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Myths and Legends of China, by Edward T.C. Werner, [1922], at

Chapter XV

Fox Legends

The Fox

Among the many animals worshipped by the Chinese, those at times seen emerging from coffins or graves naturally hold a prominent place. They are supposed to be the transmigrated souls of deceased human beings. We should therefore expect such animals as the fox, stoat, weasel, etc., to be closely associated with the worship of ghosts, spirits, and suchlike creatures, and that they should be the subjects of, or included in, a large number of Chinese legends. This we find. Of these animals the fox is mentioned in Chinese legendary lore perhaps more often than any other.

The subject of fox-lore has been dealt with exhaustively by my respected colleague, the late Mr Thomas Watters (formerly H.B.M. Consul-General at Canton, a man of vast learning and extreme modesty, insufficiently appreciated in his generation), in the Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, viii, 45–65, to which the reader is referred for details. Generally, the fox is a creature of ill omen, long-lived (living to eight hundred or even a thousand years), with a peculiar virtue in every part of his body, able to produce fire by striking the ground with his tail, cunning, cautious, sceptical, able to see into the future, to transform himself (usually into old men, or scholars, or pretty young maidens), and fond of playing pranks and tormenting mankind.

Fox Legends

Many interesting fox legends are to be found in a collection of stories entitled Liao chai chih i, by P’u Sung-ling (seventeenth century A.D.), part of which was translated p. 371 into English many years ago by Professor H.A. Giles and appeared in two fascinating volumes called Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. These legends were related to the Chinese writer by various people as their own experiences.

Friendship with Foxes

A certain man had an enormous stack of straw, as big as a hill, in which his servants, taking what was daily required for use, had made quite a large hole. In this hole a fox fixed his abode, and would often show himself to the master of the house under the form of an old man. One day the latter invited the master to walk into his abode; he at first declined, but accepted on being pressed; and when he got inside, lo! he saw a long suite of handsome apartments. They then sat down, and exquisitely perfumed tea and wine were brought; but the place was so gloomy that there was no difference between night and day. By and by, the entertainment being over, the guest took his leave; and on looking back the beautiful rooms and their contents had all disappeared. The old man himself was in the habit of going away in the evening and returning with the first streaks of morning; and as no one was able to follow him, the master of the house asked him one day whither he went. To this he replied that a friend invited him to take wine; and then the master begged to be allowed to accompany him, a proposal to which the old man very reluctantly consented. However, he seized the master by the arm, and away they went as though riding on the wings of the wind; and in about the time it takes to cook a pot of millet they reached a city and walked into a restaurant, where there were a number of people drinking together and making a great noise. The old man led his companion to a gallery above, from which p. 372 they could look down on the feasters below; and he himself went down and brought away from the tables all kinds of nice food and wine, without appearing to be seen or noticed by any of the company. After a while a man dressed in red garments came forward and laid upon the table some dishes of cumquats;  1 the master at once requested the old man to go down and get him some of these. “Ah,” replied the latter, “that is an upright man: I cannot approach him.” Thereupon the master said to himself, “By thus seeking the companionship of a fox, I then am deflected from the true course. Henceforth I too will be an upright man.” No sooner had he formed this resolution than he suddenly lost all control over his body, and fell from the gallery down among the revellers below. These gentlemen were much astonished by his unexpected descent; and he himself, looking up, saw there was no gallery to the house, but only a large beam upon which he had been sitting. He now detailed the whole of the circumstances, and those present made up a purse for him to pay his travelling expenses; for he was at Yü-t’ai—a thousand li from home.

