Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 18 News List

In China, the fox cult lives on

Kang Xiaofei, a young assistant professor in the US, undertook a research trip back to China to find out what she could about the cult of fox spirits

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The Cult of the Fox
By Kang Xiaofei
269 pages

Haunting rather than hunting was what foxes were associated with in ancient China, and even occasionally in modern Taiwan, as the detailed analysis offered in The Cult of the Fox abundantly and fascinatingly shows.

Studies of the irrational nature of much traditional life in China are very much the fashion in academic circles. The perusal of the secular, highly organized, Confucian society so admired by 18th century Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire is now out of fashion. Attempts to understand what the ordinary people believed and felt are considered far more important, and popular religion is understandably at the heart of this current scholarly endeavor.

Kang Xiaofei is a young assistant professor in the US, and in 1997 she undertook a research trip back to the land of her forebears to find out what she could about the cult of fox spirits in China ancient and modern. She discovered plenty, and in the center of her fieldwork research, in the Yulin region of northern Shaanxi, bordering Inner Mongolia, even uncovered an only recently deceased shaman called Lei Wu.

This man had practised healing via possession by a fox demon from the late 1940s until his arrest and imprisonment in 1959 during the anti-superstition Socialist Education Campaign. After his release he continued to practice secretly, and according to Kang's informants -- among them a well-educated accountant of 37, an illiterate ceramicist aged 67 and a blind former carpenter who had become the caretaker of the local Buddhist temple -- even administered to some high-level cadres from the regional government. As so often, apparently, the fox shrine was a hidden-away part of a larger and more public temple-complex. In this case it was a small hexagonal room, rarely unlocked and only big enough to hold three kneeling supplicants. "We don't usually open this to public worship," she was told.

The fox, it turns out, was considered by its very nature ambiguous. It was untamable and inedible, yet possessed quasi-human intelligence and itself hunted close to human habitations. Consequently it became a symbol of the marginal and the semi-legal. Its cult was illicit but widely practised. It was believed to be especially appropriate for people with feelings at variance with the official norms. If you loved someone who was already married, for instance, you wouldn't go to the regular deities for assistance, but the fox spirit might prove sympathetic to your plight.

Being a modern academic, Kang has to ask what social function these fox cults served, and she comes to the perhaps predictable, but nevertheless interesting, conclusion that they were an avenue for those not in the upper echelons of the ruling patriarchal system to vent their concerns. Women in general, unhappy wives in particular, and men occupying marginal and relatively powerless social positions were the people most likely to become mediums serving the fox spirits.

This explains well why the cult was periodically suppressed, yet also continued to flourish. The suppression was clearly half-hearted -- appearances had to be kept up, and fox-spirits were not the kind of things Confucians were in the habit of talking about. But the sort of people who resorted to them weren't going to go away, and if getting the fox shaman to cure the boils on their necks or soothe their broken hearts kept them quiet, then there wasn't much harm done. But if the emperor happened to take an interest, then of course the elite had to be able to show they had done what was expected of people in their position.

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