Fox Spirits in Traditional Chinese Culture

Fox spirits, also known as huli jing, are mythological creatures in Chinese stories that are known for their manipulative behavioral tactics. These spirits are an integral part of Chinese culture, even if the people aren’t consciously aware of it. While foxes only exist in stories, their nature and energy are projected onto members of society, typically females, and this can cause the person to be viewed negatively.

Foxes are said to be capable of magic, commonly used to bewitch people, make them sick, or enchant them sexually as a way to drain their life energy. Foxes are described as demons that are filled with ghosts, so they have the needs of a ghost but the capabilities of a demon (Xiaofei). Ghosts are the souls of the dead who are not being honored by their families, so they are bitter and crave offerings of some kind. This makes foxes much more understandable since they are clever creatures filled with bitterness and cravings, so they use the tools at their disposal to get all they want in the most efficient manner.

When a fox spirit is introduced in a story it is never a good thing.  The typical fox will dress itself as a young, attractive woman whose main goal is to seduce men to her will so she may feed on their life energy through sex.  When foxes are male they typically are benign and have no desire to hurt anyone, which is a sharp contrast to the evil, hungry, highly sexually frustrated female fox. While these are just stories and women don’t really have a killer agenda when they flirt, the actions of the spirits are still attributed to the way women behave.  For example, a woman’s body is heavily scrutinized for evidence of “pollution” says Emily Chao, writer of Dangerous Work: Women in Traffic, as a means to detect modernization and an attempt to climb up the ladder of social class.  This hidden agenda gives these women “fox stench”, which basically means they demonstrate fox-like characteristics.

This can be a double-edge sword though since fox spirits are also a theme in sexual fantasy. Having fox-like attributes is a complicated contradiction because in one sense it means you are an attractive, sexual being but it also has the negative connotations of being manipulative for your own selfish gain. For this reason no woman wants to be associated with the spirits, and the conservative culture they live in prevents them from being open about their sexuality so they can’t fully enjoy the positive spin on it.

One of the main motivators behind the fear of fox spirits lies in their deceptive abilities. The claim is that the loss of control and judgment are too much for people to handle, so when they see that the creature they’ve become intimate with is a fox they are repulsed (Huntington). One of the best explanations for why people are disgusted by foxes is that humans are supposed to be capable of higher, rational thinking and be able to see that if something is too good to be true then it probably isn’t real. Because humans are so great nothing can be deceptive, so it’s both terrifying and frustrating when something does manage to do just that.

Besides being cunning and manipulative, foxes also have ties to religious practices. People offered food and drinks consumed by humans to the fox spirits during the Tang Dynasty since the popular belief was that they weren’t going anywhere. By giving them things the people were hoping that the spirits would be appeased and not punish them (Xiaofei). This is reminiscent of ancestor worship in China since people have an obligation to their ancestors to give them offerings so they can bless the family with good fortune. Foxes are also considered experts in Daoist practices as it is their way of absorbing life energy in order to become immortal (Hammond). So, if foxes are a collection of ghosts as Xiaofei argues, then perhaps they are all working together using Daoist practices to achieve immortality and pull themselves out of their suffering.

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