[REVIEW] “The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain: Female Force, Bridges from Zhiguai to Novel, and a Royal Rumble of Myth” by Cyril Camus

{Written by Cyril Camus, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Zou Tao (author), Timothy Gouldthorp (translator), The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain, Camphor Press, 2020. 228 pgs.

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Húlí yuán quán zhuàn 狐狸緣全傳 (literally, A Complete Account of a Fox Affinity, according to Timothy Gouldthorp’s translator’s introduction) is a late-19th-century Chinese novel by “the Moon-drunk Hermit”.

The latter is believed to be a pen name for scholar Zou Tao, who is the author of an “Investigation of the Recent Policies of All Nations” from 1901 entitled Wànguó jìn zhèng kǎo lüè 萬國近政考略. He also wrote a novel called Hǎishàng chén tiān yǐng 海上塵 (translated as The Shadows of Heaven and Earth in Shanghai by Catherine Yeh, and as Glimpses of Heaven and Earth in Shanghai by Li Hsiao-t’i, who both describe the book as autobiographical, although Timothy Gouldthorp says it is also the story of a goddess). Zou is also the author of various texts and reflections posthumously collected in 1932 as Sān jiè lú jí 三借廬集 (Collection from the Thrice-Loaned Hut in Li Hsiao-t’i’s rendition of the title), but which had apparently been already at least partly collected before, in 1912, as Sān jiè lú bǐtán 三借廬筆談 (which Leo Tak-hung Chan translates as Sketches and Notes at Thrice-Loaned Lodge).

The book was initially published in 1888, and Mr. Gouldthorp’s English translation was published by Camphor Press’s Eastbridge Books imprint in May 2020, under the title The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain, which focuses on the main literal story element rather than the metaphysical notion of “karmic affinity” (a predestined link between two individuals which leads their lives to be entangled from one incarnation to another) referred to in the Chinese title.

The titular fox spirit is Jade Fox, a “nine-tailed fox”, also called “Lady Jade Face”, who lives in a cave in Bluestone Mountain (which is said in the book to be located in Zhejiang province), with other “fox demons”, which she rules over. She has been practising “spiritual cultivation” through esoteric study for ten thousand years, but while taking a walk in the mountain in human guise, she chances upon Master Xin Zhou, a young, recently orphaned scholar, and decides to yield to both her sexual desire for him and her selfish drive to rob him of his yang energy (through sexual intercourse, and at the risk of his life) to complement her own yin essence and thus take a short cut through her spiritual cultivation.

She seduces him, and spends many a night in secret encounters with him in his study, in the nearby village of Taiping. Zhou’s health withers away, and Old Hoary Head, an elderly servant of the Zhou family, becomes painfully aware of the demonic influence behind his young master’s illness, when he catches Jade Fox eating his twelve-year-old son. The old servant then decides to call upon a Taoist priest from a nearby temple to exorcise the fox spirit. The exorcist who comes forward, a man nicknamed Celestial Wang, is an incompetent braggart, and Jade Fox and her henchfoxes wipe the floor with him, and then with all the other priests of the temple, whom Wang has called to the rescue.

As the havoc caused by the foxes worsens, and as Taoism’s prestige is being seriously undermined by the priests’ ineffectuality, the immortal Lü Dongbin descends to earth to blow the final whistle. His skills and powers do seem to match Jade Fox’s more appropriately, but she refuses to surrender, retreats into her cave and calls upon reinforcements from other powerful foxes, as well as many of the mountain’s beastly spirits and demons. The Heavenly Troops descend to help Lü Dongbin, and a giant battle breaks out all over Bluestone Mountain. Jade Fox is eventually subdued, judged, shamed, and forgiven by Lü Dongbin and Xin Zhou, and allowed to go back to her spiritual cultivation studies. Lü Dongbin restores Zhou’s health and resurrects Old Hoary Head’s son. In the end, the karmic affinity that led to Zhou and Jade Fox’s encounter will allow them to meet again, with no such destructive results as this time, in one of the fox’s future lives.

