While the nine-tailed fox (also known as a fox spirit) is a staple of eastern Asian folktales and myths, its imagining and treatment varies between countries. Some similarities are shared in the number of tails and possession of magical powers – especially the powers of transformation, which is typically used to take on a female human form. However, the portrayal of these mythical foxes varies across countries. Understanding the reasons for this difference may help in better understanding the historical and cultural contexts of the eastern Asian region as a whole.
The informant is a Chinese national with a strong interest in Japanese and Korean culture. With this background across cultural works of three countries, he pointed out to me how each of the three countries portray the nine-tailed fox very differently:
“In China, the nine-tailed fox is emphasized as a creature of… umm… yin, the side of the universe associated with the feminine, and passive elements. It is also considered a manipulator of men under human form. Japan’s nine-tailed fox is a long-lived villain who caused tyranny in many countries, eventually settling in Japan as a powerful yokai, before being slain by an entire army. They reference this kind of nine-tailed fox in popular culture a lot, like the one from Naruto. Finally in Korea, they are seen as hunters of human essence by eating the livers of charmed men to become more powerful… you probably see them a lot over summer break*.”
*Major Korean broadcasting channels have summer programming slots for traditional horror stories.
This variation of the nine-tailed fox between the three countries can be explained when considering the Confucian school of thought and its treatment of women. The nine-tailed fox as a feminine figure could have been demonized over time, as the concept of powerful, dangerous women is at odds with Confucian ideals of obedient women: In areas with strong Confucian tradition – such as China and Korea – the nine-tailed fox is associated with actions of trickery, seduction and betrayal. However, in less Confucian areas like Japan, the nine-tailed fox is far less sexualized: it is seen more as an evil monster than as a seductress.