Ghost Lovers and Fox Spirits

For as long as there has been darkness and sounds in the night people have known fear at what lay beyond the light of the campfire. For as long as there has been death, people have wondered what awaits them on the other side. Common beliefs about these things tied communities together, some of it becoming religion, evolving from primitive animism to the most refined of beliefs. Some people have experiences which may in some way confirm their belief, some may call these experiences miracles. The stories are told and re-told, and eventually come together in a great body of work which describes the supernatural beliefs of a people in great detail: where one story may leave out an element, another will certainly include it. Tales are told from one person to another, from father to son, from one village to another. Eventually some of these are written down, and remembered. Most, are forgotten to history forever.

It is the same in China as anywhere else in the world. It is the tales that have survived, invented, copied, or recorded by scholars throughout the history of China, that begin our exploration into ghost lovers and fox spirits.

Supernatural Literature in China

The earliest surviving collections of supernatural tales were written from the third century through the sixth A.D. These collections are crude, compared to later accounts, and serve simply to record miraculous occurances that have been witnessed or told of to the writer. The tales deal with immortals, local gods, ghosts, and animal spirits, characters and situations that would be returned to again and again throughout the development of supernatural literature in China.

For example, the tale "Huang Yuan" tells of one Huang Yuan, who is led by a dog into a cave which he discovers to be inhabited by goddesses. He marries one, remaining for a few days. Then every year, on the first day of the third month, he would purify himself and his bride would appear from the clouds. We learn nothing about who this man is, what he does for a living, where he goes, etc. Often, these early tales are only a shadow of a story, as if the mere mention of an immortal or ghost in a tale would suffice to excite an audience and bring them a sense of wonder. It would not be until the seventh century and the T'ang Dynasty that the supernatural tale became an art in itself.

During the T'ang Dynasty, a new style of literary form developed, the Chuanqi tale. These tales were individual compositions, at first circulated only among friends, as vehicles displaying the strength of a writer's talents. As such, the tales became much more lively, more elaborate, and more exciting than those that came before. Supernatural occurances were woven into stories, which had a definite beginning, middle, and end, and sometimes included a moral. The only subject of greater interest to T'ang Dynasty writers was Love, but sometimes this too could be easily combined in a tale of the supernatural.

By the ninth century A.D., Chuanqi tales were being collected into books and so gained a wider audience. The subjects were largely the same as the earlier stories, dealing as they did with ghosts, gods, Taoist immortals, and animal spirits. They still maintained the sense of awe and wonder in the face of the supernatural that so defined the stories from the Warring States period and earlier. Added to this is a strict, linear, documentary style for the tales. Almost every story is placed in the proper time and proper year. Perhaps without realizing it, the writers of these collections were heavily influenced by Sima Qian, a court historian of the Han dynasty, who wrote very clear, linear histories which he filled with colorful biographies and happenings, and who is widely regarded as the father of history in China.

One T'ang dynasty tale, "Between Body and Soul," which later became the basis for a Yuan Dynasty opera, tells the story of a young man who finds out his childhood sweetheart is to marry someone else, and so leaves, traveling to the capital to seek office (This takes place in the third year of the reign of emperor T'ien Shou, in case you doubt (692 AD)). On his way, his young love catches up with him, having decided to run away from home to be with him. They live together in the capital for the next five years, having two children, before deciding to go back to their hometown. There, the young man strikes out ahead to visit her parents, and give them the news, her parents were much surprised and explained that his young love has been here, in town, sick in her room the whole time. When the vibrant and alive woman meets the sick one, they merge together into one person again. Thus is spiritual love stronger than the physical body.

Tales of the supernatural continued to be collected and written in the Sung Dynasty, but under the influence of the more rationalistic, Confucian age, the mystical element of the tales was substantially reduced. While the supernatural stories of this time are no less polished than those from the T'ang, they are impovershed creatively. The supernatural elements are simply stock pieces, gathered from earlier tales, now told without excitement, but rather in a matter-of-fact way. Instead of focusing on the supernatural world, tales of the Sung Dynasty concerned themselves with the mortal world. Therefore the supernatural tale came to emphasize such matters as the poetry a protagonist would write, the nature of human desires, or the historic details in the setting of the tale; but seldom did the story emphasize the supernatural element itself. The Ming Dynasty writers followed this model, adding to it a greater strength of narrative style, often times linking one or more stories to form a more interesting and complex whole. The supernatural tale finds its Ming Dynasty peak in the works of Ch'u Yu and Li Chen, who put together about a dozen stories each.