The Marriage Lottery

A certain labourer, named Ma T’ien-jung, lost his wife when he was only about twenty years of age, and was too poor to take another. One day, when out hoeing in the fields, he beheld a nice-looking young lady leave the path and come tripping across the furrows toward him. Her face was well painted,  2 and she had altogether such a p. 373 refined look that Ma concluded she must have lost her way, and began to make some playful remarks in consequence. “You go along home,” cried the young lady, “and I’ll be with you by and by.” Ma doubted this rather extraordinary promise, but she vowed and declared she would not break her word; and then Ma went off, telling her that his front door faced the north, etc. At midnight the young lady arrived, and then Ma saw that her hands and face were covered with fine hair, which made him suspect at once that she was a fox. She did not deny the accusation; and accordingly Ma said to her, “If you really are one of those wonderful creatures you will be able to get me anything I want; and I should be much obliged if you would begin by giving me some money to relieve my poverty.” The young lady said she would; and next evening, when she came again, Ma asked her where the money was. “Dear me!” replied she, “I quite forgot it.” When she was going away Ma reminded her of what he wanted, but on the following evening she made precisely the same excuse, promising to bring it another day. A few nights afterward Ma asked her once more for the money, and then she drew from her sleeve two pieces of silver, each weighing about five or six ounces. They were both of fine quality, with turned-up edges,  3 and Ma was very pleased, and stored them away in a cupboard. Some months after this he happened to require some money for use, and took out these pieces; but the person to whom he showed them said they were only pewter, and easily bit off a portion of one of them with his teeth. Ma was much alarmed, and put the pieces away directly, taking the opportunity when evening came of abusing the young lady roundly. “It’s all your bad luck,” retorted she. p. 374 “Real gold would be too much for your inferior destiny.” There was an end of that; but Ma went on to say, “I always heard that fox-girls were of surpassing beauty; how is it you are not?” “Oh,” replied the young lady, “we always adapt ourselves to our company. Now you haven’t the luck of an ounce of silver to call your own; and what would you do, for instance, with a beautiful princess? My beauty may not be good enough for the aristocracy; but among your big-footed, bent-backed rustics,  4 why, it may safely be called ‘surpassing’!”

A few months passed away, and then one day the young lady came and gave Ma three ounces of silver, saying, “You have often asked me for money, but in consequence of your bad luck I have always refrained from giving you any. Now, however, your marriage is at hand, and I here give you the cost of a wife, which you may also regard as a parting gift from me.” Ma replied that he was not engaged, to which the young lady answered that in a few days a go-between would visit him to arrange the affair. “And what will she be like?” asked Ma. “Why, as your aspirations are for ‘surpassing’ beauty,” replied the young lady, “of course she will be possessed of surpassing beauty.” “I hardly expect that,” said Ma; “at any rate, three ounces of silver will not be enough to get a wife.” “Marriages,” explained the young lady, “are made in the moon;  5 mortals have nothing to do with them.” “And why must you be going away like this?” inquired Ma. “Because,” answered she, “for us to meet only by night is not the proper thing. I had p. 375 better get you another wife and have done with you.” Then when morning came she departed, giving Ma a pinch of yellow powder, saying, “In case you are ill after we are separated, this will cure you.” Next day, sure enough, a go-between did come, and Ma at once asked what the proposed bride was like; to which the former replied that she was very passable-looking. Four or five ounces of silver was fixed as the marriage present, Ma making no difficulty on that score, but declaring he must have a peep at the young lady.  6 The go-between said she was a respectable girl, and would never allow herself to be seen; however, it was arranged that they should go to the house together, and await a good opportunity. So off they went, Ma remaining outside while the go-between went in, returning in a little while to tell him it was all right. “A relative of mine lives in the same court, and just now I saw the young lady sitting in the hall. We have only got to pretend we are going to see my relative, and you will be able to get a glimpse of her.” Ma consented, and they accordingly passed through the hall, where he saw the young lady sitting down with her head bent forward while some one was scratching her back. She seemed to be all that the go-between had said; but when they came to discuss the money it appeared that the young lady wanted only one or two ounces of silver, just to buy herself a few clothes, etc., which Ma thought was a very small amount; so he gave the go-between a present for her trouble, which just finished up the three ounces his fox-friend had provided. An auspicious day was chosen, and the young lady came over to his house; when lo! she was humpbacked and pigeon-breasted, with a short neck like p. 376 a tortoise, and feet which were fully ten inches long. The meaning of his fox-friend’s remarks then flashed upon him.

