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East Asia is home to several different myths of nine-tailed foxes such as the Japanese Kitsune or the Korean Kumiho. However, it’s the Chinese Huli Jing that’s likely the origin of this unique mystical spirit.
Malevolent as often as they are benevolent, Huli Jing have been both feared and worshipped in China for millennia. People both venerated them with shrines in their homes and chased suspected Huli Jing with packs of dogs whenever they saw them. Naturally, the creature that merits such contradictory responses is pretty complicated and fascinating.
Who are the Huli Jing Spirits?
Huli Jing literally translates as fox spirit. Like many other Chinese mythological creatures and like the fairies in European mythologies, the Huli Jing have a rather mixed relationship with the world of men.
Usually portrayed as beautiful foxes with nine fluffy tails, the Huli Jing are magical creatures with a vast array of abilities. They are most famous for their shapeshifting prowess, however, as well as their habit of seducing young men while transformed as beautiful maidens. A Huli Jing can have various motivations to do something like that but the main one is rather malevolent – to drain the victim’s life essence, usually in the middle of a sexual act.
At the same time, the Huli Jing can be perfectly nice and amicable. There are multiple legends in Chinese mythology that show Huli Jing helping people or themselves being the victims of humanity’s cruelty. In that way, the Huli Jing are not dissimilar to Europe’s fairy folk – when treated well, they are often benevolent, but when they are mistreated they can turn violent.
What Powers Do Huli Jing Have?
The aforementioned shapeshifting is the Huli Jing’s bread and butter. These magical fox spirits can transform into anything they want, however, they most commonly transform into beautiful, young women. This just seems to be the form that best suits their goals of acquiring life essence. Yet, there are myths of Huli Jing also transforming into older women or men too.
What’s also curious is that the Huli Jing needs to age a little before it can learn to shapeshift into a human. At 50 years of age, a Huli Jing can transform into a man or an older woman and at age 100 – into a beautiful young woman. According to some myths, the Huli Jing needs to put a human skull on its fox head before it can transform into a human but not all myths include this ritual.
Another power these fox spirits have is to charm people to do their bidding. Granted, that “bidding” is usually to copulate with the Huli Jing so she can steal your life force.
Huli Jing are also technically immortal, meaning that they can’t die from old age. They can be killed, however, be it with standard human weapons or by dogs – their biggest enemies. These nine-tailed foxes are also said to possess great intelligence and to know a lot of things about the natural and celestial realms.
Most importantly, by consuming enough life essence, a Huli Jing can one day transcend into a heavenly being. The trick is that this energy needs to come from nature and not from human beings. So, Huli Jing that prey on people will likely never become part of the celestial realm. Instead, it’s only those nine-tailed foxes that self-cultivate and draw their power from nature that will ascend to the heavens.
Essentially, we are the Huli Jing’s junk food – delicious yet unhealthy.
Are Huli Jing Good or Bad?
Neither. Or, more accurately – depending on which period of Chinese history you’re looking at. For example, during the Tang dynasty – often viewed as the Golden Age of Chinese arts and culture, fox spirit worship was quite common. People made offerings of food and drinks to fox shrines built in their own homes, asking for favors. There was even a saying at the time that Where there is no fox demon, no village can be established.
In myths from that age, the Huli Jing were mostly benevolent natural spirits that helped people whenever they were treated well. These “fox demons” would only turn against people when they were mistreated. Even when the fox worship was outlawed during the Song dynasty, the cult of the Huli Jing still persisted.
At the same time, many other myths portray those same magical foxes as evil beings who prey on people’s lives. Those myths of malevolent Huli Jing tend to be more popular today. They are also the type of myths that inspired the Japanese Kitsune nine-tailed foxes and the Korean Kumiho spirits.
Huli Jing vs. Kitsune – What Are the Differences?
They are similar but they are not the same. Here are the differences:
- In Japanese mythology, Kitsune are much closer to being actual foxes that simply age, grow extra tails, and become more magical with time. The Huli Jing also acquire new abilities with age, however, they are inherently magical spirits regardless of their age.
- Most depictions portray the Huli Jing with longer tails, human feet, fox paws instead of hands, fox ears, and a denser and coarser fur. Kitsune, on the other hand, have a more feral appearance – their hands are human but with long and sharp claws, their feet are an amalgam of fox and human features, and a softer fur coat.