In the Ch'u Yu tale "Ts'ui-ts'ui" a man's wife is taken captive in a war, and after he searches long for her, he finds she is now the favorite concubine of a powerful General. Pretending to be her brother, he enlists in the generals service. They are able to exchange but one poem together, until at last they realize they will only be together again in death. So die they do, and are buried alongside one another. Years later, one of their former servants is in the area, and the (now)ghostly lovers invite her into their home and offer her entertainment and recite a poem together about their happiness.

It can be seen in the above example that, although the complexity and human interest of the supernatural tale had much improved, the supernatural component is not examined or explored, instead being used simply as a device to tell a compelling human drama. It would not be until the Qing Dynasty collection of stories from Pu Songling that allegory, narrative strength, and a sense of wonder at the supernatural world would at last combine.

Pu Songling's Liaozhai Zhiyi

Pu Songling, lived 1640-1715, was a poor, undistinguished scholar who had an uneventful life. He took the lowest degree, the bachelor's, before he was twenty, but ten years later, he still had not succeeded in passing the second, the master's degree, due to his neglect of the standard fields of academic study. His loss of personal status is the world's gain, however, because his overriding interest was in tales of the supernatural, and his collected works, the bible of Chinese supernatural folktales.

As Pu Songling himself writes, in the introduction to his book:

"I am but the dust in the sunbeam, a fit laughing stock for devils. For my talents are not those of Kan Pao, elegant explorer of the records of the Gods; I am rather animated by the spirit of Su Tung-p'o, who loved to hear men speak of the supernatural. I get people to commit what they tell me in writing and subsequently I dress it up in the form of a story; and thus in the lapse of time my friends from all quarters have supplied me with quantities of material, which, from my habit of collecting, has grown into a vast pile."

A vast pile, indeed. The Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, contains no less than 491 tales. His book circulated in manuscript form for many years, before finally being published postumously by his grandson in 1740. Sadly, I have only been able to track down less than 200 of these tales in English translation. But those I have read are more than enough to get to know and enjoy his narrative style and underlying themes.

Since, as Pu Songling explains in his introduction, most of his tales were told to him by friends, a great deal of his writing contains new material, not derivitive of older stories, not bound by literary precedent or tradition, and so the story is free to flow as it may. But still, he does not forget his predecessors, and many of the stories in the Liaozhai are retellings of old tales from the T'ang dyansty and earlier, too. Another element that he adds to this collection of folktales and old stories told anew, is how he shapes them himself, and how he indelibly stamps the collection with his own style. As he explains:

"I stitched the bits and pieces together into a garment and claim to have written a sequel to Liu I-ching's 'In the World of the Shades,' but my clumsy endeavors, heated by drink, have only resulted in a work that gives vent to my private grief and indignation."

Of grief and indignation, he must have had plenty to spare. Having failed the master's degree examinations time and again he had animosity toward the entire system. Of bureaucracy, he had little kind to say either. The tangled bureaucracy extends from Heaven to Earth to Hell in the Liaozhai, with officials in Hell just as corruptable as the ones on Earth. And examiners are all of the lower sort of criminal, foolish and ignorant. Just as he projects his resentments into the stories, so to does he project his fantasies. Often the protagonist of his tales is a simple scholar, of limited means, much like himself. Whether being seduced by ghosts or foxes, taking visits to hell, or meeting immortals or lake gods, Pu Songling wrote a kind of wish fulfillment, creating worlds of wonder and mystery that he no doubt conjured up in the confines of his poor delapidated home. Inevitably, when the scholar got the upper hand, examinations were passed, a large family and a stable marriage were gained.

Pu Songling's tales of the Strange are in essence tales of boundaries between two worlds and what can happen there. The borderland between normal and strange, reality and illusion, dream and awakening, life and death, are herein charted, and the lands to either side found not to be distinct, but rather to bleed together at their edges. In one group of tales, a living man marries a long dead woman, now a ghost. In another, an elder fox-spirit declares war on a man who spurns the proposed marriage of himself with his fox daughter. Still other stories tell of journeys deep into Hell or ascention into Heaven. The line between man and beast is blurred, so that a man may become a tiger because of his predatory nature, while a tiger may become like a son to a wronged woman. In the world of Pu Songling, a prized rock or book or flower may come to a man in his dreams, may even become his lover. As each story unfolds, the territory becomes further developed, our map becomes clearer, and the strange is found not without ourselves, but within.