The beginning of this story is yet another variant of a historically common motif in Chinese folklore and supernatural fiction. There is a reference to “foxes [that] have four paws but nine tails”, or “a fox with nine tails” as far back as Book Nine and Fourteen of the 2nd-century Classic of Mountains and Seas (page 128 and 160 in Anne Birrell’s Penguin Classics edition). Generally speaking, this particular supernatural creature has been the object of a widespread cult in China for a great many centuries, under such various designations as “fox spirit”, “fox demon”, “fox immortal”, “fox fairy” or “nine-tailed fox.”

Although this popular cult has mostly been frowned upon as superstition and sometimes been repressed by the authorities, fox spirits have also become, alongside ghosts, recurring figures in the supernatural fiction written by scholars, especially the collections of “zhiguai 志怪 (stories of the strange)” that juxtapose vast numbers of anecdotes (“very short stor[ies]”) regarding supernatural events allegedly related to the writer by various witnesses and second-hand sources. This tradition’s most famous example is of course Pu Songling’s 18th-century collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. It also includes, among many others, Ji Yun’s late 18th-century Jottings from the Thatch Hut of Subtle Views (Vincent Durand-Dastès’s English rendition of the title in his review of David Pollard’s partial translation of Ji Yun’s stories), also known as Random Jottings at the Cottage of Close Scrutiny (according to Leo Tak-hung Chan, who also offers translations of some tales at the end of his essay). Finally, Gouldthorp may be suggesting that Zou Tao himself also wrote one such book, since he describes Zou’s Jiāo chóu jí 澆愁集 as “a collection of supernatural tales”, but Catherine Yeh’s translation of the title as Anthology of Drowning One’s Sorrows doesn’t particularly suggest otherworldly themes, so the present, non-Sinophone, reviewer is forced to leave Chinese-speaking readers to look it up for themselves.

Fox-spirit stories in these collections (as well as their ghost stories) often display a similar premise to The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain’s. The fox transforms into a beautiful woman (or the ghost is that of a beautiful woman), and a man either spontaneously falls in love with her, or is actively seduced by her. As fox spirits are a very ambiguous figure, akin to mythological tricksters, they will sometimes be portrayed as ruthless psychic vampires, bent on stealing their human lover’s life force or yang, or they will be portrayed more sympathetically, as generally benevolent and loving partners, or they may even be generally benevolent and loving characters who still blithely kill someone. Female ghost lovers come in the same kinds of bluntly patriarchal archetypes and/or slightly more subtle mixtures of them: the evil seductress and killer, the unimpeachably loving companion or a seductress and killer who is really humane and does these things against her will, for example. In one of Pu Songling’s stories, the protagonist is simultaneously the lover of a fox spirit and of a ghost. In this case, the ghost is the psychic vampire, and the fox tries to warn their shared lover, and ends up forcing the ghost to save him, and to start loving him in a less destructive way.

Jade Fox is a compelling mixture of such previous fox archetypes, and an interesting epitome of their trickster-like unpredictability and indomitability. On the one hand, she is genuinely “infatuated” with, and “attached” to, Xin Zhou, and determined to spend her nights in loving embrace with him, even when he has become so devoid of energy that he is barely useful to her in terms of collecting yang. All the suggestions to that effect give real poignancy to the depiction of her overwhelmed reactions at the end, when Zhou’s intercession with Lü Dongbin saves her life. On the other hand, her selfish and deadly interest in stealing his energy is never completely out of the picture, and she is subject to some ruthless and inhumane reactions. Thus, even as she is slowly killing Zhou, she inwardly blames him, and his supposed lack of stamina, for the too-rapid depletion of his health and the subsequent decline of her sexual pleasure in his arms. Even more tellingly, of course, she “rip[s] open the chest” of a twelve-year-old child, “and pr[ies] apart the ribs […], lapping up the warm blood and tearing out the organs, chewing them into a pap”, because the boy knows too much, and because he is rude.

