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Both the kitsune and huli jing are "fox spirits" with 9 tails, tricksters that can shapeshift into, or possess, young women.

  • One famous kitsune appears in the true story of Hideyoshi writing a letter threatening to kill all foxes in Japan unless the kitsune ceases to possess one of his servants.
  • Perhaps the most well-known huli jing is the historical Daji, consort of King Zhou and blamed for the fall of the Shang dynasty.

It seems that they either have a common origin or are greatly influenced by each other.

However, according to some scholars, the kitsune may have been native to Japan, only acquiring its negative qualities from Chinese folklore later. In particular, kitsune are strongly related to the kami Inari, whereas huli jing are not strongly associated with any god in particular. From Wikipedia:

Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese regarded kitsune positively as early as the 4th century A.D.; the only things imported from China or Korea were the kitsune's negative attributes. He states that, according to a 16th-century book of records called the Nihon Ryakki, foxes and human beings lived close together in ancient Japan, and he contends that indigenous legends about the creatures arose as a result. Inari scholar Karen Smyers notes that the idea of the fox as seductress and the connection of the fox myths to Buddhism were introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese stories, but she maintains that some fox stories contain elements unique to Japan.

How much support is there for their separate origins? What is the relationship between these two mythical creatures?

  • Aren't they supposed to grow more tails with time and wisdom? Magical foxes with long life spans are not something exclusive to eastern cultures, so I would guess that this creature originates from animal dieties and shamanism. – Nuloen The Seeker Jan 25 '18 at 11:41
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They are not really the same. In fact, they are not both fox spirits with nine tails.

enter image description hereenter image description here

Left: A nine-tailed fox depicted in the ancient Chinese bestiary Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海經) | Right: A distinctly single tailed kitsune depicted in the Japanese almanac kin mou zui (訓蒙図彙)

The fox spirits of later Chinese traditions do not necessarily have nine tails, either. Similarly, Japan later imported the Chinese nine-tailed fox, but it found a place in Japanese folklore as a distinct entity separate from the traditional kitsune.


Although they share notable similarities, such as transformation and betwitching humans, the Japanese kitsune and the Chinese hulijing actually have fundamental differences.

In the Japanese language, the word kitsune literally just means "a fox". There's no difference between that and the fox as an animal. As this would imply, the kitsune are regarded as simply common foxes, though held to be naturally long lived and attributed with magical abilities.

In contrast, the Chinese hulijing means specifically a "fox spirit". They are no ordinary foxes, but instead the result of centuries or even millenia of training. Some tales further describe them as engaging in powerleveling through essence-sucking intercourse with mortal humans à la western succubi or incubi.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas for instance mentions that:

有獸焉,其狀如狐而九尾,其音如嬰兒,能食人;食者不蠱。

There is a beast, which is shaped like a fox but has nine tails, and sounds like a baby. It eats men; eating it wards off evil.

Which clearly shows that the fox spirit is considered distinct from normal foxes.

There is also a host of minor differences, such as the kitsune's reputed love for fried tofu versus the hulijing's preference for eggs.


Another major difference exists in the worship of the two entities.

In traditional Japanese folklore, the kitsune have an essential feature as messengers of the god of rice productivity and prosperity, the inari ōkami (稲荷大神).

In Japan, however, the fox known as kitsune has since the eight century been enshrined and worshipped in a pervasive network of sacred associations in connection with Inari. The widespread cult portrays kitsune as a divine messenger of the rice god who promotes agrarian fertility as well as productivity and prosperity in a much broader sense.

- Heine, Steven. Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan. University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

The association had formed as early as the 8th century and remains extremely strong to this day. The kitsune continues to feature in tens of thousands of Inari shrines across Japan, as recipients of fried tofu and rubbing by sickly miracle-seekers.

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A stone kitsune at the Fushimi Inari Taisha, the chief shrine of the Inari god.

In contrast, in Chinese folklore fox spirits have a much more ambiguous standing. For instance Ji Xiaolan in his Notes of the Thatched Abode of Close Observations that:

幽明異路,狐則在幽明之間。仙妖殊途,狐則在仙妖之間。

Dark and light are different, but foxes are between dark and light. Humans and objects are different, and foxes are between humasn Hsien and Yao are different, but foxes are between the two.

Unlike the worship of kitsune in major shrines as messengers of a rice god, the foxes of China were prayed to in private homes as one of a group of five animal spirits. Exact compositions vary, but these typically includes weasels, snakes, hedgehogs and rats. Families would offer sacrifices in the hopes of receiving protection.


There is no real evidence that the Chinese and Japanese versions share a common origin. Fox worship is ancient in Japan; the earliest documentation of fox folklores appeared in the late 8th century nihon ryōiki (日本霊異記), lit. Chronicles of Supernatural Tales of Japan.