Two of the most common types of supernatural tales are those which feature ghosts and fox spirits. In fact, the working title for the Liaozhai Zhiyi was Hugui Shi, or A History of Foxes and Ghosts. We will take a closer look at each of these in turn.

Ghost Lovers

Ghosts may be male or female, young or old. But the saddest and yet most appealing of all ghost stories are those which feature a young woman, which form by far the majority of stories about ghosts, both in stories and in film. Typically, these ghosts are seeking a living mate, whether for love, marriage, revenge, or lunch.

Why do ghost stories typically feature young women? Part of the reason has to do with Chinese folk beliefs about spirits, combined with Confucian rules of ancestor worship. Under these rules, most everyone, at death, becomes a ghost or spirit, at least for a short while. Then, their family, who prays at the family shrine, and wishes their anscestor peace, offer solace to the departed spirit. The family burns paper money, which the spirit can then use to buy or bribe itself a fine place in the underworld, and eventually, reincarnation.

On the other hand, not all spirits are so lucky. The deceased may not have a family, or might not have a family who cares enough to pray for them, at any rate. And so, with no one to pray on their behalf, with no paper offerings to comfort them, they spend their afterlife as a low-ranking ghost, without hope for a good position nor reincarnation. Or, if a person is not brought back to their native soil and buried, their ghost may wander the area of their death. Sometimes, only leading another poor soul to their death in the same spot can release the spirit for reincarnation. This is especially true for drownings. Because of this, an ordinary Chinese may have, in the past, failed to save a drowning person, for fear of inspiring the wrath of whatever spirit had no doubt lured the victim to his death as its replacement. A spirit may also come back to haunt the living for revenge, or for justice.

If a young woman has not yet married, traditional Chinese society places her in no family at her death, and therefore no one will pray and make offerings on her behalf. So she becomes a wandering ghost. Some families will attempt to arrange a posthumous marriage so that she will be 'cared' for, in spirit. In supernatural tales, we find the young woman often taking such matters into her own hands.

And herein lies the allure of such tales -- the ghostly maiden is often seeking nothing else but simply love, a stable relationship, marriage.

There are many T'ang Chuanqi tales about ghosts. These ghosts were women who have pined away and died for their love, or been betrayed when a promise not to remarry is broken after they are dead and gone. Sometimes the ghosts appear 'in the flesh,' so to speak, other times only in dreams. The Sung Dynasty tales use ghosts primarily as a way of introducing popular historical characters into their narrative, who then can illuminate some aspect of their time and their life to the interest of the listener. Ming ghost tales return to the romantic aspect of the spirits, and star-crossed lovers are the focus of the stories.

It is Pu Songling who puts the most emphasis out of all storywriters on the ghost - human relationship. Often, the relationship is not consummated until one or both parties have been reincarnated, and in their new life as human beings can enjoy each others company, have children, raise a family. Sometimes, the relationship between a ghost and a human can lead, slowly, to the ghost becoming human. Other times, the opposite is in danger of occuring -- the human, due to their constant companionship with a ghost, slowly loses his life essence, and eventually his life.

Why does a ghost woman long for a living human companion? There are numerous reasons. First, there is the possibility that marriage will lead to peace and eventual reincarnation. Secondly, there is a certain feeling that human bodies are somewhat more...desirable than intangible, ghostly forms. The ghost maiden in the story Miss Lien-hsiang says, "the companionship of two devils gives no pleasure to either." The ghost, not having a warm body of its own, seeks to have one. Its desire for a warm human body, its urge to exist, is perhaps the more primal of a ghosts desires.

How does the human male benefit from this relationship? Well, the man is usually a kind hearted one, who falls deeply in love. He is not looking at the benefit, only his emotions. Lust also plays a part. The stories seem to say that man has trouble controlling his desires, and his logic fails in the face of ethereal beauty.