This is an uncommonly gory outcome for an encounter with a fox, and obviously one of the ways in which the book defines the “lustful” female figure as a villain. Likewise, the overall happy ending offered by the story consists in a restoration of order, which is achieved through the thorough (and long-drawn-out) scolding and humiliation of Jade Fox, leading to her repentance and submission to the Taoist law, order and morals embodied by Lü Dongbin. The novel, then, should not be mistaken as some sort of progressive or feminist trailblazer. As a 19th-century novel and as a late example of a well-established Chinese literary tradition derived from popular religion and superstition, it is steeped in the patriarchal motifs of the genre it belongs to, and in the cultural structures and philosophical trends of its time and place. However, most of the book does showcase Jade Fox as an embodiment of unstoppable power and defiance. So a lot of scenes can easily be read with the kind of glee a modern and progressive eye can have for the fighting feats and relentlessness of such modern Asian female film icons as Yang Huizhen in King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971) or Yuki Kashima in Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973).

First, Jade Fox prevails over the group of farm laborers and tenant farmers mobilized by Old Hoary Head, then over the Taoist priest, Celestial Wang, then over all the priests of Wang’s temple, and then she fights on, undaunted, after Lü Dongbin has come down to earth and shown off his own magical powers. She surrenders only to the Heavenly Troops, and not without giving them a hard time before. The mere plot is not all that gives her this aura of unrestrainable force, though. There is also the vocabulary used to describe her in those instances, and the contrast with the language used to describe her adversaries.

When she comes to face Lü Dongbin after he has summoned her from her cave to the Zhou homestead, she is said to be “now dressed in martial attire” and the other foxes who dwell in the cave and follow her are “also dressed in martial clothing.” Yet, they are not described as battle-worn female grunts, nor as savage Amazons, but as “elegant demons”, “exquisitely dressed and coifed”, whose “dusky eyebrows and vermilion lips [are] lovelier than flowers or the moon” and whose “cheeks betrayed a faint springtime blush.” The idea, then, that the text conveys is that although several of them are outwardly ready for war, that doesn’t affect either the stateliness or the charm of their human shapes. Later on, when the whole army of demons face the Heavenly Troops on Bluestone Mountain, Jade Fox is again portrayed as a powerful warlord, and there are still two references to her graceful female features (in bold letters below) scattered through her very warlike depiction (whose warlike lexicon is in italics below):

At this moment Jade Fox […] exuded an aura of awe-inspiring authority. Her shapely eyebrows scowled slightly, and her large, limpid eyes scintillated with a murderous glint. She took up a martial stance with her back foot at a right-angle to her front and, with a furious expression, pointing her male-female sword, cried out in a loud voice, “Leader among the Heavenly Troops, commander among the Celestial Generals, go and announce to Great King Li and Lü Dongbin that Celestial Lady Jade Face comes to do battle.” (italics and bold letters mine)

To such ambivalent semantics in her most warlike moments, one can add the constant references to her “unparalleled beauty”, “delicate voice”, “oriole-throated words”, “tiny cherry mouth”, “fragrant sweat” that makes her look “like a peach blossom moist with rain” etc. Such blazon-like praises and pleasant metaphors successively focused on various parts of a female character’s body and features are evidently part of the mixture of male gaze and verbal lyricism that has been globally common to a huge part of fiction and poetry pertaining to love—at least that penned by men. (There is, by the way, a distinctly Chinese twist to that in this novel, as there are also many references to her “tiny, graceful feet”, “tiny feet”, “lotus-like feet”, “delicate three-inch feet” etc., and the first of those references discloses how this trait is “distinctly Chinese”: “bound lily feet”).

Besides adding to the atmosphere of the story of love, lust, seduction and supernatural enchantment that is found in the first part of the novel, this focus on poetic descriptions of female beauty contributes, along with the combination of warlike attributes, “awe-inspiring authority” and relentlessness in the face of adversity, to conveying, overall, a sense that the nine-tailed fox spirit of Bluestone Mountain is not only a formidable combatant, but also (even if the ending slightly spoils that idea) a very dignified one. Even when she adopts her real, “fiendish” appearance of a nine-tailed fox, i.e. a “donkey-sized monster clasping and gnawing a pair of human legs” (those of Old Hoary Head’s son), that moment of bloody and beastly ferocity just combines with the other facets of the character to properly round her out as a sublime menace (which is all the more fitting for a numinous figure inherited from religious belief).

