From the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, many commoners have worshipped fox deities (hushen). They offer sacrflces Ito them! in their bedchambers, and the food and drink offered are the same as those (consumed by,I humans. Those who offer sacrifices are not (limited tol one ghost” lof the foxes). At the time there was a proverb saying “Without fox demons (humet). no village is corn plete.’
The fox worship witnessed here by the Tang scholar Zhang Zhuo (658-730) seems to have been deeply rooted in an age-old tradition spanning a thousand years of Chinese history, for this passage is found along with some eighty records of fox spirits dating from the Han (206 B.C.—220 A.D.) to the early Song (960—1279) in the tenth-century encyclopedic anthology, Taipingguangji (Extensive Records of the Taiping Reign).
This chapter explores Chinese conceptions of foxes from ancient times to the Song. I first trace the mythical origin of the fox and its divinatory meanings in Chinese political culture and analyze popular beliefs in fox magic and the changing images of the fox in the legend of the Queen Mother of the West. Then I use the rich collection of Tang fox tales in the Taiping guangji to discuss the symbolic meanings of foxes in the specific cultural environment of late Tang society. Finally, I rely on official histories, daoist texts, local gazetteers, and literati anecdotal writings to discuss fox exorcism and state and clerical efforts to suppress the fox cult. The complex and often contradictory representations of foxes in early periods have had a long-lasting impact on Chinese history.
THE DEMONIC DIVINITY
The Fox as Omen
The fox, among many other animals, was used as a symbol of premonition in ancient Chinese texts. Shanhaijing (The Classics of Mountains and Seas), which records numerous wild mountains, distant seas, exotic flora and fauna, and legendary creatures, introduces a number of records about foxes or foxlike animals whose appearance portends war and disaster. In particular, it mentions a nine-tailed fox in several places:
“Three hundred ii farther east is a mountain called Green Hill... . There is an animal that looks like a fox and has nine tails. Its voice sounds like a baby. It is man-eating. Whoever eats it will be immune to bewitching poisons.
In Han esoteric texts, the nine-tailed fox is not a man-eating beast, but rather an auspicious omen. It is said to have appeared when King Tang of the Shang dynasty (sixteenth to eleventh century n.c.) ascended the throne and when the “Eastern Barbarians” submitted themselves to the rule of King Wen. A white fox with nine tails also appeared to the legendary king, Yu the Great, when he turned thirty years old, as a divine indication of his forthcoming marriage that foretold the prosperity of his family and his momentous political achievements.3 The auspicious meanings of the ninetailed fox are explained in Baihutong (The Comprehensive Discussions in the White Tiger Hall), which records court discussions of Later Han (A.D. 25—220) Confucian scholars:
What is the Nine-tailed Fox? When a fox dies, it turns its head toward the hill Iwhere it was born]; it does not forget its [placel of origin. It means that in comfort a man must never lose sight of calamities [impending]. Why must [this fox appear] with nine tails? When the nine concubines [of the King each] receive their proper place, his sons and grandsons will enjoy abundant peace. Why [is the emphasis laid] upon the tail? It is to indicate that his posterity shall be numerous.’
Here the fox is given moral meanings. According to Liji (The Book of Rites), the Confucian classic completed in the Former Han (206 B.C.—6 A.D.), the fox serves as a model of humaneness, for in facing home when it dies, it teaches human beings to always observe the rites as their spiritual home.5
The nine-tailed fox is further associated with the rule of sage kings and with imperial concubines. This stresses the importance of concubines for the continuation of the ancestral line and the need to have them properly managed by the emperor, both essential factors for the eternal peace and harmony of the dynasty. It also hints that concubines were a potential source of familial discord and national disaster.
The use of omens for political ends persisted during the Six Dynasties. Guo Pu (A.D. 276-324), a Jin-era annotator of Shanhaying and a well-known diviner, wrote his famous eulogy on the nine-tailed fox:
An extraordinary beast on the Green Hill,
The fox of nine tails.
It manifests itself when the Way prevails,
And it appears with a book in its mouth:
It sends an auspicious omen to the Zhou [dynastyj
To promulgate a mystical talisman.6
Official historians of this period showed great enthusiasm in delineating correspondences between animal activities, natural phenomena, and the current political situation. The fox is connected to the sage kings of the idealized Zhou dynasty in these histories and acclaimed as a symbol of humane and wise rule. Foxes caught in the fields were intentionally taken as divine signs of the dynasty’s fate. Upon the final abolition of the Later Han and the official enthronement of the first emperor of Wei, an unusually large fox, red in color and surrounded by dozens of ordinary foxes, was reported found in the north of Zhencheng county (today’s Jiangsu province). The fox was identified as a nine-tailed fox, for its long, bushy tail had many branches. It was sent to the court, accompanied by a memorial of felicitation to the throne.7 Beginning in A.D. 478, when the ambitious Tuoba emperor Xiaowendi (471—499) initiated his grand plan of converting his people to Chinese ways of living and governing, auspicious foxes were reported in many different sectors of north China and presented to the court.8 The tradition continued into the Tang, especially during the reign of Taizong (627—648), after he had taken the throne by killing his two brothers and forcing his father to abdicate. Emperor Taizong ascended the throne in the eighth month of the ninth year of Wude (626). In the eleventh month of that year, a black fox was said to have appeared in Zhengzhou. In subsequent years, black and white foxes were sent to the court as tributes from many places.9 These records reinforce the connection between the fox as good omen and the prevalence of sagely rule and use the symbolic meanings of the fox either to consolidate newly established power or to pledge local loyalty.
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