The Fox in Chinese Culture

✍️ Solange CRUVEILLÉ

The Fox in Chinese Culture

The fox is a creature of intrigue and fascination to people in numerous civilizations. What is the case in China? Are foxes considered cunning or thieving, as in the West? Do they inspire fear, or do they command respect?
China has one of the world’s most multifaceted images of the fox, as well as one of the oldest traditions of fox symbolism. So much so that it is possible to talk about a “Chinese fox culture”. Beliefs go back to Antiquity and the tale of a white nine-tailed fox appearing before Yu the Great, the legendary savior-king and founder of the Xia dynasty, on Mount Tu to tell him to marry a woman from the area (21st century bce). The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a mythic geography and bestiary, also describes a nine-tailed fox who lives in the “green hills” in the north of the country, whose howls sound like a baby’s cries, and who devours humans. Eating his flesh is said to drive out demons and to give immunity from poisons (illus. 1). However, this terrifying image gradually evolved to turn the nine-tailed fox into an emissary of the “Queen Mother of the West”, who ruled over the Paradise of the West, where the peach of immortality grows. Several bas reliefs depict such a fox beside a three-footed crow, a frog and a white hare grinding the elixir of life. The fox has come to be seen as a good omen.

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Illus.1 : Nine-tailed fox of the Green Hills
Sketch by the author after the Classic of Seas and Mounts

The Ancient Chinese admired the red fox, the country’s most common fox, for its intelligence and were prepared to pay a fortune for “white fox furs”, made from the hairs of its underbelly. It was said, for example, that following a fox’s track ensured a safe passage across a frozen lake or river because foxes were able to “listen to the water below the ice.” The fox was also respected for its habit of turning its head towards its den just before it dies, which the Chinese saw as an expression of attachment and loyalty to its place of birth.

At the same time, the fox’s singular habits led to it being attributed supernatural powers. Foxes are active during the twilight hours before dawn, a time “between two worlds”, between night and day, between cold and warmth, between the yin and the yang. Because they live in dens, in the depths of the earth, a place thought to be full of yin, they can absorb the earth’s life force and thereby achieve great longevity. Many ancient texts also tell of foxes eating abandoned corpses or prowling through cemeteries to gnaw at bones, which makes them creatures close to the world of specters.
Seeing a fox was now considered a bad omen. It was thought to be the mount of demons and capable of making fire by striking its tail on the ground. Its longevity and habitat between the yin and the yang led Taoists to attribute the fox the power of metamorphosis, the ability to assume human form. When doing so, it will often adopt the features of a dead person, whose skull it places on its head while bowing toward the Great Bear. It uses this new form to pursue its quest for immortality, to become the “fox spirit,” whose powers grow stronger as it gets older. Two ways open before it. It may choose the way of study, especially texts on the occult sciences, with the aim of transcending its animal condition and achieving the state of “celestial fox.” Or it may choose the way of demons and feed off the vital energy of its human victims with whom it couples during night-time possessions. This is the Taoist sexual principle of “using yin energy to strengthen yang energy.” Female victims sometimes lose their minds, but rarely their lives, as their yin energy is inexhaustible. Male victims lose their health and then their lives. They fall prey to the succubus fox, to which they give themselves body and soul: Enslaved by the succubus’s bewitching beauty and mastery of the bedroom arts, they are deaf to the pleas of their families and friends, who can only watch them waste away, night after night. Such images of demon foxes flourished during the first millennium CE. Authors devised these terrifying but instructive tales to teach readers how to recognize deception and how to exorcise evil spirits (uttering incantations, inscribing willow or peach branches with charms, calling on Taoist priests, etc.), while warning them away from the deviant and dishonest behaviors that would make them victims of choice for the demon fox.

Male fox characters became increasingly rare in tales during the second millennium, their place being taken by vixens, who were more attractive to readers (who would all have been members of the middle and upper classes) who had been unlucky in love and marriage and who felt imprisoned by Confucianism’s strict family and social rules. Numerous stories told of the devastating effects a liaison with a vixen would have on one’s family, career, and health (a warning against syphilis, perhaps, which was running rampant at this time because of men frequenting brothels). But others portrayed virtuous and loving vixens who were benign or even kindly and who gave the people with whom they coupled both physical and emotional satisfaction. This was the grand period of romantic tales between men and vixens, launched during the Qing dynasty by Pu Songling (1640-1715), author of the renowned Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (a compilation of almost 500 tales of demons, animals with supernatural powers, and strange apparitions). Pu Songling left us with 76 tales featuring demon foxes and, especially, beautiful and heartrending vixens, such as Lotus Fragrance, Red Jade and Phenichette.