That sense of sublime, both threatening and seductive, dignity is stressed by the undignified depiction of several of Jade Fox’s male foes. The narrator calls the farmers enlisted at first by Old Hoary Head to fight the fox spirit a “disorderly and garrulous group”. They are made to seem foolish by the fact that, before actually meeting her, they brag about how brave and strong they will be when facing the spirit, with such unreasonable predictions as “I’ll stand in that space over there and swish my broadsword around. The demon will be terrified when it sees me.” Finally, they are shown to be very gullible, as, being notified beforehand that the “demon” would appear in the shape of a “girl […] of exceptional beauty”, they still immediately stop believing that she’s a “demon” because she’s such an “amaz[ingly] […] beautiful personage” that they cannot believe she’s anything else than a pretty human woman. Then, before showing her magical powers (by levitating and disappearing), she claims to be a celestial goddess, and the villagers believe her as easily and unquestioningly as they had believed Old Hoary Head when he claimed to have seen a demon eat his son.

Taoist priest Celestial Wang is even worse. He is a drunkard and a con artist who constantly brags about having special powers that make him a great healer and exorcist, despite not believing in demons and not having ever studied anything of Taoist teachings, let alone magic. In addition, whenever his schemes to defeat the fox spirits (consistently) fail miserably, he always blames others (mostly Old Hoary Head). In sum, he is clearly a one-sidedly comic figure, akin to the alazon—whereas the villagers would be closer to the agroikos (or any other equivalents of such comic stock characters as can be found abundantly in the history of Chinese literature and humour). At the end of the few chapters that focus on his attempts to exorcise the Zhou homestead, Wang ends up beaten up with chaste tree sticks by the foxes, and that becomes his main defining characteristic through the rest of the book.

Lü Dongbin is obviously described in much more dignified terms, like the following:

An august and awe-inspiring dignity could be perceived beneath his demeanour of cultured refinement. As Ancestor Lü and the fox spirits looked at each other, Jade Fox was obliged to take a few steps back after feeling the effects of the great immortal’s vital and righteous energy.

Yet there is some rhetorical back-and-forth between him and Jade Fox, during which the fox spirit is allowed to exploit the immortal’s “flaws” by calling to memory some of the less dignified legends about him, from his failures at the imperial examination to the way the prostitute White Peony played him during their intercourse, although the rest of the dialogue puts that matter to rest with the immortal’s quick dismissal of those “unfounded stories” and “false allegations.”

The satirical passages can raise suspicion of class-based prejudice, as they target poor characters (the peasants and Celestial Wang—of whom we learn, early on, that he is an orphan and that, as a child, he “was so destitute that he had come to the Temple of Welcoming Joy hoping to become an apprentice”), but those are, again, essentially stock characters (based on class-based prejudice, and) inherited from the whole history of Chinese literature: Wang is a mixture of several often ridiculed types, and even more sympathetic figures are essentially well-established types too: namely, Old Hoary Head and Xin Zhou. Actually, not only are “fox spirit seduces man” stories a rigidly codified genre in itself (even the idea that the fox can elevate herself spiritually through study or take a short cut via sexual yang vampirism is not specific to this novel but is part of the genre’s tropes), but when the man is a scholar, the genre itself can be seen as a supernatural version of another prominent genre in Chinese literature of the time: the scholar-beauty romance.

What is clear is that the one-sidedness of many characters and the clichéd familiarity of the initial situation highlight, by contrast, how complex and multifaceted Jade Fox is. Besides issues of how the fox spirit is described or what she does, this complexity is also made possible by formal characteristics of the story.

Indeed, as previously noted, historically the main literary medium for stories of foxes seducing men has been literati’s collections of zhiguai, i.e. “very short stor[ies]”, with minimal plots, and of a conversational and didactic nature. One partial exception is also the most famous of those collections: Pu Songling’s. It actually alternates very short zhiguai stories with stories that are more “chuanqi 傳奇” in nature. That means, on the one hand, that they are more concerned with things like characterisation, atmosphere and plot than with didactically making a point, or transmitting oral storytelling accurately. On the other hand, it also means that, to allow for this more aesthetic focus, those stories are longer.