The Magnanimous Girl

At Chin-ling there lived a young man named Ku, who had considerable ability, but was very poor; and having an old mother, he was very loth to leave home. So he employed himself in writing or painting  7 for people, and gave his mother the proceeds, going on thus till he was twenty-five years of age without taking a wife. Opposite to their house was another building, which had long been untenanted; and one day an old woman and a young girl came to occupy it, but there being no gentleman with them young Ku did not make any inquiries as to who they were or whence they hailed. Shortly afterward it chanced that just as Ku was entering the house he observed a young lady come out of his mother’s door. She was about eighteen or nineteen, very clever and refined-looking, and altogether such a girl as one rarely sets eyes on; and when she noticed Mr Ku she did not run away, but seemed quite self-possessed. “It was the young lady over the way; she came to borrow my scissors and measure,” said his mother, “and she told me that there is only her mother and herself. They don’t seem to belong to the lower classes. I asked her why she didn’t get married, to which she replied that her mother was old. I must go and call on p. 377 her to-morrow, and find out how the land lies. If she doesn’t expect too much, you could take care of her mother for her.” So next day Ku’s mother went, and found that the girl’s mother was deaf, and that they were evidently poor, apparently not having a day’s food in the house. Ku’s mother asked what their employment was, and the old lady said they trusted for food to her daughter’s ten fingers. She then threw out some hints about uniting the two families, to which the old lady seemed to agree; but, on consultation with her daughter, the latter would not consent. Mrs Ku returned home and told her son, saying, “Perhaps she thinks we are too poor. She doesn’t speak or laugh, is very nice-looking, and as pure as snow; truly no ordinary girl.” There ended that; until one day, as Ku was sitting in his study, up came a very agreeable young fellow, who said he was from a neighbouring village, and engaged Ku to draw a picture for him. The two youths soon struck up a firm friendship and met constantly, and later it happened that the stranger chanced to see the young lady of over the way. “Who is that?” said he, following her with his eyes. Ku told him, and then he said, “She is certainly pretty, but rather stern in her appearance.” By and by Ku went in, and his mother told him the girl had come to beg a little rice, as they had had nothing to eat all day. “She’s a good daughter,” said his mother, “and I’m very sorry for her. We must try and help them a little.” Ku thereupon shouldered a peck of rice, and, knocking at their door, presented it with his mother’s compliments. The young lady received the rice, but said nothing; and then she got into the habit of coming over and helping Ku’s mother with her work and household affairs, almost as if she had been her daughter-in-law, for which Ku was very grateful to her, p. 378 and whenever he had anything nice he always sent some of it in to her mother, though the young lady herself never once took the trouble to thank him. So things went on until Ku’s mother got an abscess on her leg, and lay writhing in agony day and night. Then the young lady devoted herself to the invalid, waiting on her and giving her medicine with such care and attention that at last the sick woman cried out, “O that I could secure such a daughter-in-law as you to see this old body into its grave!” The young lady soothed her, and replied, “Your son is a hundred times more filial than I, a poor widow’s only daughter.” “But even a filial son makes a bad nurse,” answered the patient; “besides, I am now drawing toward the evening of my life, when my body will be exposed to the mists and the dews, and I am vexed in spirit about our ancestral worship and the continuance of our line.” As she was speaking Ku walked in; and his mother, weeping, said, “I am deeply indebted to this young lady; do not forget to repay her goodness.” Ku made a low bow, but the young lady said, “Sir, when you were kind to my mother, I did not thank you; why then thank me?” Ku thereupon became more than ever attached to her; but could never get her to depart in the slightest degree from her cold demeanour toward himself. One day, however, he managed to squeeze her hand, upon which she told him never to do so again; and then for some time he neither saw nor heard anything of her. She had conceived a violent dislike to the young stranger above mentioned; and one evening, when he was sitting talking with Ku, the young lady appeared. After a while she got angry at something he said, and drew from her robe a glittering knife about a foot long. The young man, seeing her do this, ran out in a fright p. 379 and she after him, only to find that he had vanished. She then threw her dagger up into the air, and whish! a streak of light like a rainbow, and something came tumbling down with a flop. Ku got a light, and ran to see what it was; and lo! there lay a white fox, head in one place and body in another. “There is your friend,” cried the girl; “I knew he would cause me to destroy him sooner or later.” Ku dragged it into the house, and said, “Let us wait till to-morrow to talk it over; we shall then be more calm.” Next day the young lady arrived, and Ku inquired about her knowledge of the black art; but she told Ku not to trouble himself about such affairs, and to keep it secret or it might be prejudicial to his happiness. Ku then entreated her to consent to their union, to which she replied that she had already been as it were a daughter-in-law to his mother, and there was no need to push the thing further. “Is it because I am poor?” asked Ku. “Well, I am not rich,” answered she, “but the fact is I had rather not.” She then took her leave, and the next evening when Ku went across to their house to try once more to persuade her the young lady had disappeared, and was never seen again.

