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What to know about Asian fox spirits; huli jing, kumiho and kitsune

Asian fox spirit is often depicted as having nine tails. Credits: Pixabay

Different cultures have their own versions of almost the same mythical creature, which is almost always inspired by the same animal. Take the fox, for example. Although there are some variations in their depictions, the fox often appears in the folklore of many cultures.

Typically, they are known as symbols of cunning and trickery, especially in Western and Persian folklore. Perhaps this reputation derived from fox’s ability to evade hunters.

Similarly in Asian folklore, they appear as fox spirits with the ability to disguise themselves as beautiful women. The widely known Asian fox spirits are huli jing, kumiho and kitsune which comes from Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures respectively.

Here are some interesting facts and stories about these three Asian fox spirits:

1. Chinese fox spirit, Huli jing

Overall in Chinese mythology, all things are capable of acquiring human forms, magical powers and immortality.

The ideas of species being able to transform, especially from non-human to human, started during the Han Dynasty.

Since then, the idea of the fox being able to form itself into human started to take shape.

The Huli jing walks on its four legs but has nine tails, which is why it is also known as the nine-tailed fox. As for how they are able to transform into a human? A fox needs to find a skull that fits on its head to be able to transform into a human being.

Chinese fox spirits often appear as young, beautiful but dangerous women.

There are several early accounts depicting the physical appearance and capability of huli jing.

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Chinese historian Guo Pu wrote in Records from Within the Recondite, “When a fox is fifty years old, it can transform itself into a woman. When it is one hundred, it becomes a beautiful woman or a shaman; some become men and have sex with women. They can know events from more than a thousand li (miles) away and good at witchcraft, beguiling people and making them lose their senses. When they are a thousand years old, they can commune with the heavens and become heavenly foxes.”

Apparently, it is not pleasant to bump into one of these huli jing especially if you are a woman.

Qian Xiyan in the book The Garden of Cleverness (1613) said: “Foxes hide all day and run around all night. Foxes love women’s chambers, and when women in the capital have their period, they throw their dirty rags in the gutter, and the foxes come and lick up all the menstrual blood. No one sees them. This is probably the reasons they turn into monsters.”

2.Korean fox spirit, Kumiho

As all nine-tailed foxes come from China, the Korean counterpart of huli jing is a kumiho. If you are a huge Korean drama fan, you might be familiar with this fox spirit.

In 2010 My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, Shin Min-ah plays the role of a kumiho. In that version of kumiho, she has superhuman strength, is exceptionally fast and can identify people and objects from far.

On the downside, she has a fear of water. This is due to her fox bead, which stores her life energy, and is made from goblin fire.

Meanwhile in Tale of the Nine-Tailed (2020), Lee Dong-wook is a kumiho named Lee Yeon who abdicated his position as the mountain spirit of Baekdudaegan to search the reincarnation of his mortal love. He follows her soul into the afterlife to give her the fox bead as her mark when she is reborn again.

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Unlike other Asian fox spirits, kumiho is known to have a fox bead or yeowoo guseul.

According to Korean mythology, the fox bead provides power and intelligence to kumiho as well as absorb a human’s energy with it.

Furthermore, kumiho is often depicted as evil entities, compared to other fox spirits who have at least some moral compass and can therfore be either good or bad.

Just like the kumiho in Tale of the Nine Tailed, they are known for their capability to change their appearances. In most tales, they change into a beautiful woman who aims to seduce men in order to eat their livers or hearts.

In other versions of the folklore, if a kumiho abstains from killing and eating humans for a thousand days, it can be a true human and lose its evil character.

3.Japanese fox spirit, Kitsune

Just like kumiho, Japanese fox legends had their origins in Chinese huli jing. Similar to other fox spirits, kitsune is known to have shape-shifting ability.

However, they have to live a life of a normal fox for a hundred years before it can transform into a human. They can be male or female at any age but like other Asian fox spirits, kitsune’s preference is to be a young beautiful woman.

It was believed that any woman encountered alone, at dusk or night, could be kitsune. Kitsune’s other powers include fire breathing, being able to create lightning like Thor and enter people’s dreams as they please.

As for kitsune’s tails, it can have from one to nine of them. The only way to kill a kitsune is to cut off all of its tails. While only one of the tails is believed to be the source of its power, it is better to cut them all since you might not which tail is the main one.

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Kitsune can be good or bad. The zenko kitsune is a follower of Inari, the Shinto deity of agriculture, harvest and fertility. Meeting a zenko kitsune is definitely a good sign.

On the contrary, the yako kitsune is not only mischievous but evil too.

According to Japanese mythology, a fox can possess a human and the victim is always a young woman.

The method of possession? The fox may enter beneath her fingernails or through her breasts. In order to get rid the fox spirit, an exorcism should be performed on that person, preferably at an Inari shrine.

Once the victim is freed from possession, he or she would never be able to eat food favoured by kitsune such as tofu or adzuki beans.

Special mentions: Ho Tinh

The least famous among these Asian fox spirits is the Vietnamese ho tinh.

Legend has it that ho tinh is a huge nine-tailed fox that inhabited a deep cave in Long Bien.

In a typical Asian fox spirits’ move, ho tinh would disguise itself as a beautiful woman. Then she would trick its victims into following it back to the mountains.

Somewhere in the mountains is ho tinh’s cave where it would trap and feed on them.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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