosuo people to behave in accordance to what they believed a family was meant to be. The government did their best to encourage patriarchal households, but it could not get traction, the Mosuo held onto their way of life. Today, tourists come from all over China and the world to see these “living fossils”. Like the researchers in the 1960’s, tourists of today do not understand the Mosuo. People often confuse the Mosuo women’s sexual autonomy with promiscuity. The Chinese in particular began associating the Mosuo with unrestrained sexuality. The misconception that Mosuo women are promiscuous combined with their matrilineal social structure, leads many in China to be distrustful of them.  

Chinese people believe that the Mosuo women suffer from Fox-Stench. Fox spirits in China come in many forms. That being said, fox spirits most often appear in stories as the personification of female sexuality. Throughout China, stories are told of female fox spirits that draw men in with their beauty and charm. But, they are evil and selfish. After they have gotten what they want from the man, which is usually sexual relations, the man falls ill and dies shortly after. In a patriarchal society, it is very important to restrain female sexuality in order to preserve family bloodlines. The Mosuo reject this concept and because of this, they are seen as being “fox-like” to the rest of China.

Chinese fox-spirits are complex creatures. Each one has unique characteristics. The female seductress narrative is very common, but their motives often differ greatly from fox to fox. For example, some fox-spirits seduce men because they need to steal the men’s “yang” energy in order to make themselves immortal. Chinese culture relies on balance. The fox-spirits steal “yang” energy because they embody the feminine “yin” energy. Together the “yin” and stolen “yang” energy balance to make the spirit immortal. When their “yang” is stolen the men fall ill and often die. Some stories tell of fox-spirits that have a deep affinity for the men they seduce and need to decide whether or not to leave and save his life. One famous Chinese ghost story worth noting describes a male fox-spirit that was feminine in nature and functioned like a typical female fox-spirit. He was more coy than the average seductress fox-spirit but, he still made the human man fall ill and eventually die. This particular fox-spirit is special in that it is a male that embodies the feminine “yin” energy and needs to steal “yang” energy. Occasionally in stories fox-spirits have the power to heal this illness and allow the man to live. But, the fox-spirits do not usually possess the ability to save them, even if they intended to.

While most fox-spirits are sexualized women, some are men. Very often male fox-spirits are feared as much if not more than female fox-spirits. Foxes are feared in China because they are viewed as sneaky nuisances with supernatural powers. Much of the fear surrounding fox-spirits comes from the mystery surrounding them. Supernatural powers differ from fox to fox so when one stumbles on a fox-spirit they do not know what it is capable of. Male fox-spirits tend to be even more unique than their female counterparts. One Chinese ghost story describes a group of fox-spirits causing trouble for a man. In exchange for a place to live, a male fox spirit offers to chase them off and keep them away. Another story tells of a wise old man who was respected in his village, but turned out to be a fox-spirit. These stories represent the conflict that Chinese people face with fox spirits. They can be helpful at times, yet they are not to be trusted.

5 thoughts on “Fox-Spirits and the Mosuo Women of China

  1. Grace Ross

    I find it interesting that there is a misconception that the Mosuo women are promiscuous. I did my research on Irish women and dance. I looked at how women were often looked down upon for dancing because it was thought of as promiscuous. I think that this comes from a Western societal ideal. Especially because in Irish, the oppression was mainly from the Catholic Church. Do you think that the female fox spirits were women because it shows the ‘danger’ of women having power? I wonder what the similarities and differences are between Irish treatment of Women and China.

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    1. Jenna Schwerdtle

      It’s really interesting how misconceptions can shape a culture and society so drastically. I did my research on Irish women’s experience during given times and how it compares to that of women in America. I also focused on how a great deal of oppression came from the Catholic Church. The Magdalene Laundries are a great example of that. Women were kept in these “asylums” and forced to work without pay. I too wonder if this was done out of fear of women having power? I think it’s really important to look at differences between women’s experiences in different countries. Finding the similarities and differences can help women continue to move forward at a rapid rate.

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  2. Kadence Verge

    I liked your piece about the Mosuo, misconceptions of the Mosuo, and the fox-spirits. It is interesting to see different cultures and how culture plays a role in family and gender dynamics. For my Istanbul class I have done research on the harem system during the old Ottoman empire. Typically, there is separation between males and females in Islamic countries. Usually the women and children would stay in their own private part of the household. Women were in charge of taking care of the home and family while the father was doing work and separate from them. This is different from the Mosuo, but there is a similarity in the matriarchal care of the family and the separation from the father.
    On another level there is the imperial harem system, which is a system designed to guarantee an heir to the Sultan. The harem was a part of the palace where only the women resided. A women entering the harem system would be taken care of and taught how to be a good wife. The Sultan would choose women to copulate with.
    While this was slavery for the women it was often seen as a desired position. Mothers would sing lullabies to their daughters about being a favorite to the Sultan. There was also the ability to move up in status from a simple concubine, to a favorite, to the mother of the Sultan, which was the most powerful position for a woman in the Ottoman empire.
    From the view of a society like ours in the United States we would see this as taboo or exploitative of the women in this system. It is very different from our own culture but it was a system that worked in creating an heir. It is definitely interesting to see connections in family and gender dynamics across the world.

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  3. Adela Rios

    I find it interesting how the Mosuo women were considered to be promiscuous while fulfilling the “true role of a woman” in society. This women are literally staying home to take care of children and cook and clean, all things that were expected of them, and yet they were mocked and ridiculed for fostering matriarchal cultural practices. This makes me think of our own final project in Irish Women & Performance about the role of women in the IRA. There are very specific roles expected for women to fulfill in the home, like cooking and cleaning, but women also directly served in the IRA in the same way that men did. The IRA, most likely, would not have made as much progress without the efforts of Irish women. And yet, women technically faced less harsh punishments than their male counterparts in the IRA who did the exact same things as them – they were not being taken as seriously.

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  4. Damon Devani

    The parallels with my own research are extensive here. The complex relationship between fox spirits and humans is quite similar to the Vodou notion of Lwa (god type beings) and their human followers. Lwa are not necessarily associated with sex or trickery (though they are in some cases) however human behaviors in many instances are accredited to Lwa interference. This is most prevalent in the somewhat unique possessions, however not exclusively.
    I do not want to use the word ‘blame’ here. Rather, it is fascinating that in each culture there is some degree of separation from one’s actions due to spiritual entities. In the case of the Mosuo it does not appear that they are shouldering anything on spirits, rather it is their peers doing so. In Vodou this aforementioned shouldering is a bit of both.
    All of these characteristics are portrayed in the bottle project I worked on over the semester. Features of a Lwa, some pre-existing, some new, were applied to an idol of worship by myself. Like a Chinese tourist I took my understanding of the belief system and applied it to my own interpretation. I would like to think my interpretation was a bit more genuine than claiming promiscuous fox spirits were possessing people, but perhaps not.

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