Illus.2 : Jardin des immortels renards, résidence de Pu Songling, Zibo, Shandong, Chine. Crédits S. Cruveillé 2009.

Illus.2: Garden of Immortal Foxes, Pu Songling's residence, Zibo, Shandong, China.
Credits @ S. Cruveillé 2009.

Thus, the Taoists’ demonization of foxes (first millennium ce) was followed by a process of feminization and erotization (second millennium ce), and finally humanization (last imperial dynasties).
But there is another domain in which the fox is important: the worship of animal divinities. The earliest written records of this practice, which date back to the Tangdynasty (618-907), describe people making offerings to animal gods in their homes to ask for their benevolence and protection. This veneration of animal deities began in northern China before gradually spreading to every part of the country and to every sector of society, including merchants and bureaucrats. However, these rituals were conducted mostly by seers—sometimes sorcerers—who were attributed great powers, notably the ability to predict the future and to heal. Indeed, their influence was great enough for the authorities to consider them a threat and to respond by banning the cult and issuing edicts ordering people to kill foxes and destroy temples to them. This occurred during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (712-756) and again in the year 1011, under the Northern Song dynasty. Nevertheless, the cult underwent a resurrection in the 14th century, attracting numerous devotees. It was banned once more by the Maoist regime, which condemned it as a superstition from another age, but emerged again in a few areas in the 1980s.

The traditional image of the fox has disappeared from contemporary Chinese literature, to be replaced by the Western notion of the cunning and thieving fox. However, the fox still inhabits the fantasy world (films, TV series, video games, artistic representations) (illus. 3), generally in its female form. The traditional image of the fox also survives in the collective imagination, where it continues to inspire a mixture of respect and fear, even though people are no longer afraid to kill foxes for their fur. Finally, many everyday expressions use the image of the fox, generally as a derogatory term to describe people who are clever but devious or women who are attractive but debauched and disreputable, for example. Nevertheless, the great tales of the past, both erotic and romantic, still loom large, and lovers of these ancient stories can stroll around the garden of immortal foxes at Pu Songling’s former home in Zibo, in Shandong province (illus. 2). Thus, the fox in Chinese culture has partly achieved its goal: a form of immortality…

Illus. 3 : Représentation d’une renarde à neuf queues sur une tasse en porcelaine

Illus. 3: Representation of a nine-tailed fox on a porcelain cup
(origin : Jingdezhen). Private collection S. Cruveillé.


  • Cruveillé Solange, «En quoi l'image du renard est-elle proche de celle du fantôme dans les récits fantastiques chinois ?», in Fantômes dans l’Extrême-Orient d’hier et d’aujourd’hui, Paris : inalco, novembre 2017, pp.250-275.
  • Cruveillé Solange, « Le renard dans la culture chinoise : un animal devenu démon», in L'animal, un homme comme les autres ? Bruxelles : Bruylant, 2012, pp.77-94.
  • Cruveillé Solange, «Les renardes par l'une d'elles», in Galantes Chroniques de renardes enjôleuses, Arles : P. Picquier, 2005, pp.119-132.
  • Huntington Rania, Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003, 370 p.
  • Kang Xiaofei, The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperia land Modern China, New York : Columbia University Press, 2006, 272 p.
  • Levi Jean, «Le renard, la morte et la courtisane dans la Chine classique», in études mongoles et sibériennes, Paris: Labethno, 1985, 232 p., cahier 15, pp.111-139.
  • Mathieu Rémi «Aux origines de la femme-renarde en Chine», in études mongoles et sibériennes, cahier 15, pp.83-109.

About the author

Solange CRUVEILLÉ is an associate professor of Chinese language and literature at the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier III. Her main research interest is Chinese supernatural and fantasy literature, notably the image of the fox in classic Chinese tales. This was the subject of her doctoral dissertation, defended at Aix-Marseille University. Alongside her research and teaching, she translates works of fiction.

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November 2022
Docteure en langue et littérature chinoise