That is almost as early as the first written works of any kind in Japan, and reelates the tale of a fox assuming the form of a woman and marrying a human. The tale claims the incident to be the origin of the term kitsune, but that is almost certainly an invented etymology.

昔欽明天皇御世、三乃國大乃郡人應為妻、覓好孃乘路而行。時曠野中遇於姝女。其女媚壯、馴之壯睇之。言:「何行稚孃?」孃答:「將覓能緣而行女也。」壯亦語言:「成我妻耶?」女:「聽」答言、即將於家、交通相住。此頃懷任、生一男子。時其家犬、十二月十五日生子。彼犬之子每向家室、而期剋睚眥嘷吠。家室脅惶、告家長言:「此犬打殺。」雖然患告、而猶不殺。於二月三月之頃、設年米舂時、其家室於稻舂女等、將充間食入於碓屋。即彼犬將咋家室而追吠。即驚澡恐、成野干、登籠上而居。家長見、言:「汝與我之中子相生、故吾不忘汝。每來相寐。」故誦夫語而來寐。故名為岐都禰也。時彼妻著紅襴染裳、而窈窕裳襴引逝也。夫視去容、戀歌曰: 古比波未奈加我宇弊邇於知奴多万可支流波呂可邇美江天伊爾師古由惠邇。故其令相生子名、號岐都禰。亦、其子姓負、狐直也。是人、強力多有、走疾如鳥飛矣。三乃國狐直等根本是也。

(very roughly) During the reign of Kinmei Tennō, a man was looking for a bride and met a pretty woman who was looking for a husband. They started sleeping together and produced a baby boy on December 15. Tthe family dog gave birth too and the puppy was aggressive towards the woman, chasing her. Frightened, she turned into a yakan and fled. The man saw and pled, "You and I have a child together, I cannot forget you. Come (kitsu) back to sleep (ne) at least." She agreed. This is where the name kitsune comes from (...)


The Japanese kitsune ultimately absorbed elements, particularly of malice, from the Chinese hulijing. Both traditions were further affected by the Indian version, which spread through both China and Japan by way of Buddhism. The Buddhist spirit ḍākinī for example was syncretised with native Inari worship to become a fox spirit.

The nine tailed fox, additionally, was introduced to Japan both as a general concept as well as a specific ancient fox spirit from India. It is said to have tried to overthrow an ancient Indian kingdom, and later brought about the Shang Dynasty's downfall as Consort Daji. The spirit eventually made it to Japan and became Tamamo-no-Mae before being exposed and vanquished.

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The Nine-Tailed Fox terrorising Indian Prince Hanzoku, by 19th century painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi

  • I don't know what those brush-like things that look like tail-ends above the fox in the picture on the right are, or what they are meant to represent (rice stalks, perhaps?), but by my count there happen to be 9 of them. Still, I'm tempted to give a +1 just for the clever application of the gamer word "powerleveling". :-) – T.E.D. Jun 4 '15 at 16:24
  • @T.E.D. It's generic roadside vegetation, same as that whole row of brushes below the fox. – Semaphore Jun 4 '15 at 17:34
  • I don't understand why the Nihon Ryoiki was used to cite the claim that fox worship predates Chinese cultural contact, since the book is about Buddhist supernatural events, and includes the yagan which almost certainly passed to Japan via China. – March Ho Aug 16 '15 at 4:10
  • @MarchHo No, it was cited to show that fox worship is ancient in Japan. No written records in Japan predate culture contact with China, so my point was that this reaches Japanese prehistory. However, the Nihon Ryōik is not "about Buddhist supernatural events", but rather a collection of Japanese setsuwa told from a Buddhist perspective, since monks were the ones who first wrote down these oral traditions. The term yakan is of course imported, but Buddhist monks used it simply as a name for fox. – Semaphore Aug 16 '15 at 8:38
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The argument about the Number of tails doesn't matter. Huli Jing and Kitsune for all intensive purposes are the same. In Japan, foxes start with a tail and gain more with age and wisdom. This required them to first obtain enough power to become more than a fox. In China, Huli jing was called demon fox and believed to gather power from nature until they became sentient with only one tail. After such an event they would gain tails up to nine with power, I think, I am uncertain about whether it was power or wisdom and age. In addition, the story of Deji said she was possessed by a Huli Jing but they source quoted the possession as the "Thousand Years Vixen". In all honesty just seems like a translation thing. They are in essence the same thing with incredibly similar actions and tendencies. It would be best to see it as just two ways of saying one thing.

