Neither god nor demon, the huli jing has long existed in folklore as both divine messengers and malevolent tricksters. To this day, they have a strong presence in pop culture in not just Asia, but the whole world. We briefly covered the huli jing and their appearances in both Shang-Chi and Eternal Love, but here we’ll take a deeper dive into their legitimately fascinating lore. This is the story of the Chinese fox spirit.
To explain from the beginning, the concept of a fox spirit is incredibly old. The earliest recorded appearances of the huli jing are as companions to the Queen Mother of the West. Depicted as early as the Shang Dynasty between 1600 BCE and 1046 BCE, this version of the fox spirit framed them as auspicious helpers and messengers to the goddess. They were said to live and serve in the Palace of the Sun and Moon.
With the rise of Taoism in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), the Queen Mother of the West was raised to a position equivalent to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, who is sometimes referred to in Buddhism as “the most widely beloved goddess.” She became a patron goddess of women without family, such as daoist nuns or female artists. As she rose to new power in the pantheon, so too did her servants, the huli jing. Over time, the foxes were recognized as spirits major enough to warrant their own worship. Slowly, their imagery separated from the Queen Mother of the West, and they became deities in their own rights. People began to worship them in small, personal altars in their yards and bedrooms, praying for fertility and wealth. At this point in time, the huli jing appeared in many stories, playing anything from tricksters to scholars to lovers. They were characterized as being mischievous but benevolent, intelligent and devoted.
By the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD), things took a sharp turn for the huli jing. Practice of fox worship was outwardly banned, and although the ban itself had limited success, many fox shrines were destroyed, especially throughout the city of Kaifeng. Huli jing began to be characterized as more evil. In some stories from this period, the fox is a vindictive, troublemaking spirit who eats humans and curses people who cross them.
One myth that rose to popularity is the story of Daji, a favoured consort of King Zhou, the final king of the Shang Dynasty. In this tale, the original Daji was killed by a malevolent fox spirit who then takes her place and captivates King Zhou. As he begins to neglect the court to spend more time with her, Daji uses her growing power to torture the innocent and cause strife across the palace. She became crueler and crueler, inventing new torture instruments and taking people apart to see how they work. In the end, there was an uprising; Daji was blamed for the fall of the Shang Dynasty, and was executed by the new King Wu.
As one might expect from such an ancient creature, there is no one "right" depiction of the huli jing. Different stories characterize them as either kind or cruel, and there is no single fox god that encompasses all of these stories. What can be said however, is that there are some traits which are almost always associated with the fox spirit. At their core, they are shapeshifters with human-like wisdom and the ability to bewitch or curse. Although a huli jing can be killed, it cannot die from old age. Like people, the huli jing can cultivate. It’s said that they begin as ordinary foxes who grow in power as they age. When they reach the age of fifty, they can shapeshift into women. At the ripe age of a hundred, they can become beautiful young women or men. If they cultivate over a thousand years, they transcend into a celestial fox, which is the most powerful version of the huli jing.
Perhaps these traits sound oddly familiar. Over time, stories of the huli jing were taken out of China and spread across Asia, eventually leading to similar creatures such as the Korean gumiho or the Japanese kitsune. Then, as time went on, they integrated with the local culture, slowly taking on their own unique characteristics.
The Korean gumiho, for example, is depicted almost exclusively as malevolent, man-eating temptresses, who struggle to fight against their violent, animal-like instincts. They have a particular taste for human hearts or livers, and are sometimes described as half-human, half-foxes who roam graves at night searching for organs. Unlike the huli jing or the kitsune, the gumiho does not cultivate to attain divinity. Instead, if they can resist consuming humans for a thousand days, they can become human themselves.
In many respects, the Japanese kitsune is very similar to the Chinese huli jing. They are depicted as both good and evil, as tricksters and lovers, and with supernatural wisdom. But where the Chinese perception of fox spirits developed linearly as popular opinion changed across dynasties, the Japanese kitsune actually branched out and subdivided into many different types - a lot of regional variations, and two common categories. The Inari are good foxes and messenger spirits of Inari Ōkami, god of fertility, agriculture and industry. In contrast, there are the Yako, who are mischievous and malicious. One other major difference between the kitsune and the huli jing is that for every one-hundred years the kitsune lives, they gain a tail. Their tails are directly connected to how powerful they are. Common numbers in folktales are one, five, seven, and nine, with nine being the most a fox could achieve. When a kitsune has lived a thousand years they become a Tenko, or a heavenly fox, and ascend to heaven.
To this day, depictions of mystical fox spirits are massively popular the world over. From Ahri in League of Legends, to Ninetales from Pokémon, to Kiriko from the newly released Overwatch 2, to Bai Qian from Eternal Love, their imagery is prevalent across all forms of media. They make clever protagonists, dangerous enemies, and are core to some of the most heartfelt, personal stories ever put to paper. It also probably doesn’t hurt that they’re commonly depicted as very beautiful, too! So, the next time you see a nine-tailed fox, you can remind yourself that they’re not just designed to attract people with their cute fox features, ears and tails. They’re designed to attract people with their cute fox features, ears and tails, and they have over three thousand years of history.