Tales about Nine Tails: an Overview of Eastern Fox Spirits

“狐狸尾巴藏不住.” “A fox’s tail is not easily hidden.” – Chinese proverb

Though usually levelled at scheming individuals when their plots are unravelled, this saying alludes specifically to the idea of the fox spirit, a common mythological figure in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. Foxes can be found in folklore all over the world, but Eastern fox spirits often exhibit more specific traits that render them particularly fascinating. With its sly grin and cunning ways, the fox occupies a trickster role in many mythologies. However, in East Asia the fox is also associated with supernatural metamorphic powers and with dangerously seductive women. Although some have compared the fox spirit to English fairies with their whimsical ways, the comparison doesn’t do justice to the diversity of foxes in Eastern mythology.

Within Chinese mythology, the fox occupies a special spot as one of five spiritual animal species. The fox is in good company, sharing this honour with the weasel, the porcupine, the snake, and the mouse. Their nocturnal natures give them plenty of yin energy  in the yin-yang dichotomy, allowing them to have special powers that increase with time and discipline. All five of these animals are said to be capable of training their bodies and hearts to become spirits (仙 xian), in an elevated state beyond mortality. However, the process is long and arduous: a huli jing’s (狐狸精 fox spirit) strength is measured by the number of its tails, and every additional tail up to a maximum of nine (九尾狐 jiuweihu) takes five hundred years of disciplined meditation and training. This includes energy from the moon (阴 yin energy) and energy from humans—which is where the spirit gets its seductive reputation.

In many stories, the huli jing or hu xian (狐仙 fox immortal) takes on the guise of a beautiful woman in order to interact with the human world. At times, this is a convenient way for the spirit to collect energy from human men for the purpose of strengthening herself. However, huli jing also have other relationships to people. As neutral familiar spirits, huli jing are not deified or worshipped in a sacred manner, but are nevertheless accorded respect. One good turn begets another, and if a human does a huli jing a favour, it may repay the good will by imparting knowledge and wisdom, by passing on supernatural powers to foresee the future, or by cleansing the household of evils. Huli jing have even been known to marry good men and to act as ideal wives.

On the other hand, there are occasionally legends of dangerous fox spirits such as the one that possessed Da Ji (妲己). She was the wife of the cruel King Zhou (紂辛) who offended the goddess Nüwa (女娲). Her malevolent influence supposedly drove him to ruin, and ended the Shang (商) dynasty (around 1600-1046 BCE). Though Da Ji is perhaps the most infamous huli jing in Chinese mythology, the figure can be found even earlier in folk stories. Tushan-shi (塗山氏), whose husband was the hero Yu the Great (大禹) and who is known to be the mother of China’s first dynastic ruler (the Xia 夏 dynasty 2070-1600 BCE), is sometimes said to have been a huli jing, or else to have had the nine-tailed fox as a symbol of her clan. Many other stories about huli jing can be found within Chinese mythology, particularly in Pu Songling’s (蒲松龄) 1740 collection of supernatural folktales Liaozhai Zhiyi (聊斋志异 Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio). Though by no means a religious figure, the mythological fox spirit has a sizeable presence in Chinese culture that has persisted to the present. In modern Chinese vernacular, the term huli jing is often derogatory when applied to a woman, implying that she is a homewrecker or otherwise seductively dangerous to men.

In Japan, the kitsune (狐) carries more Zenko (善狐), the white-furred benevolent foxes who often act as Inari’s messengers, are only one half of the story in Japanese mythology, which also categorizes some foxes as yako (野狐), who tend to be mischievous or malicious. The long-lived Japanese nine-tailed foxes,  kyubi no kitsune (九尾の狐), supposedly gain the power to see and hear anything, or to have infinite wisdom. Like the huli jing, kitsune are known to transform into beautiful young women, often through rituals that involve placing reeds or a skull on its head. The metamorphosis can sometimes be uncovered by searching for ill-concealed foxlike attributes, such as a fox’s shadow or a fox’s tail.

The supernatural powers of kitsune are many, including the power to generate fire or lightning (kitsunebi 狐火), the power to create intense illusions, and the power to possess people. Often kitsune are depicted with their hoshi no tama (ほしのたま star balls—white balls or jewels glowing with kitsunebi), which are said to hold the fox’s magical power or even its soul. These mystical attributes often lend themselves to stories of foxes bewitching powerful people or causing mischief to travellers or within households. In this sense, the kitsune has a more prominent trickster character in Japanese mythology. Nevertheless, they also repay favours and keep promises to humans; they are capable of bringing supernatural good or supernatural evil to the people they interact with.

Given its dual sacred and secular presence within Japanese folklore, the kitsune can be spotted in many modern-day Japanese works that have since gained followings in the West. Popular fantastical manga/anime series such as Naruto or Inuyasha feature characters like the Kyubi/Naruto and Shippo who reference the kitsune figure, as do video game character designs like those of Ninetales from the Pokémon series. The ubiquity of kitsune in Japanese media and its popularity overseas has resulted in this figure becoming the most familiar to outside audiences amongst the three Eastern fox spirits.

While Chinese and Japanese foxes can be positive, negative, or ambiguous forces, Korean kumiho (구미호) tend to be portrayed exclusively as malevolent creatures. These long-lived foxes also have nine tails and some powers, but often strive to become human rather than remaining the spirits that they are. The methods for this permanent transformation differ, but usually require some consumption of human flesh and blood. As such, kumiho are usually depicted as bloodthirsty spirits that can transform into beautiful women to lure their human victims. Rather than possessing young women like some Chinese or Japanese fox spirits, the kumiho often eats and replaces the female victim in order to feast upon her family. Like other fox spirits, the kumiho’s true nature may be perceived because the transformation is incomplete and it still carries fox-like characteristics, such as a tail or whiskers.

One such fairy tale called The Fox Sister tells of a man with three sons who wants a daughter so much that when praying for one, he doesn’t even care if she is a kumiho. After he has a daughter, the family finds that a cow dies mysteriously every night. When two of his sons report seeing their sister enter the barn to eat the cows’ livers, their father throws them out of the home. Years later, the two men return armed with three magical potions from a Buddhist monk. They find their sister living alone, claiming that their parents and youngest brother have all died, and offers them a feast and to stay the night. The oldest brother awakens to find his sister eating his dead younger brother, and flees by defending himself with the potions. As a fox, she fights her way through the first potion’s thicket of thorns, and swims across the second potion’s magical river. However, she is trapped by the last potion of bottled fire and burns to death.

The kumiho also continues to influence modern works. The fairy tale recounted above inspired a webcomic of the same name  by Christina Strain and Jayd Aït-Kaci. Kumiho also feature in a number of fantasy-based Korean dramas, including most notably the 2010 romantic comedy My Girlfriend is a Nine-tailed Fox. Even Western media have used the kumiho as inspiration, as can be seen with the popular character Ahri from Riot Games’ popular MOBA League of Legends.

Although all East Asian fox spirits stem from ancient Chinese culture, they have since acquired unique characteristics in the folklore of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traditions. With such rich histories and diverse depictions, the fox spirit continues to hold sway over modern imaginations and to appear in Eastern and Western speculative works as an enigmatic supernatural figure. It is almost as though the bewitching nature of the creature has infused its myth and captured the attention of people all over the world.

– Contributed by Victoria Liao


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