Myths and Legends of China
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.
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 Page 371into 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 Page 372they 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,Page 373refined 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. Page 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 Page 375better 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 Page 376a tortoise, and feet which were fully ten inches long. The meaning of his fox-friend’s remarks then flashed upon him.
The Magnanimous Girl