The contrast with strictly zhiguai-like writing is even starker in the case of The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain, which is not any of those types of short stories, but is, instead, a novel. The narrative is about 200 pages long, which is, admittedly, far shorter than the thousands of pages of the sprawling classic novels like Wu Cheng’en’s The Journey to the West (c. 1592) or Cao Xueqin’s A Dream of the Red Chamber (1791), but much longer than most of the popular scholar-beauty romances of the time.

In a novel, since the author has more space to develop their narrative than in a zhiguai or even a chuanqi story, everything is extended. For example, the first encounter between Jade Fox and Xin Zhou is preceded by an expository chapter in which a few paragraphs only consist in descriptions of the landscape, first in a sublime mode (just before introducing the “fox demons” and their cave):

Deep mountains and ancient caves have always been known as the haunts of evil spirits. Although Jiangsu Province’s Bluestone Mountain could not be compared to the five sacred mountains or the three mythical islands, it was nevertheless a remarkable place. Its breathtaking peaks rose high into the firmament, and its lofty ranges were enveloped in mist and fog.

Concealed in Bluestone Mountain there was a craggy, ancient cave that, unoccupied by any spiritual masters practicing ascetic self-cultivation, became inhabited by fox spirits. (italics mine)

then switching, just before love at first sight happens, to a more picturesque mode—i.e. wild and fascinating like the sublime (see the words in bold letters), but also unthreatening and heartening like the beautiful (see the words in italics):

He saw a crescent-shaped, jade-like stone bridge over the stream and the delicately wrought table for funeral offerings. Tall pines and verdant willows lined the pathway on both sides. In front of the trees were rows of stone statues of men and horses. Rising up behind the tomb were green hills and a lofty mountain range. The dragon valley to the east was propitious in accordance with the principles of feng shui, and the south wind carried with it the fragrance of wild flowers. The white tiger’s ceremonial arch, which contained exquisitely engraved characters on a stone table, kept guard to the east. To the north a waterfall murmured into a clear spring, surrounded by aromatic green grass. High in the distance the shadows of clouds could be seen lingering upon the blue-green ridges and peaks of the mountain; and fog nestled in its umbral and heavily wooded depths. It was truly a marvellous scene, fit to be painted. (bold letters and italics mine, except for the words feng shui, which are already in italics in the text)

Such descriptive pauses would be uncommon in the usual “discourse on foxes and ghosts”, as it usually appears in zhiguai form, or possibly in chuanqi tales, so with a lot less leeway than a novelist has to set the plot aside and explore the byways and secret paths of their fictional world.

Besides having more space to properly set the mood before plunging into action, when you write a novel rather than a zhiguai story, you also have, more to the point, a lot of space to make your fox character do, say and think a lot of things. Which definitely helps make the character complex and multifaceted. Indeed, it means you have more space to show more facets of her personality. As we have seen, it is definitely what “the Moon-drunk Hermit” does with Jade Fox.

To give an even clearer idea of the extent of her multifaceted nature, it should be pointed out now that she is shown doubting her own actions and their outcome at two points: once she almost decides to leave things be and to stop fighting the Zhou household and the Taoist priests, because she acknowledges Lü Dongbin’s powers and moral authority as an immortal; then when Lü sends her a letter to invite her to parley, she finds his move perfectly acceptable and seems in a compliant mood. Those two times, it is the other, younger and more impetuous foxes that persuade her that she must keep fighting. So Jade Fox, who until her final humiliation seems an untameable force of anarchy, is actually seen twice in a peaceful disposition towards her adversaries; and Lady Jade Face, the warlike figure of “awe-inspiring authority” who will lead an army of demons/spirits/beasts against the Heavenly Troops, can actually be piqued and manipulated by the foxes she rules over. Not only is the reader informed of those and many other aspects of her personality because there is enough space to show everything, but also because there are entire passages that focus on Jade Fox, the other foxes, and their cave, leaving completely aside the human characters. Such a perspective was rather uncommon in zhiguai stories, both because many of them were seen not as fiction to cleverly construct, but as accounts of supernatural phenomena to transcribe (so obviously the limited viewpoint of the human witness was paramount), and because they were much too short to explore the psyche and motivations and every action of all the characters.

