Accounts of foxes with supernatural powers have existed for millennia. The huli jing (狐狸精 húlijīng) is a fox spirit that arose out of Chinese traditions, predating the Japanese kitsune and Korean kumiho. Despite attempts to suppress the practice, the huli jing was venerated at household shrines throughout China for many centuries.
The fox can be a force of benevolence or malevolence, depending on its individual nature, thus the intentions of these mischievous creatures are suspect when they interact with humans. A huli jing may attempt seduction to steal human essence, curse those they seek vengeance against, reward worshippers with wealth, or provide sage guidance.
“Without fox demons, no village is complete.” —Chinese proverb
Chinese Fox Spirits
In Chinese, húli means ‘fox’ and jīng is the word for essence. The huli jing is believed to be a creature of yin that consumes masculine yang energy. Huli jing is used as a colloquial expression for what is seen as the dangerous power of those with seductive beauty, with the negative connotation of licentiousness.
Hujing is an older term used to describe fox spirits. Laohu (aged fox) refers to long-lived foxes. Foxes described as Huxian (狐仙) are those who are transcendent or immortal. Jiuwei hu (九尾狐) refers to a nine-tailed fox, the oldest and most magical of foxes.
As huli jing age, their magical abilities increase. A long-lived fox spirit can transcend from a lower animal to a human, then to a transcendent being. As a fox ages it becomes an expert at deception and seduction, with countless varieties and transformations.
“At the age of fifty, a fox can change into a woman. At the age of a hundred, it can change into a beautiful girl or a wizard or a man who seduces women; it can know about happenings a thousand li distant; it can bewitch people, leading them astray and causing them to lose their wits. At the age of a thousand, it can communicate with heaven and become a celestial fox.”
— Kuo Po, AD 324
Unlike a kitsune or kumiho, which tend to take the form of a beautiful woman, a huli jing can appear as a woman or a man who is either young or old. The huli jing often presents as a beautiful young woman set on seduction, but it can also take the form of a charming young man or a wise elder. When a huli jing appears in a human disguise, it’s safe to assume that it’s up to no good.
The fox characteristics of the huli jing sometimes slip through despite the transformation, with a tail or ears emerging from its human form.
“A fox’s tail is not easily hidden.” — Chinese proverb
If a fox in human form is discovered, humans may kill it for its trickery without fear of reprisal. All spirit foxes, whether huli jing, kitsune, or kumiho, are afraid of dogs. When confronted by a dog, a fox in human form may become so unnerved that it will revert to its true vulpine figure and flee. Some accounts claim that huli jing can only take on the appearance of a human during the day.
Abilities and Nature
Huli jing are shapeshifters who develop the ability to transform into human form as they age. According to some accounts, the transformation involves a ritual in which the fox places a human skull on its head.
Other supernatural powers include creating illusions or glamours, human speech, the ability to disappear and reappear, becoming mist-like, communicating with Heaven, and immortality. The appearance of foxes can be an omen of death, foretelling war and disaster.
In China, the morality of foxes is ambiguous. The manner in which huli jing interact with humans can be characterized as good or evil, depending on their nature. Spirit foxes present in a variety of ways: through a dream, haunting people or places, causing sickness or death, granting wealth or prosperity, providing healing or fertility services, or delivering moral advice.
“Some say that when the yelping kind [of fox] are old, they become monsters. They wear a dry skull on their heads, clothe themselves with oak leaves, and assume a human guise. These creatures do harm in countless ways. People set fire to the mountains and dig up their burrows, grasping arrows and driving their hounds, thinking if fox kind is eradicated, monstrosity will cease. They do not know that although foxes can become monsters, they do not necessarily do so. Once in a while one becomes a monster, but they do not all become monsters. …”
—He Bang’e, 1791, in Occasional Records of Conversations at Night
The most common type of malicious trick used by huli jing is to take human form for the purposes of seduction. Sexual congress is one of the ways foxes can take human essence or vitality. Stealing another’s life force can also be accomplished while remaining in fox form, as huli jing are known to take their victim’s breath as they sleep. Foxes also like to deceive humans and play the role of a trickster.
Benevolent foxes, on the other hand, are known to help humans in a variety of ways. They can remain faithful to a spouse, help to find lost items, and provide gifts such as wealth, prosperity, and immortality. Some huli jing strive for self-improvement through seclusion and meditation in an effort to ascend to divinity.
Not all huli jing are created equal. The most superior foxes practice self-cultivation by absorbing essence from nature in order to refine their spirit. Through meditation and purification, foxes with these natural powers seek to attain immortality and divinity. Foxes who lack this skill instead cultivate their physical appearance in order to bewitch, delude, and possess people. By assimilating humans’ life essence, foxes enrich their own spirit. The huli jing has an ambiguous nature—a trickster striving for spiritual transcendence.
“Those [foxes] who seek alchemical transformations and try to gather spiritual essences are like scholars who attain fame by studying diligently. Those who entice men and deplete them of their sexual energies for their own benefit are taking short-cuts to achieve their goal quickly. But only [the former] can roam the islands of the immortals and ascend to the celestial realms; [the latter], by bringing harm to too many lives, often violate the code of Heaven.”
– Ji Yun, 1789, in Notebook from the Thatched Cottage of Close Scrutiny
The Path of the Huli Jing
After fifty or a hundred years of spiritual cultivation, a fox develops the ability to transform itself into a human being, growing in power and magical abilities and it continues to age. This transformational process is part of the huli jing’s attempt to ascend to a higher state of being.
“Transcendents and monsters travel different paths, but foxes are between transcendents and monsters. Therefore one could say to meet a fox is strange; one could also say it is ordinary.”
– Ji Yun, 1789, in Notebook from the Thatched Cottage of Close Scrutiny
Though one should be wary of foxes in need of human essence on their path to immortality, they should be treated respectfully. They may be mischievous tricksters, but huli jing are also intelligent, devoted, and spiritual creatures.
See our other posts to learn about the devious Korean Kumiho and the more benevolent, though still troublesome, Japanese Kitsune.
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Hi, I’m writing a book about nine tailed foxes and was wondering if I could use this information? I would of course credit in the references
Sure, as long as you just reference the material, not use or rephrase the text. Sounds like an interesting project. Best of luck!
But the 龙虎山狐仙娘娘are cultivated one . Which help mankind and already up to the ninth heaven. But you wrote it as though they are bad…..
Hi, that is a very interesting article. I have a big question, can you give me some examples of stories where Chinese foxes are afraid of the dogs or where foxes can take on human form only during the day? I’d be extremaly grateful 🙂
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