Friday, October 31, 2014

Some Chinese Proverbs and Lore About Foxes

Happy Halloween . . .

A proverb from the Tang Dynasty nicely sums up the sometimes contradictory attitude towards foxes and the way fox folklore intertwined with everyday life: "You can't have a village without the werefox" [无狐魅不成村]. A contemporary proverb states a similar message: "From Tang times onward, the common people have had to placate foxes" [唐初以来,百姓多事狐]. Both proverbs suggest the importance and depth of foxes within the human psyche, especially in Northern China. Below are more fox proverbs known largely throughout China:

1。 狐假虎威 The fox intimidates courtesy of the tiger. (Said of a coward who is only tough when 
       followed or backed up by his bodyguards or retinue or of a petty tyrant who stays in power only 
       because of his more powerful connections. The Chinese fable that inspired this proverb 
       tells how a  tiger was ready to eat a fox when the fox suddenly told the tiger that he, the fox, 
       was actually the king of beasts and that he could prove it. The tiger agreed to spare the fox so 
       that the fox could prove his point. The tiger was willing to follow the fox into an area full of 
       other animals. When all the animals saw the dreaded tiger following close behind the fox, they 
       all fled for their lives, convincing the tiger that, yes, the fox was indeed the "king.")

2。狐狸打不成,反惹一身臊 The fox not only failed in what he was trying to do but also ended up with
      his whole body stinking head to toe. (Said of a failed attempt at something that leads to even worse 

3。狐埋狐搰 A fox will keep digging up what it has just buried. (Said of those with misgivings  and 
      whose fears and suspicions sabotage their endeavors.) 

4。狐媚魇道 or 狐媚魇倒 The guile of a fox and the ability to entrance. (Said of an insidiously 
      captivating vixen using her charms to seduce and entrap.)

5。狐朋狗友 Dog and fox friends. (Describing ostensible friends who are actually bad influences; 
      so-called "friends" who get one in trouble; the supposed "pals" that might lead one to say, "With 
       friends like these, who needs enemies?")

6.  狐群狗党 A den of foxes and a faction of dogs. (Unsavory people who hang out together. "Birds
     of a feather flock together," Westerners say. A variation of #5 above.)

7。狐裘羔袖 A fox jacket with sleeves of lambskin. (Something overall good but with some 
      undesirable detail or feature; something or someone flawed."The fly in the ointment.")

8。狐死兔泣 The rabbit cried after learning the fox had died. (Sometimes also expressed as "The fox
      cried after learning the rabbit had died." At first glance, one might assume either expression 
      means "to shed crocodile tears." However, that would not be the case. Instead, it means "to 
      mourn the loss of a contemporary, peer, or friend.")

9。狐死首丘 A fox always dies with its headed pointed towards its mound (i.e., lair). (A metaphor of 
      patriotism: the desire to be reunited with one's beloved homeland.) 

10。狐疑不定 or any of the other variations: 狐疑不断, 狐疑不决, 狐疑犹豫 Because the fox has
        doubts, it is irresolute. (See #3  above. A comment on the fox's furtive and supposed overly 
        calculating nature that primarily seeks self-preservation. Such an attitude leads to an excess of 
        caution and may prevent the fox from furthering its aims and succeeding. Said of those who 
        would be sneaky and cunning but who cannot pull off their schemes due to a lack of 
        determination and courage. The antithesis would be, of course, the motto of the Special Air 
        Service: "He who dares, wins." Another saying that provides the inverse of  the above Chinese 
        proverbs would be "Fortune favors the bold," coined by Thucydides.)

11。狐狸尾巴 The tail of the fox. (It was believed that a werevixen would inadvertently reveal her 
        true identity if her tail accidentally appeared. Said of those who "show their true colors" 
        through their words or deeds.) 

12。狐狸看鸡,愈看愈稀 When the fox watches over the chickens, the flock grows smaller and
        smaller. (Akin to our saying "The fox guarding the hen house," suggesting that employing
        an unreliable person in an important position is asking for trouble.)

13。狐狸活到老,永远难变好 No matter how long a fox lives, it will never be up to any good.
        ("A leopard can't change its spots," we say.)

14。狐狸再狡猾,也洗不掉一身臊 No matter how cunning the fox is, it can never rid itself of its
        stench. (Similar in meaning to #11, 12, and 13 above. A fox can masquerade as something
        else, but it will reveal itself by its odor.) 

15。狐狸再狡猾,斗不过好猎手 No matter how cunning the fox is, it is no match for the wiliest
        hunter. ("No one stays on top forever," some say. This is what happens when someone 
        "meets his or her match.")

Chen Yantian, Zhou Kuijieh, and Lin Hong'en, eds. Practical Thesaurus. [實用近義詞詞典]. Hong Kong: Haifeng, 1991; 关于狐狸的谚语、俗语—经典用语大全关于狐狸的谚语_谚语_好词好句大全;豺狼当道,安问狐狸? - 口语/谚语 - 翻吧 - 英语点津 - 中国日报网站

The Practical Thesaurus above is actually a thesaurus of Chinese proverbs.