If the “Moon-drunk Hermit” is indeed Zou Tao, it seems interesting to point out that he is believed to have been a Catholic, that he had contacts with Western culture, and that he was an enthusiastic patron of courtesans, and wrote sympathetically about them. Obviously, none of those characteristics guarantee in any way less patriarchal views, but that he had a complex perspective on life and society, and was therefore inclined to write a complex fox character, and to avoid demonizing a “lustful” female figure altogether, was not a completely unlikely turn of events (even if he does end up putting Jade Fox to trial before Lü Dongbin, be it out of prejudice or conformity with literary or cultural conventions).

It would be excessive, though, to claim that by writing a novel, he thoroughly discarded the legacy of zhiguai. After all, most of the things that happen in The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain are things that happened in zhiguai fox stories too. The difference is that, instead of writing several short stories about different sorts of fox narratives and different visions of the fox figure, he crafted a single, long story in which he put all of those simultaneously.

It is also possible to detect some influence of zhiguai in aspects of the style of the novel. The huge number of proverbs and sayings that pepper the dialogues (sixteen occurrences of the words “The saying goes”, and several variants like “I followed the saying”, “As the saying goes”, “Indeed the saying is true”, “The proverb goes”, “There’s a proverb”) can be interpreted, to a certain extent, as an echo of zhiguai’s often didactic tone—although it can also, of course, be seen as a mere example of a common stylistic feature found in most classical Chinese novels and writings in general. As for the roots of zhiguai in conversation and in the transmission of oral storytelling, perhaps some traces of it remain in the author’s choice to have the narrator frequently address the reader, either by enjoining them to “look at this young man”, to “just look at her, putting on an endless variety of graceful and amorous poses”, to “just look at the grief-stricken old man, climbing slowly to his feet and wailing pathetically as he stares at his son’s scattered remains” etc., or by closing every chapter with a teasing sentence along the lines of “if you want to know what happens next, read on to the next chapter” (except for the last chapter, which teases a sequel—which apparently does not exist, according to Gouldthorp’s last endnote). Both the characters’ use of plot events and situations to illustrate points, and vice-versa, and the narrator’s addresses to the reader, are reminiscent of Ji Yun’s regular departures from the strictly narrative mode (as can be found in Leo Tak-hung Chan’s translations), for example to explicitly clarify the moral of the story, referencing himself and his readers as beneficiaries of that insight, or to appeal to the reader’s agreement with the story’s moral, through a rhetorical question. Such explicit interventions of the narrator are much more rare in Pu Songling’s stories, and that is part of how Ji Yun wrote more strictly in the tradition of zhiguai whereas Pu Songling wrote, in Leo Tak-hung Chan’s terms, “zhiguai in the chuanqi mode.”

So, basically, with The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain, the Moon-drunk Hermit has created a synthesis or a mixture of all or most of the themes and motifs related to classical fox spirit stories, and of tropes and features from several Chinese literary traditions, from zhiguai to novels in general, and maybe scholar-beauty romances in particular. This idea of the novel as a mixture leads to another interesting and fun aspect of this story that should be pointed out.

Let us start with a few anachronistic references to today’s Western as well as Eastern fiction, which will hopefully appear relevant soon. There has been a crossover frenzy in British and American fantasy comics, literature, cinema and TV series over the past decades. Among the most famous cases are Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe novels and short stories (written through the 1970s but then expanded by other writers, and probably still being enriched now), and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics series (1999-2019). Both groups of works successfully mingle in coherent fictional worlds gigantic amounts of characters from the whole history of fiction. There are other, smaller but just as interesting examples: Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels and short stories (1992-2017), the series of short story anthologies Tales from the Shadowmen, edited by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier (2005-2019), or the first three seasons of John Logan’s TV series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods (2001) could be said to be a similar crossover, but which would mix the world’s mythologies instead of the history of fiction in general, and his comics series Sandman (1988-1996) does more or less the same with mythology, fiction and history. Trying to emulate the giant in-house crossover film series known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which itself mirrors the superhero comics industry’s practices), the Hollywood studio Universal has been producing, since 2014, reboots of their classic 1920s-1950s monster films, in the purported aim to eventually create a similar in-house crossover called the Dark Universe.

