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China’s ancient ‘foxy ladies’

The tale of how "fox spirits" evolved to mean "harlot" in Chinese


China’s ancient ‘foxy ladies’

The tale of how "fox spirits" evolved to mean "harlot" in Chinese


Traditionally, Chinese women were expected to be virtuous, which unfortunately for them was defined by the “traditional value system” which, like most places in the world, kind of sucked for women.

Attitudes and restrictions toward women were very strict, and if a woman violated these principles she could be judged very harshly.

The most serious accusation against a woman was (and often still is) that she seduced a man, especially a married one (and the married men tended to get off far more easily, pun intended, despite being just as culpable).

In situations with promiscuous women (or handy scapegoats), people labeled the “guilty” women using a particular phrase—they were possessed by a “fox spirit”.

Daji is definitely the most infamous fox spirit in China, thanks to the popular classic novel Creation of the Gods. In the story, King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty didn’t respect the goddess Nüwa (女娲), the creator of mankind and goddesses, so the goddess decided to punish him by sending a 1,000-year-old fox-spirit to destroy the king’s dynasty.

The fox spirit kills and possesses the original innocent Daji, daughter of Su Hu, and became the king’s concubine. Enamored with the newly-possessed daji, King Zhou became both distracted and cruel, and finally led his kingdom to collapse.

People of course blame daji for the downfall of the kingdom, as they often do to other “femme fatales” in history. So, for thousands of years, daji was stuck with an evil reputation and the phrase “fox-spirit” was also widely used as a metaphor to refer to seductive women.

Prior to this, the foxes in legends and stories in the pre-Qin times or in the Qin and Han dynasties didn’t really have a human figure, and certainly weren’t beautiful women. Instead, they usually existed as monsters. In the book Classic of Mountains and Seas (《山海经》), a fabled geographical account of pre-Qin Dynasty China as well as a collection of fairy tales, which was believed to be written by numerous writers from the Warring States (475B.C.-221B.C.) to the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206B.C.-220A.D.), readers were introduced to the nine-tailed fox.

The work states:”The Land of Green-Hills lies north of Tianwu. The foxes there have four legs and nine tails. “It also says that “There is a beast here whose form resembles a fox with nine tails. It makes a sound like a baby and eats people.”

Image from 027art.com

It sounds like a baby [66test.com]

In the Jin Dynasty, the foxes in the myths began to have a human appearance. Guo Pu (276-324) described how the fox could transform from a lower animal to a human to a transcendent in his book Xuanzhongji (《玄中记》), saying: “When a fox is fifty years old, it can transform itself into a woman; when a hundred years old, it becomes a beautiful female, or a spirit medium, or an adult male who has sexual intercourse with women. Such beings are able to know things at more than a thousand miles’ distance; they can poison men by sorcery, or possess and bewilder them, so that they lose their memory and knowledge; and when a fox is thousand years old, it ascends to heaven and becomes a celestial fox.”

Though the fox spirit could transform itself into a human, it wasn’t necessarily a woman at that time. In the book In Search of the Supernatural (《搜神记》), a compilation of legends about ghosts and spirits, there was a fox who became an old scholar and talked with people eloquently.

In the Tang Dynasty, the figure of a fox-spirit began to take on specifically female characteristics. The foxes also became more and more similar to human beings. Many stories just borrowed a fox-spirit appearance to attract readers, but essentially they were still stories of humans.

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, when the novel writing developed greatly, more fox spirits appeared in literary works, including the most widely-known daji and many other ones in the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a classic literature work with a collection of about 500 stories.

At first, the phrase “fox spirit” did refer to those mythological spirits, but then, gradually it was more and more used as a metaphor for those seductive females of loose morals. Like in A Dream of Red Mansion (《红楼梦》), Lady Wang says: “The opera actresses are of course fox spirits.” Here it was used almost same with today, which served just like an adjective. And the when we say “seduce”, “lure” or “bewitch by cajolery” in Chinese, “狐媚”, literally means “fox allures”.

But if you read an ancient book, you will find that sometimes these words were used to describe not only women but also men. Like the famous litterateur Su Shi in the Song Dynasty commented on another litterateur Wang Anshi, and said that “This old man is really a fox spirit”.

Su of course didn’t mean Wang was seductive. He was saying that Wang was sophisticated, crafty and slippery. Today, if we want to express the same meaning as Su did, we will say “old fox (老狐狸)”, because “fox spirit” now is always used in a derogatory sense and people always hate to hear that.

Today, people use this expression to refer to a female third party involved in a marriage or a relationship, or a woman who is accused of seducing men.  Sometimes people even just throw the term around because of a woman’s appearance and makeup.

Please keep in mind that it is an informal term and it is really mean.


Cover image from rednet.cn