The Boon-companion

Once upon a time there was a young man named Ch’ê, who was not particularly well off, but at the same time very fond of his wine; so much so that without his three stoups of liquor every night he was quite unable to sleep, and bottles were seldom absent from the head of his bed. One night he had waked up and was turning over and over, when he fancied some one was in the bed with him; but then, thinking it was only the clothes which had slipped off, he put out his hand to feel, and in doing so touched p. 380 something silky like a cat. Striking a light, he found it was a fox, lying in a drunken sleep like a dog; and then looking at his wine bottle he saw that it had been emptied. “A boon-companion,” said he, laughing, as he avoided startling the animal, and, covering it up, lay down to sleep with his arm across it, and the candle alight so as to see what transformation it might undergo. About midnight the fox stretched itself, and Ch’ê cried, “Well, to be sure, you’ve had a nice sleep!” He then drew off the clothes, and beheld an elegant young man in a scholar’s dress; but the young man jumped up, and, making a low obeisance, returned his host many thanks for not cutting off his head. “Oh,” replied Ch’ê, “I am not averse to liquor myself; in fact they say I’m too much given to it. If you have no objection, we’ll be a pair of bottle-and-glass chums.” So they lay down and went to sleep again, Ch’ê urging the young man to visit him often, and saying that they must have faith in each other. The fox agreed to this, but when Ch’ê awoke in the morning his bedfellow had already disappeared. So he prepared a goblet of first-rate wine in expectation of his friend’s arrival, and at nightfall sure enough he came. They then sat together drinking, and the fox cracked so many jokes that Ch’ê said he regretted he had not known him before. “And truly I don’t know how to repay your kindness,” replied the former, “in preparing all this nice wine for me.” “Oh,” said Ch’ê, “what’s a pint or so of wine?—nothing worth speaking of.” “Well,” rejoined the fox, “you are only a poor scholar, and money isn’t so easily to be got. I must see if I can’t secure a little wine capital for you.” Next evening, when he arrived, he said to Ch’ê, “Two miles down toward the south-east you will find some silver lying by the wayside. Go early in the morning and get it.” So on the morrow p. 381 Ch’ê set off, and actually obtained two lumps of silver, with which he bought some choice morsels to help them out with their wine that evening. The fox now told him that there was a vault in his backyard which he ought to open; and when he did so he found therein more than a hundred strings of cash.  8 “Now then,” cried Ch’ê, delighted, “I shall have no more anxiety about funds for buying wine with all this in my purse!” “Ah,” replied the fox, “the water in a puddle is not inexhaustible. I must do something further for you.” Some days afterward the fox said to Ch’ê, “Buckwheat is very cheap in the market just now. Something is to be done in that line.” Accordingly Ch’ê bought over forty tons, and thereby incurred general ridicule; but by and by there was a bad drought, and all kinds of grain and beans were spoilt. Only buckwheat would grow, and Ch’ê sold off his stock at a profit of 1000 per cent. His wealth thus began to increase; he bought two hundred acres of rich land, and always planted his crops, corn, millet, or what not, upon the advice of the fox secretly given him beforehand. The fox looked on Ch’ê’s wife as a sister, and on Ch’ê’s children as his own; but when subsequently Ch’ê died it never came to the house again.