A more specific aspect of this recent tendency to extreme crossover is what French comics writer Frédéric Maffre, who scripted the western comics series Stern (2015-2020), calls “the Royal Rumble movie” or “Royal Rumble episode”, in a reference to the annual wrestling event in which the American company World Wrestling Entertainment make all their wrestlers fight in the same match. An example of applying the same principle to fiction would be the Expendables film trilogy (2010-2014), in which as many old 1980s-1990s action movie stars as possible (and some more recent ones) are packed together in one same action movie, fighting each other or alongside each other. Another example, from Japan, would be the TV movie Gokaiger Goseiger Super Sentai 199 Hero Great Battle (2011), a special episode of the tokukatsu series Super Sentai (started in 1975), which aired for the 35th anniversary of the series and staged a giant battle involving characters from all the teams of heroes from the different eras of the series, up to 199 such characters.

The battle on Bluestone Mountain, towards the end of the Moon-drunk Hermit’s novel, feels a little like a precursor to today’s Royal Rumble films and episodes. Even before that passage, a substantial part of the story features Lü Dongbin, who is a famous semi-mythological figure. There’s also a healthy dose of historical and mythological name-dropping throughout the novel, mostly as learned allusions made by the characters, but sometimes also in the form of “actual” characters making a cameo (principally the “Eight Immortals of the Caves”, the “South Pole God of Longevity” and his attendant “White Crane Boy”, who receive the prayers of Old Hoary Head and decide to send Lü Dongbin to the rescue). There is also “Jie Jiao (截教)”, the specific Taoism-like religion practiced, in the novel, by fox spirits and other beasts and monsters. It is actually a fictitious religion from Xu Zhonglin’s famous 16th-century novel The Investiture of the Gods, in which the “heretical” cult is led by the “Grandmaster of Heaven” Tongtian Jiaozhu.

Yet this intertextual generosity takes a whole new dimension when the Heavenly Troops get to the mountain and start preparing for battle, and later on when they fight Jade Fox’s army.

Attendees include Li Jing, the Heavenly King (who leads the Heavenly Troops to the battleground and then watches them fight from a distance), Generals “Liu Ding and Liu Jia”, marshals “Ma, Zhao, Wen and Liu”, the “Twelve Generals”, the “Twenty-Eight Astral Commanders”, as well as “Er Lang”, “Nezha” or the “Howling Hound of Heaven”. In addition, as they engage in a fight of transformations with Jade Fox, Erlang and Nezha change into other gods at one point (Erlang into Zhong Kui, Nezha into “Martial Judge”, i.e. Wu Pan Guan). Then, after the battle, the “Great White Venerian Sage” and the Jade Emperor are contacted by Li Jing to enact his post-war decision to leave Jade Fox to be judged by Lü. Many of those characters already feature in some of the most famous Chinese classical novels: the “Twenty-Eight Astral Commanders” were in Shi Nai’an’s 14th-century Water Margin; several of the others were in The Journey to the West and/or in The Investiture of the Gods (which are both heavily mythology-themed, shenmo” novels)… So, the near end of The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain is characterized by a sudden turn to the radically intertextual, massively epic and mythological. What is, originally, an expansion of typical zhiguai material to the dimensions of a supernatural scholar-beauty novel focused on the hostilities between an “infatuated” fox spirit and a small group of servants, villagers and local priests, turns out to have a couple of shenmo chapters in it. Be it an attempt to briefly emulate prestigious models like The Investiture of the Gods, or a playful mass revival of many of those famous mythological characters, or a will to surprise the reader by completely changing the scale of the story, it does read like a ludic, mythological and literary “Royal Rumble” avant la lettre—just like, in the West, in Britain, there was already a 1769 prefiguration of giant crossovers in general, but one that focused on Shakespeare’s plays.

