UBC Faculty Research and Publications

The Cult of the Fox Keng, Xiaofei; Hamm, Matthew


The "cult of the fox" is not a cohesive religious group. Instead, the name refers to a variety of relationships and interactions between humans and fox spirits in a range of accounts, most of the zhiguai 志怪 ("records of the strange") genre. Accordingly, the cult of the fox can be considered part of Chinese "popular" or "folk" religion, itself a general term used to refer to various religious practices in China at the local level and outside of the major traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Fox spirits are known by many names, but are most frequently referred as huxian 狐仙. The cult is regional by nature and, in the 16th-20th centuries, was primarily located in the modern day provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Northern Anhui, and Jiangsu. These areas form the focus of this entry. In addition, there were sporadic mentions of the fox cult in Southern China and fox worship has been present in Manchuria from the 19th century to the present-day. Even further afield, fox worship can be found in both Korea and Japan, though a detailed study of those areas and the relationship of their worship to Chinese practices is outside the bounds of this entry. Generally speaking, there is no distinction made between huxian ("invisible fox spirits") and living foxes as the latter are considered to be spiritual animals. In many instances, it is said that foxes are long-lived and that by cultivating themselves and learning secret arts over the course of their lifetimes they can become huxian. Because neither the fox cult nor the larger context of Chinese popular religion are closed, centrally-organized systems, huxian are thought to exist alongside a host of other human and non-human spiritual entities, including the ghosts of deceased humans, Daoist deities and immortals, gods and spirits from other popular traditions, and Buddhist Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Within this array of spiritual entities, huxian are understood as liminal, and often subversive, figures, a trait that makes them perfect figures for negotiating and mediating between different forces and domains. Fox worship is thus highly personal in nature and humans can form a variety of different relationships with foxes. Accordingly, foxes are associated with complex family dynamics (often involving wives and daughters) and are frequently worshipped by marginalized groups such as prostitutes and entertainers. Most commonly, huxian are associated with spirit mediums, particularly female mediums, who have generally had little social status in the late imperial period, despite their services being sought out by all social classes. Although huxian can, at times, bring families wealth and prosperity (though not always via moral means), they are frequently understood as dangerous, vengeful, and even malign tricksters. Many huxian accounts describe them as possessing humans, seducing humans for sport, and even subjecting humans to forcible sexual encounters. The sexual aspect of huxian has also led to their frequent association with female sexuality, conceived of as potentially dangerous to systems of patriarchal control. Indeed, the colloquial term "fox essence" (hulijing 狐狸精), which arises from fox cult practices, denotes the dualism of an enchanting woman's sexual potency and powers of lustful destruction in many literati works and popular lore up to the present. The liminal and sexual aspects of the huxian, as well as the potential for the personal concerns animating their worship to challenge established hierarchies, meant that their worship was frequently proscribed by the state. However, even suppressed, their worshiped served as a vital source of support and efficacy outside of official religious channels, especially with respect to private or even criminal concerns. In a number of cases, huxian are also domesticated and integrated into more conventional or orthodox systems. For example, stories about huxian brides frequently depict paragons of Confucian virtue who transform sexual and dangerous female huxian into demure brides. Similarly, huxian are sometimes associated with larger, more mainstream cults such as the Queen Mother of the West and even Guanyin, the Boddhisattva of compassion. Perhaps the most dramatic case is in the latter part of the Qing dynasty when huxian worship was used by state officials as a strategy for pacifying disturbances. As a result, huxian shrines were included in yamen offices and the huxian was even declared the "great guardian of the official seal." Huxian worship persists to this day in contemporary China. It continues to include spirit mediums and to occupy the marginal position that it has held throughout the centuries of the late imperial period.

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