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Japanese Kitsune, Chinese Hu & Other Trickster Animals From Asian Folklore


Devoted Cultist
Mar 17, 2022
After a quick search, I did not find any dedicated thread on the topic, which pops up here and there in conversations (for instance here : https://forums.forteana.org/index.php?threads/strange-folk-not-obviously-human.471/page-5 ).

The "fox spirit" is a familiar figure of Chinese and Japanese folklore, so I guess it deserves its own thread.

And since I am currently working on it, I'll start by sharing this amateur translation of what is probably one of the earliest sources mentioning an "unusual" fox : the "Shan Hai Jing" 山海经 or "Classic of Mountains and Seas", written in China at some undetermined time of Antiquity. In the first "book" of this classic text, the nine tailed fox is said to inhabit a moutain range of southern China :


Translation : Three hundred li East of Jishan is a moutain called "Qingqiu" (Mountain of the Blue/green Hills). On its southern side, jade abounds, while the northern side is rich with blue-green pigment. There lives a creature which has the appearance of a fox, but endowed with nine tails. Its voice is similar to a small child's. It can feed on human people, but those who feed on its flesh are immune to poison.

Online source, with undated, yet probably ancient illustrations here : https://shanhaijing.5000yan.com/1-8.html

Later on, the nine tailed fox would become a mythological figure in its own right, evolving between the divine and the demonic. It even has its own wikipedia page : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine-tailed_fox

However, in the first chapter of the Shanhaijing, it is still presented as a terrestrial beast, and located geographically within a specific mountain range. It is said that he "can feed on people" which marvelously contradicts my previous position, expressed in another thread, that the fox spirits, although vampiric in nature, were usually not depicted as "gore" butchers of men. As a matter of fact, elsewhere in the Shan Hai Jing, the verb "feed on" clearly expresses "consummation of a creature's flesh". Here we thus have a depiction of a carnivorous behaviour targeting men.

Contrary to most other beasts described in the Shan Hai Jing, the Nine-tailed fox is not given a specific name in this paragraph. It is simply displayed as "a creature looking as a fox, but with nine tails". Since the Shan Hai Jing is otherwise so repetitive, and almost always gives a specific name to the creature it describes, it puzzles me somewhat that the author(s) did not bother to name this fox.

As explained on the wikipedia page of the nine tailed fox, the fox would later evolve into a major figure of Chinese, and Japanese folklore :

Endowed with magical powers cultivated over time (the older the fox, the more powerful he'd become), foxes would shapeshift to mingle with men, and trick them in countless ways, the most feared of which would be seduction. Lady foxes would seduce young men to suck their life force like succubi. This aspect of fox folklore was still popular until recently in China. I remember discussing with a Chinese born friend the fact that Japanese ladies could be quite beautiful. His immediate response to my "faux pas" came immediately as : "Tssss ! They are like foxes", which I understood as "do not let yourself be fooled by their pleasant looks. They're inherently evil and malicious".

Similar seduction tales also exists with male foxes as culprits, although I cannot remember my sources, I've read at least one tale from the Ming / Qing era explaining how a doctor cured an ill girl from her condition, diagnosing that she was under the spell of a male "fox" incubus.

Chinese fox spirits in literature would not always act harmfully though. And there are some tales of some foxes under human guise befriending and even collaborating with humans ... as long as they do not bring any dog with them ! Often, one would unexpectedly discover that his neighbour was actually a fox. So there is a distinct evolution from the wild fox of the Shan Hai Jing to the urban foxes of later tales.

As said in another thread, John Blofeld briefly tells of a Beijing courtyard fox in his memoirs, "City of Lingering Splendour" (A most recommended read : https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/926693.City_of_Lingering_Splendor ). At that time (beginning of the 20th century) Beijing was already a sprawling metropolis. So it's a good example of urban fox spirits.

At roughly the same period, Chinese Chan (Zen) master Xu Yun, supposedly preached Buddhism to a strange white fox. Here is one version of this story. https://wenshuchan-online.weebly.com/master-xu-yun-and-the-white-fox.html

As a side note, "foxes" would not always be seen. Quite often they would only make themselves known through poltergeist behaviour. Why would someone blame a fox for throwing stones, or producing strange voices in the night, I don't know, but hell ! Haven't some British people claimed that their own poltergeist was a "talking moongoose" (Gef) ?

I have less examples or stories to share about the Japanese impersonation of the fox spirit, the Kitsune, and its divine counterpart, "Inari", a fox shaped god of fertility but there are plenty of gorgeous ukiyo-e about foxes.

For instance, from Hiroshige :
- White foxes as will o' the wisp : https://ukiyo-e.org/image/artelino/22190g1#&gid=1&pid=1
- A were-fox : https://jpwoodblocks.com/product/100-aspects-of-the-moon-cry-of-the-fox/

Please share your own insights on this folkloric figure.
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The Fox and the Badger

The Tengu

Both by De Visser and freely available on your friendly neighbourhood WWW.

(And dont be like Kantarou and get Tenko (Heavenly fox) mixed up with Tengu (Heavenly dog) in the first episode of the Anime Tactics.)

You are absolutely right, Amstramgram; Gef is uncannily like the Pipe fox, a supernatural creature which is a familiar of the Yamabushi (and so presumably Tengu, who are members of that sect). Pipe foxes are described as being in (visible) form, like a weasel or a squirrel.....