There is one aspect of reading and discovering this narrative that is a little frustrating, though. In his introduction, Gouldthorp identifies a previous work that may be a source plundered by the Moon-drunk Hermit for most or all of the basic elements of the plot, and for the main characters: an opera called Qǐng shī zhǎn yāo 請師斬妖 (which Gouldthorp translates as Inviting the Master to Slay the Demon). Either it is a direct source, or at least that story, of Zhou and the fox, Wang, Lü Dongbin and the Heavenly Troops, was already circulating and was adapted into an opera and then the Moon-drunk Hermit also adapted it into a novel. It would be more convenient to know more precisely what was already in that opera, and what was added in the novel; which mythological characters were already part of the troops that attacked Bluestone Mountain, and which ones were specifically put there by the Moon-drunk Hermit; how much of Jade Fox’s complexity arises from actions ascribed to her by the novelist, and how much of it was already there in the opera.

At any rate, The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain is certainly an enjoyable, fun and interesting read in itself, and the focus that Camphor Press’s translation may put on it seems particularly relevant to the moment, culturally speaking. Indeed, the figure of the fox spirit has proven consistently popular in recent years—be it in the world of Chinese cinema (with blockbusters like Gordon Chan’s 2008 fantasy epic Painted Skin or Wu Ershan’s 2012 sequel Painted Skin: The Resurrection; and with smaller-budget productions like Wellson Chin’s 2014 horror/fantasy romance comedy The Extreme Fox), Chinese comics and animation (with teen fantasy romance series Fox Spirit Matchmaker, both Tuo Xiaoxin and Pansi Daxian’s 2012-ongoing manhua series and Wang Xin’s 2015-ongoing donghua adaptation), Chinese live-action TV drama (with Liu Yufen, Gao Linbao and Xu Huikang’s 2016 young adult romance fantasy series Legend of Nine Tails Fox), South Korean live-action TV drama (with romance fantasy shows like Shin Woo-chul and Kim Jung-hyun’s 2013 Gu Family Book or Boo Sung-chul’s 2010 My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox) etc.

Actually, while a lot of Pu Songling-adapted or other zhiguai-derived movies in the past seemed to be principally about ghosts (from Li Han-Hsiang’s 1960 The Enchanting Shadow and Ching-Siu tung’s 1987 A Chinese Ghost Story to King Hu’s 1993 Painted Skin—with the notable exception of Wu Ma’s 1991 Fox Legend), there seems to have been a turn towards more fox material on the big screen, in the 21st century. For instance, although Gordon Chan’s aforementioned movie Painted Skin is named after a Pu Songling ghost story, he chose to make it a fox movie (probably to get around mainland China’s anti-ghost censorship). As for Wellson Chin, he crafted with The Extreme Fox a brilliant satirical comedy on the commodification of folklore, not to mention other recent entries in the fox film lore like He Ke-Ke’s Fox Fairy/A Tale of Fox (2012) or Niu Chaoyang’s The Fox Lover (2013). With its energetic pacing, amusing moments of comic relief, spectacular battle towards the end and striking female protagonist, The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain would be a worthy candidate for film adaptation (which is probably not surprising, as this story has already been performed, rather than just written and read, both as the aforementioned opera, and as another one, in the early 20th century). However, were its anarchic sweep to remain confined in the pages of a book, it would still be a rich take on several aspects of Chinese literature and folklore, a serendipitous bridge between past and modern trends in fiction, and Timothy Gouldthorp’s translation is a rewarding discovery for anyone who is interested in all those things and who is not a proficient reader in the original Chinese language.

How to cite: Camus, Cyril. “The Fox Spirit of Bluestone Mountain: Female Force, Bridges from Zhiguai to Novel, and a Royal Rumble of Myth.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 24 Aug 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/24/fox-spirit/.

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Cyril Camus teaches English to post-secondary students at Ozenne High School in Toulouse and is an associate member of the Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes research group of Toulouse University. He wrote Mythe et fabulation dans la fiction fantastique et merveilleuse de Neil Gaiman (2018), a monograph on Neil Gaiman’s works, Sang de Boeuf (Bouchers et acteurs) (2019), a historical horror novel about the Grand Guignol Theatre, and academic papers on Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, comics, rewritings of Shakespeare, and postmodern fantasy. He also co-edited a soon-to-be-published journal issue on the themes of societal and environmental collapse in fantasy and science fiction. Visit his website for more information.

 

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