Fox Spirits

"At the age of fifty, a fox can change into a woman. At the age of a hundred, it can change into a beautiful girl or a wizard or a man who seduces women; it can know about happenings a thousand li distant; it can bewitch people, leading them astray and causing them to lose their wits. At the age of a thousand, it can communicate with heaven and become a celestial fox."

This basic outline of the powers of a fox comes from mythologist Kuo Pu, writing as long ago as c.324 A.D. Foxes in supernatural tales vary from being vicious and murderous, to having no evil intent whatsoever. They, like ghosts, have come to be seen as amorous creatures. But even more than ghosts, foxes can lose their inhibitions and become absolutely wanton in their desires. Even today, to say a woman is "like a fox" is to call her a seductress, a whore.

A fox disguised as a woman is usually beautiful and seductive, as a man he is usually handsome, scholarly, charming, and ready for a good time. Sometimes, the transformation is not so good, in that a tail may occassionally protrude. When discovered and killed, the fox will sometimes be seen to have a human skull propped on its head, and so through that was able to use its magic to appear human.

At times, the fox behaves just as would a female ghost, seeking the companionship of a human, causing the human's ultimate decline and death, whether intended or not. And in fact, sometimes a ghost and a fox may share the same home, in that a fox family may make their nest in a tomb. Again, as with ghost stories, there is the assumption that the fox spirit, being neither human nor animal, neither living nor ghost, seeks out living humans because it desires to share in the experience of a living being.

Foxes do not fear ghosts, with whom they often have a rivalry. But they do fear dogs. Sometimes, the mere presence of a dog is enough for a fox spirit to change to its real form. Many stories end with the fox being chased down and killed by hunting dogs.

In early tales, the ascent of a fox from its simple origins to becoming a shape changer to ascending into a celestial fox was simply a matter of great age; the older the fox was, the more powerful she became. However, in the later tales of Pu Songling, this changed somewhat. Now a fox could go on being what it was, inhabiting the borderline between man and beast, or it could refine itself, through meditation, abstaining from pleasure, sex, murder, mayhem, and so on, and so eventually become immortal. Therefore, the fox becomes something of a metaphor for the Buddhist ideals of striving to improve yourself -- improvement did not come by itself, but only through hard and constant effort.

Foxes often represent the outsider, the stranger, the barbarian. The Chinese word for fox, hu, is a homophone for the word barbarian. So the improvement of the fox may also be seen as a gradual cultivation of the barbarian into things Chinese. Sometimes, as the outsider, the fox spirit seeks marriage, thus gaining respectability. The fox family may go to great lengths to achieve this.

A celestial fox is sometimes called a "nine-tailed fox," because it has just such a number of tails. The nine-tailed fox appears in mythos from all over Asia. In Vietnam, a battle between the mythic founder of the Vietnamese people, Lac Long, and a nine-tailed fox led to the creation of West Lake in Hanoi, originally called the "Sea of the Fox's Body." In Korea, the celestial fox, or Goo Mi Ho, is often of a more vicious complexion, as the fox would first horribly kill someone and eat them in order to take their form. And in Japan, the fox spirit or kitsune arrived from China during the T'ang Dyansty (there is even a Japanese legend explaining that it flew over), where it joined the native tanuki (a shape-changing badger), and became an integral part of the national folklore. It continued to develop in its own style, until the kitsune was in many ways distinct from its original Chinese descendants. Kabuki plays, Bunraku puppet theater, and Ukiyo-e woodblock prints all feature the celestial fox in one guise or another.

Strange Movies from a Chinese Studio

To discuss all of the films based on Chinese supernatural folklore is an endeavor too broad and too overwhelming for any one article to cover. In addition to films from China and SAR Hong Kong, fox tales abound in Korean and Japanese cinema as well. Instead, I have tried to focus here on films specifically inspired by one work, Pu Songling's Liaozhai Zhiyi, which has long been considered a benchmark for the supernatural tale.

Novels and classical works are often used as inspiration for films. But adaptations of Liaozhai stories have sadly been few. I have read that Hong Kong movies in the 50s and 60s used his stories for inspiration, but those that still exist are difficult to find and I have not seen any of them. Of modern Hong Kong filmmakers, at least three of them have gone to Pu Songling for their inspiration: King Hu, Tsui Hark, and Wu Ma.

