The Cult of the Fox

The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China

Xiaofei Kang
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Cult of the Fox
    Book Description:

    For more than five centuries the shamanistic fox cult has attracted large portions of the Chinese population and appealed to a wide range of social classes. Deemed illicit by imperial rulers and clerics and officially banned by republican and communist leaders, the fox cult has managed to survive and flourish in individual homes and community shrines throughout northern China. In this new work, the first to examine the fox cult as a vibrant popular religion, Xiaofei Kang explores the manifold meanings of the fox spirit in Chinese society. Kang describes various cult practices, activities of worship, and the exorcising of fox spirits to reveal how the Chinese people constructed their cultural and social values outside the gaze of offical power and morality.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50822-3
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Map: The Chinese Empire in the Early Twentieth Century
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    My mother recalls that the backyard of her childhood home in a suburb of Beijing during the 1940s contained a small shrine. It was dedicated to a “xianjia,” the respectful term for fox spirits in the local language. Throughout her childhood, she tried to avoid it, and whenever she had to pass by, she ran as fast as she could without daring to look at it. She was afraid that if she came in close contact with the shrine she would invoke the spirits inside, causing them to haunt her and visit disasters upon her. As frightening as the fox...

  7. 1 Foxes in Early Chinese Tradition
    (pp. 14-43)

    The fox worship witnessed here by the Tang scholar Zhang Zhuo (658–730) seems to have been deeply rooted in an age-old tradition spanning a thousand years of Chinese history, for this passage is found along with some eighty records of fox spirits dating from the Han (206 b.c.–220 a.d.) to the early Song (960–1279) in the tenth-century encyclopedic anthology, Taiping guangji (Extensive Records of the Taiping Reign). This chapter explores Chinese conceptions of foxes from ancient times to the Song. I first trace the mythical origin of the fox and its divinatory meanings in Chinese political culture...

  8. 2 Huxian and the Spread of the Fox Cult
    (pp. 44-71)

    In 1529, while traveling in the county of Linzi, Shandong, Lang Ying (1487–1566), a native of the southern province of Zhejiang, claimed that he had heard of fox metamorphoses in the north, and therefore he curiously consulted some local people about the matter. Here is what he learned:

    Foxes sneak into the shabby houses of poor families, jump on beds, and open their mouths to steal people’s breath. When people wake up and smell a fox, they will shout in fear: “Beat the fox! Beat the fox!” But by this time the foxes are long gone. Practicing like this...

  9. 3 Foxes and Domestic Worship
    (pp. 72-96)

    Ming-Qing official regulations concerning popular religion stipulated that:

    The common people are to make offerings to uncared-for ghosts of the village and county and the spirits of their grandparents and parents. They may also sacrifice to the spirit of the stove. All other [sacrifices] are prohibited.¹

    Historians and anthropologists of China have noted that the above three categories of spiritual beings—the Stove God, ancestors, and wandering ghosts—have been worshipped by Chinese families up until today. They occupy designated areas in the domestic arena: the Stove God resides above the stove, a symbol of the family as the smallest...

  10. 4 Foxes and Spirit Mediums
    (pp. 97-126)

    Spirit mediums have been an important component of Chinese religious life from archaic times to the present, and certain ritual forms and practices have persisted through the vicissitudes of time. Ming-Qing anecdotal records capture certain moments of spirit mediums’ practices, but modern ethnographic works are necessary to construct a more complete picture of the fox cult in local communities. Through these sources, we see that fox possession became an efficient tool for the underprivileged, especially women, to assume authority outside of family structure and to provide professional services to a variety of social groups. The gentry elite might hold bias...

  11. 5 Foxes and Local Cults
    (pp. 127-160)

    We have seen fox worship and fox exorcism in domestic settings and through spirit mediums. However, foxes by no means dominated domestic worship and spirit medium cults in north China; they were marginal in people’s religious life. How did fox spirits fit into the rich and complex religious landscape of north China, and more specifically, how did the Chinese imagine fox spirits in relation to other popular deities? Only by studying fox spirits in the context of other prominent local cults in north China can we reach a fuller understanding of how the marginal foxes embodied both subservience and resistance...

  12. 6 Fox Spirits and Officials
    (pp. 161-190)

    “In order to govern the local people, one has to first govern their gods and spirits.”¹ So claimed the retired Ming scholar-official Kang Hai (1475–1570) when compiling the local history of his native county, Wugong in northern Shaanxi. This belief was widely shared by rulers and local administrators in late imperial times. As the state attempted to monopolize the channels for communication with spirits and deities, it engaged in combat with and proscription of local cults to strengthen its link with the divine world, reinforce its legitimacy, and consolidate its control of society. But recent studies of Chinese history...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 191-202)

    The fox has been a multivocal symbol in Chinese culture. During late imperial and modern times, records of fox spirits proliferated on an unprecedented level. Fox cult practices flourished in north China and Manchuria and spread to many other parts of China. Fox spirits assumed many different divine roles: gods of wealth; patron deities of individuals, families, spirit mediums, and sectarian activities; protectors of prostitutes and entertainers; guardians of the official seal; and sometime subordinates and sometime surrogates of the prominent goddess Bixia Yuanjun. Fox shrines were established in countless locations—inner chambers, backyards, ancestral shrines, roadsides, temples, offices, and...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 203-234)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 235-240)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 241-260)
  17. Index
    (pp. 261-270)