- Both Kitsune and Huli Jing can be morally ambiguous and have myths that portray them as both good and evil. However, only the Huli Jing can transcend into celestial beings. Instead, the Kitsune can grow in power but always remain mere spirits in service to the Shinto goddess Inari.
Huli Jing vs. Kumiho – What Are the Differences?
- The main difference between the Korean nine-tailed foxes, Kumiho, and the Huli Jing is that the Kumiho are almost exclusively evil. There are one or two old mentions about good Kumiho foxes preserved today but all others show them as malevolent seductresses.
- The Kumiho eat much more than people’s life essence – they love eating human flesh too. Namely, the Kumiho crave organ meat, typically human hearts and livers. These demonic nine-tailed foxes are often said to go as far as to scavenge human cemeteries and dig out graves to feast on people’s corpses.
- Another major difference is that the Kumiho can never ever transcend into the heavens. It’s said that if a Kumiho refrains from eating human flesh for one thousand years, she will become an actual human one day. That remains the highest goal of a Kumiho, however, and even that is rarely achieved.
- As for the physical differences between the two – the Kumiho have even longer tails than the Huli Jing, have both human and fox ears, fox paws instead of feet, and human hands.
- The Kumiho’s magical powers and shapeshifting capabilities are also more limited – they are almost exclusively said to transform into young women. There’s only one preserved myth of a Kumiho transforming into a man and very few about them changing into older women.
Huli Jing vs. Kumiho vs. Kitsune
As you can see, the Huli Jing are quite distinct from their other Asian nine-tailed cousins. Not only are these foxes likely much older than the Japanese Kitsune and the Korean Kumiho but they also look different and have arguably much greater powers.
While the Kitsune also grow more powerful with age, the Huli Jing can literally ascend to the heavens and become a celestial being. In contrast, the Kumiho’s highest “aspirations” are to one day become human.
Still, even though they are older and more powerful, Huli Jing do often behave similarly to their Japanese and Korean cousins. Many Huki Jing are believed to transform into young maidens with the explicit goal of seducing unsuspected men and stealing their life essence.
Other times, however, a Huli Jing will happily reward a person’s mercy or generosity with wise advice, a warning, or help. Such morally ambiguous behavior is to be expected from a mythological creature as old as the Huli Jing.
Symbols and Symbolism of the Huli Jing
The Huli Jing seems to have symbolized many different things over the years given how people’s attitudes toward these creatures have switched from one era to the other.
First and foremost, like the Kitsune and the Kumiho, the Huli Jing symbolize people’s fear of young and beautiful women. As is the case with many other ancient cultures, the Chinese people feared the effect such maidens could have on both married men and young adults.
That fear has been combined with a fear of the wilderness and/or a disdain for the predatory foxes. After all, these animals used to be outright pests for farmers and livestock breeders.
At the same time, however, the Huli Jing was often revered as a heavenly spirit. This symbolizes people’s respect for the natural world and their belief that the celestial dwells in natureA Huli Jing is said to ascend to the heavens faster if she refrains from going after people’s life essence and instead focuses on self-cultivation and nature’s essence.
Importance of Huli Jing in Modern Culture
Huli Jing-inspired fictional characters can be seen all over modern pop culture, especially in China but also abroad. The most famous nine-tailed character that comes to people’s minds today is Ahri – a playable character from the League of Legends video game. However, Ahri is most likely based on the Japanese Kitsune or the Korean Kumiho nine-tailed foxes. Similarly, the Pokémon Ninetails is also likely based on a Kitsune given Pokémon’s Japanese origins.
We can see Huli Jing or characters inspired by them in many other pieces of media such as the 2008 fantasy movie Painted Skin, the 2019 American animated anthology Love, Death & Robots, the 2017 drama Once Upon a Time, as well as the 2020 fantasy Soul Snatcher. And, of course, there’s also the 2021 Marven block-buster Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
FAQs About Huli Jing
No, these are mythical creatures that feature in various mythologies but don’t exist in real life.
Huli Jing means fox spirit in Chinese.
These mythical creatures can shapeshift, often into the form of beautiful women.
They can be good or bad depending on the myth.