The central, defining film for the Hong Kong adaptation of a Liaozhai story must be Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung's A Chinese Ghost Story. Inventive and exciting, the film was a hit and inspired a lot of filmmakers to grab the Liaozhai to see what they could make out of it. The director captures the general plot of the original story, then within that framework builds a completely novel and inventive film. It can be said that although Pu Songling has inspired many of these films, no filmmaker has felt such special reverence to have to be truly faithful to the source material. Rather, the Liaozhai is used as a springboard, a point of departure for the filmmaker's own original themes.

To look at reviews of movies featuring ghosts and fox spirits, click here.

To read english language translations of a few of Pu Songling's short stories, click here.


Most of the books I used this time around are currently out-of-print. However, you should be able to find them quite easily by searching on the titles at

ZEITLIN, Judith T. Historian of the Strange : Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale. Stanford University Press, 1997.
A marvelous book which examines the themes in Liaozhai in greater depth and clarity than I could ever muster. She avoids ghosts and fox-spirits and instead focuses on Pu Songling's themes of obsession, gender dislocation, and dream. She includes a number of full length translations (less than 10), including one particularly vicious one about castration which is anthologized nowhere else. If you're looking to further your studies, look no further than here. Of course, you will still need more tales in English translation, for that, see H.A. Giles, below.

GILES, H.A. (Translator) Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. London, 1916 (3rd Edition)
There are many things wrong with this translation, and at the same time many things right, all stemming from the fact that it was written about 100 years ago. The good news is, H.A. Giles is an excellent writer. He translates well, and makes the stories engaging and interesting instead of giving us a dry and scholarly translation. He is very readable. The bad news is, he takes a great deal of liberty with the tales. All of the sex is excised. Any hint of homosexuality is dropped. And the little comments and morals that Pu Songling added to the end of tales have been removed. He changes the titles of the stories as if he was working for Arena Home Video, giving them names like, 'A Chinese Solomon.' Still, it's the most complete translation I've found in English -- 164 stories (out of 491). Absolutely essential.

CHANG, H.C. Chinese Literature 3 -- Tales of the Supernatural. Columbia University Press, New York, 1984.
Third in a series which includes books on Nature Poetry and Autobiography as well, this volume gives a nice overview of Supernatural literature in China. The first page of this issue's article was summarized from this book. Additionally, there are 12 tales translated -- seven from the T'ang, one from the Sung, and four from Pu Songling's Liaozhai.


There is nothing currently on the web about Pu Songling and his Liaozhai Zhiyi, at least, not in english. Which is partly what prompted my to put up a handful of H.A. Giles translations on the site.

Interestingly, however, I found quite a bit of material on the Asian fox spirit. A good place to start is Adam's Fox Box, which contains a good deal of fox lore from around the world.

For a look at the darker side, Strigoi's Tomb has a collection of fox tales emphasizing the vampiric and lycanthropic qualities of the tales.

Apparently the Japanese fox spirit, or kitsune, has quite a following. There are comic books, anime, even something called 'anamorphic role-playing' which all involve kitsune to one degree or another. Foxtrot's Collection of Kitsune Lore should give you all the information you need about this particular creature, which has its own webring, no less.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on September 01, 2000.


I desperately need someone to talk to about loving a spirit. Please, if you cannot help me and if you know of someone that may be able to help, please let me know.

Posted by: Innanna at April 23, 2008 07:56 PM

what if ive seen two foxes in my room, both black and have glowing eyes. 1st encounter: laying in bed and i look up to see two glowing gold eyes staring at my so i kick out and it was like snapping out of a dream. 2nd encounter: laying in bed again but this time im looking at my clock when it i saw something really dark from and move twards me with two glowing gold eyes locked on me. thats when i sat up again feeling like i just woke up from a dream. does anyone have a clue what this could be? i usually have the same things/people in different dreams but still i wasnt asleep for these ones.

Posted by: tricia at August 9, 2008 01:31 PM

Thank you very much for this excellent article. I have recently discovered Pu Songling and am fascinated by his stories. Your description of the stories as an exploration of that fine boundary between the mortal world and the ghost world is dead on. I really appreciate the time you took to make relevant resources available to those of us who haven't taken the time to learn classical chinese quite yet. I did think it was interesting to learn (from the intro to his translated work) that Pu Songling is distinctive also in his choice of classical chinese instead of the vernacular, which was popular to use for literature at the time of his writing.

Posted by: relio at November 21, 2008 12:10 AM
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