Huli jing (Chinese: 狐狸精; literally: ‘fox spirit’) or jiuweihu (九尾狐; literally: ‘nine-tailed fox’) are Chinese mythological creatures who can be either good or bad spirits.
Nine-tailed foxes appear in Chinese folklore, literature, and mythology, in which, depending on the tale can be a good or a bad omen.
During the Han dynasty, the development of ideas about interspecies transformation had taken place in Chinese culture. The idea that non-human creatures with advancing age could assume human form is presented in works such as the Lunheng by Wang Chong (27–91). As these traditions developed, the fox’s capacity for transformation was shaped.
The nine-tailed fox occurs in the Shanhaijing (Classic of Mountains and Seas), compiled from the Warring States period to the Western Han period (circa 4th to circa 1st century BC). The work states:
The Land of Green-Hills lies north of Tianwu. The foxes there have four legs and nine tails. According to another version, it is located north of Sunrise Valley.
In chapter 14 of the Shanhaijing, Guo Pu had commented that the nine-tailed fox was an auspicious omen that appeared during times of peace. However, in chapter 1, another aspect of the nine-tailed fox is described:
Three hundred li farther east is Green-Hills Mountain, where much jade can be found on its south slope and green cinnabar on its north. There is a beast here whose form resembles a fox with nine tails. It makes a sound like a baby and is a man-eater. Whoever eats it will be protected against insect-poison (gu).
In one ancient myth, Yu the Great encountered a white nine-tailed fox, which he interpreted as an auspicious sign that he would marry Nüjiao. In Han iconography, the nine-tailed fox is sometimes depicted at Mount Kunlun and along with Xi Wangmu in her role as the goddess of immortality. According to the first-century Baihutong (Debates in the White Tiger Hall), the fox’s nine tails symbolize abundant progeny.
Describing the transformation and other features of the fox, Guo Pu (276–324) made the following comment:
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.
The Youyang Zazu made a connection between nine-tailed foxes and the divine:
Among the arts of the Way, there is a specific doctrine of the celestial fox. [The doctrine] says that the celestial fox has nine tails and a golden color. It serves in the Palace of the Sun and Moon and has its own fu (talisman) and a jiao ritual. It can transcend yin and yang.
Popular fox worship during the Tang dynasty has been mentioned in a text entitled Hu Shen (Fox gods):
Since the beginning of the Tang, many commoners have worshiped fox spirits. They make offerings in their bedchambers to beg for their favor. The foxes share people’s food and drink. They do not serve a single master. At the time there was a figure of speech saying, “Where there is no fox demon, no village can be established.”
In the Song dynasty, fox spirit cults, such as those dedicated to Daji, became outlawed, but their suppression was unsuccessful. For example, in 1111, an imperial edict was issued for the destruction of many spirit shrines within Kaifeng, including those of Daji.
In Chinese mythology, it is believed that all things are capable of acquiring human forms, magical powers, and immortality, provided that they receive sufficient energy, in such forms as human breath or essence from the moon and the sun.
The fox spirits encountered in tales and legends are usually females and appear as young, beautiful women. One of the most infamous fox spirits in Chinese mythology was Daji (妲己), who is portrayed in the Ming shenmo novel Fengshen Yanyi. A beautiful daughter of a general, she was married forcibly to the cruel tyrant Zhou Xin (紂辛 Zhòu Xīn). A nine-tailed fox spirit who served Nüwa, whom Zhou Xin had offended, entered into and possessed her body, expelling the true Daji’s soul. The spirit, as Daji, and her new husband schemed cruelly and invented many devices of torture, such as forcing righteous officials to hug red-hot metal pillars. Because of such cruelties, many people, including Zhou Xin’s own former generals, revolted and fought against Zhou Xin’s dynasty, Shang. Finally, King Wen of Zhou, one of the vassals of Shang, founded a new dynasty named after his country. The fox spirit in Daji’s body was later driven out by Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), the first Prime Minister of the Zhou Dynasty and her spirit condemned by Nüwa herself for excessive cruelty.
Typically fox spirits were seen as dangerous, but some of the stories in Pu Songling’s Liaozhai Zhiyi are love stories between a fox appearing as a beautiful girl and a young human male. In the fantasy novel The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt, a huli jing teaches a young girl magic, enabling her to conjure armies with her spells.
Belief in fox spirits has also been implicated as an explanatory factor in the incidence of attacks of koro, a culture-bound syndrome found in southern China and Malaysia in particular.
There is mention of the fox-spirit in Chinese Chán Buddhism, when Linji Yixuan compares them to voices that speak of the Dharma, stating “the immature young monks, not understanding this, believe in these fox-spirits…”