Click to enlarge

Chia Tzŭ-lung Finds the Stone

The Alchemist  9

At Ch’ang-an there lived a scholar named Chia Tzŭ-lung, who one day noticed a very refined-looking stranger; and, on making inquiries about him, learned that he was a Mr Chên who had taken lodgings hard by. Accordingly, Chia called next day and sent in his card, but did not see p. 382 Chên, who happened to be out at the time. The same thing occurred thrice; and at length Chia engaged some one to watch and let him know when Mr Chên was at home. However, even then the latter would not come forth to receive his guest, and Chia had to go in and rout him out. The two now entered into conversation, and soon became mutually charmed with each other; and by and by Chia sent off a servant to bring wine from a neighbouring wine-shop. Mr Chên proved himself a pleasant boon-companion, and when the wine was nearly finished he went to a box and took from it some wine-cups and a large and beautiful jade tankard; into the latter he poured a single cup of wine, and immediately it was filled to the brim. They then proceeded to help themselves from the tankard; but however much they took out, the contents never seemed to diminish. Chia was astonished at this, and begged Mr Chên to tell him how it was done. “Ah,” replied Mr Chên, “I tried to avoid making your acquaintance solely because of your one bad quality—avarice. The art I practise is a secret known to the Immortals only: how can I divulge it to you?” “You do me wrong,” rejoined Chia, “in thus attributing avarice to me. The avaricious, indeed, are always poor.” Mr Chên laughed, and they separated for that day; but from that time they were constantly together, and all ceremony was laid aside between them. Whenever Chia wanted money Mr Chên would bring out a black stone, and, muttering a charm, would rub it on a tile or a brick, which was forthwith changed into a lump of silver. This silver he would give to Chia, and it was always just as much as he actually required, neither more nor less; and if ever the latter asked for more Mr Chên would rally him on the subject of avarice. Finally Chia determined to p. 383 try to get possession of this stone; and one day, when Mr Chên was sleeping off the fumes of a drinking-bout, he tried to extract it from his clothes. However, Chên detected him at once, and declared that they could be friends no more, and next day he left the place altogether. About a year afterward Chia was one day wandering by the river-bank, when he saw a handsome-looking stone, marvellously like that in the possession of Mr Chên; and he picked it up at once and carried it home with him. A few days passed away, and suddenly Mr Chên presented himself at Chia’s house, and explained that the stone in question possessed the property of changing anything into gold, and had been bestowed upon him long before by a certain Taoist priest whom he had followed as a disciple. “Alas!” added he, “I got tipsy and lost it; but divination told me where it was, and if you will now restore it to me I will take care to repay your kindness.” “You have divined rightly,” replied Chia; “the stone is with me; but recollect, if you please, that the indigent Kuan Chung  10 shared the wealth of his friend Pao Shu.” At this hint Mr Chên said he would give Chia one hundred ounces of silver; to which the latter replied that one hundred ounces was a fair offer, but that he would far sooner have Mr Chên teach him the formula to utter when rubbing the stone on anything, so that he might try the thing once himself. Mr Chên was afraid to do this; whereupon Chia cried out, “You are an Immortal yourself; you must know well enough that I would never deceive a friend.” So Mr Chên was prevailed upon to teach him the formula, and then Chia would have tried the art upon the immense stone p. 384 washing-block  11 which was lying near at hand had not Mr Chên seized his arm and begged him not to do anything so outrageous. Chia then picked up half a brick and laid it on the washing-block, saying to Mr Chên, “This little piece is not too much, surely?” Accordingly Mr Chên relaxed his hold and let Chia proceed; which he did by promptly ignoring the half-brick and quickly rubbing the stone on the washing-block. Mr Chên turned pale when he saw him do this, and made a dash forward to get hold of the stone, but it was too late; the washing-block was already a solid mass of silver, and Chia quietly handed him back the stone. “Alas! alas!” cried Mr Chên in despair, “what is to be done now? For, having thus irregularly conferred wealth upon a mortal, Heaven will surely punish me. Oh, if you would save me, give away one hundred coffins  12 and one hundred suits of wadded clothes.” “My friend,” replied Chia, “my object in getting money was not to hoard it up like a miser.” Mr Chên was delighted at this; and during the next three years Chia engaged in trade, taking care to fulfil always his promise to Mr Chên. At the expiration of that time Mr Chên himself reappeared, and, grasping Chia’s hand, said to him, “Trustworthy and noble friend, when we last parted the Spirit of Happiness impeached me before God,  13 and my name was erased from the list of p. 385 angels. But now that you have carried out my request that sentence has been rescinded. Go on as you have begun, without ceasing.” Chia asked Mr Chên what office he filled in Heaven; to which the latter replied that he was only a fox who, by a sinless life, had finally attained to that clear perception of the truth which leads to immortality. Wine was then brought, and the two friends enjoyed themselves together as of old; and even when Chia had passed the age of ninety years the fox still used to visit him from time to time. p. 386


386:1 Literally ‘golden oranges.’ These are skilfully preserved by the Cantonese, and form a delicious sweetmeat for dessert.

386:2 Only slave-girls and women of the poorer classes and old women omit this very important part of a Chinese lady’s toilet.

386:3 Alluding probably to the shape of the ‘shoe’ or ingot of silver.

386:4 Slave-girls do not have their feet compressed.

386:5 Wherein resides an old gentleman who ties together with a red cord the feet of those destined to become man and wife. From this bond there is no escape, no matter what distance may separate the affianced pair.

386:6 This proceeding is highly improper, but is ‘winked at’ in a large majority of Chinese betrothals.

386:7 The usual occupation of poor scholars who are ashamed to go into trade and who have not enterprise enough to start as doctors or fortune-tellers. Besides painting pictures and fans, and illustrating books, these men write fancy scrolls in the various ornamental styles so much prized by the Chinese; they keep accounts for people, and write or read business and private letters for the illiterate masses.

386:8 Say about £10.

386:9 Alchemy is first mentioned in Chinese history B.C. 133, and was widely cultivated in China during the Han dynasty by priests of the Taoist religion.

386:10 Kuan Chung and Pao Shu are the Chinese types of friendship. They were two statesmen of considerable ability who flourished in the seventh century B.C.

386:11 These are used, together with a heavy wooden bâton, by the Chinese washerman, the effect being most disastrous to a European wardrobe.

386:12 To provide coffins for poor people has ever been regarded as an act of transcendent merit. The tornado at Canton in April 1878, in which several thousand lives were lost, afforded an admirable opportunity for the exercise of this form of charity—an opportunity which was largely taken advantage of by the benevolent.

386:13 For usurping its prerogative by allowing Chia to obtain wealth.

Next: Chapter XVI. Miscellaneous Legends