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As an addendum: While kitsune are associated with Japanese Shinto deities Inari and Ukanomitama, as well as the Buddhist-originated Dakini-ten; Huxian or Huli Jing are, meanwhile, associated with the Chinese deities Nüwa and Xi Wangmu. Daji has also been venerated to some extent as a sort of divine entity of her own accord, and the Huxian is also directly venerated as an individual deity, a bit like a sort of guardian angel or domovoi, that deals in negotiating family relationships, wealth, and prosperity--specifically through its thieving and its attractive qualities and power of negotiation in relationships.

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'The Cult of the Fox' by Xiaofei Kang, is a good reflection on how the 'Huxian'/'Huli Jing' myths predate the popular kitsune myth, and shows the establishment of a lot of the concepts taken for granted by pop-cultural depictions today, such as foxes feeding on human essence, associating with ghosts, or taking human form. There is also some brief mention within, of how the nine-tailed fox myth is easily as old as the Eastern Han dynasty, judging by some of the imagery it has been depicted in.

What has happened then, is that through Noh, and artists like Utagawa and Hokusai in the 1800's, Japan has claimed and revitalized the story of the nine-tailed fox, by merging it with that of numerous historical femme fatales, throughout India, China, and Japan. Bao Si. Daji. Tamamo-no-Mae. The nine-tailed fox itself, you will find, is not mentioned in any other story, about fox beings given human guise, in present recollection. Rather, it is epicly credited, within a handful of closely associated 'comparitively-modern' Japanese works, that the nine-tailed fox traveled from country to country to sow seditious discord, before finally ending its spree, with the life of Tamamo-no-Mae.

Best to think about it this way: the stories of the nine-tailed fox, the fox-courtesan, or 'huxian', and the trickster 'kitsune', are all variations on what foxes signified to people in different countries, over the ages. The feminine. The barbaric, outsider spirit. The trickster nature spirit. Their stories happened to grow up in tandem with folk religion, and each often contested the social norms of the time, even going so far as to spur social change (fox mediumship is one example represented in Chinese accounts). Because worship of fox spirits was heterodox--(for instance, in Shinto, Inari is discouraged from being associated AS the fox, but people form their own personal beliefs about Inari being the fox anyway), these stories often shadow a dominant religion, and are suppressed or appropriated by it in a constant struggle for rule.

What then happens is that folk superstition, especially represented in imagery, leads to the curiosity of literati, and their works preserve the ever-mutating myths. It is entirely possible that the 'kitsune' myth came about as a result of immigration and the influx of Buddhism and Taoism, into Japan. Looking back at some of Japan's significant mythical figures--Abe no Seimei, child of Kuzunoha, is reflected to be an Onmyoji--a Tao sorceror. Dakini-ten from Buddhist mythos, likewise, is depicted as a divine being riding a white fox. Such similar imagery and stories readily blend together, and synchronicity makes for the telling of a great ongoing ghost tale, readily picked up by any storyteller, regardless of its veracity or true origin. Your culprits in this case, are the same artists we have discussed.

It's easier to assume that, if there 'were' fox beings, they had whatever powers people wanted to ascribe to them at the time, and are only as connected or disconnected from one another, as their muddied lore, which travels orally, through visual icons, and through works of fiction-- gradually deviating based on cultural assumptions. Western pop culture, has effectively nurtured its own variations on the fox myths, which now live with us through our own interest. Which often is colored by New Agery, Therians and Otherkin, and misconceived notions about Shinto and Buddhist deities--and propagated by the works of anime lovers and furries. Likewise, Korea likes to depict the nine-tailed fox, explicitly, as a vampiric human-like seductress, and they are as common of a sight in dramas and movies there, as werewolves or vampires might be, here. The main difference nowadays being, that we possess an internet, to be more aware of these cultural deviations to the myth, as they occur.

It's a never ending process of mutation. 'Do these foxes sparkle?' Digging back for the 'origin' is practically the task for a seasoned anthropologist.

It's worth noting, lastly--that, in Japan--the Inari fox is considered by believers in Shinto, to hold power over other foxes. Yet, its supremacy is never denoted with the presence of nine tails, as we imagine would logically be the case from what pop culture leads us to believe. It is only the one foreign fox of ill repute, that ever brings that imagery into Japanese lore.

I would propose that Japan never historically held the concept of nine-tailed foxes, until later depictions of Tamamo-no-Mae made the idea popular--and that nine-tailed fox depictions existed only in Chinese and possibly Korean works, before being appropriated alongside existing, Japanese fox myths, sometime in the last two and a half centuries. Moreover, that stories with single-tailed foxes, were the common norm, and that the nine-tailed myth has now been dug up for the sake of sensationalism and its distinctive imagery, over 'just whatever fox'.

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