I personally find foxes to be endlessly fascinating, as did, I guess, storytellers of old from around the world, with all the various myths, legends and folktales about these crafty animals. For much of my life, the only live foxes I had ever seen were in zoos. Once, a few years ago while taking a walk in a nearby canyon, I came across a gray fox sitting by the side of the road, its eyes closed. It was breathing heavily without opening its mouth. The fox didn't attempt to flee; neither did it do the slightest bit of flinching; it was obviously in distress, probably dying. Naturally, I didn't get too close. I resumed my walk. The next day, it was not there. Several years have passed, and I still wonder about that fox and what became of it. Then, starting earlier this year, one or more gray foxes began appearing in my area, often at night. I still see them occasionally, bounding up and down the cul-de-sac with their fluffy upright tales. Late one night, taking my Maltese out to do his nightly business, I came across a gray fox sitting in the middle of the backyard, calmly observing us, seemingly without a care in the world. My dog, being a typical Maltese, began barking his head off. I had to put him back inside and shoo the intruder away. Such are my experiences with foxes. 

In traditional Chinese lore, foxes often cast a malevolent shadow but could also be the objects of veneration in older times, during the Tang Dynasty, at home-based shrines. They were and are major bewitching tricksters and shapeshifters. Tales of werevixens abound in Chinese and Japanese folktales. However, before we examine the deadlier aspects of foxes, let's first take a look at the major figures in the cult that was centered in Northern China, particularly around Beijing and Tianjin. There is the 狐仙, the  fox immortal, to use a literal translation, also known as 狐神, the fox spirit or god. In time people came to believe that foxes could take a human form and, if slighted, exact revenge. People thus began to propitiate the fox spirit. In areas of shamanic activity, fox idols were created. Hunters in these northern areas would pray to the fox god before hunting. The fox god could augur both good and evil. A saying popular in Ming and Qing times goes like this: "The South has many ghosts, while the North has many fox [spirits]" 南方多鬼,北方多狐 (See the entry for 狐仙 by Ma Guojun in The Dictionary of Chinese Folk Beliefs and Customs [中国民间信仰风俗辞典]; Wang Jinglin and Xu Tao, eds; pp. 376-377. The complete citation can be found at 12/24/13)

Finally, there is the famed nine-tailed fox 九尾狐, also the object of veneration and mentioned in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, written in different stages sometime between the Warring States Period (475 B.C. - 403 B.C.) and the onset of the Han Dynasty (c. 206 B.C.). The Classic describes the mountain-dwelling nine-tailed fox as having a cry like that of a baby and being able to feast on humans. Its appearance can herald either nationwide prosperity or death and destruction. (See Ma Guojun's article on 九尾狐 in The Dictionary of Chinese Folk Beliefs and Customs, p. 366). 

For classic stories of werefoxes and werevixens, I recommend Pu Songling's early Qing Dynasty anthology, Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio, also known by other titles, such as Strange Stories From Liaozhai and Strange Stories From the Liaozhai Studio. I particularly recommend Herbert A. Giles's translation and version. I am sure all the versions provide some good reading for Halloween. 

For other folktales and legends about foxes and werefoxes, please see the posts for 10/21/07, 10/1/09, 10/28/10, and 12/18/12. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wang Zhi and the Rotted Ax Handle -- Three Versions of Missing Time in a Chinese Legend

Version 1

The following is the basic, core version of an old legend:

A woodcutter went up the mountain to cut some wood. While there, he saw two people--two old men, by some accounts, or two children--playing chess. He stands by, observing the game, assuming only minutes have gone by. He feels something strange. He holds up the ax he's been carrying; the handle has totally rotted away. The woodcutter heads back home only to discover that his family is no longer there, that at least one century has lapsed.

Version 2: Rotted Ax Handle Mountain (Henan)

Up on Rotted Axe Handle Mountain, one can see strange foliage not seen elsewhere; stranger still are the many petrified trees there that jut up from the mountainscape, resembling ivory tusks. Once a traveler finds him/herself on Rotted Axe Handle Mountain, he or she will have truly entered the realm of immortals . . .

It so happens that woodcutter Wang Zhi was up on the mountain one day when he beheld two very old men playing a game of chess while seated beneath a peach tree. The old men were white whiskered and had a ruddy glow to their faces.

Wang Zhi was not a wealthy or particularly cultivated individual, but he too certainly appreciated the fine game of chess. He stopped, stood by the chess board and watched the two old gentlemen. On and on he watched, oblivious of the time or his duties.

Something then fluttered onto the ground past him and then more of the same onto his person. He looked up. Peach petals were floating downwards, littering the ground. Then, before he even knew it, rich, succulent ripe peaches appeared on the branches.

Wang Zhi couldn't resist plucking a peach from the tree and biting into it. The flavor was incredibly sweet. After eating the peach, a change came over him, a sensation he had never had before. He felt suddenly enlightened, his mind cleared, and his body, completely comfortable.

Then, almost as soon as they had appeared, the peaches were gone and the stems they had been on, withered and yellowed. The ground was now covered with dried, yellowed leaves.

Once again, though, the whole process repeated itself, with new green leaves immediately appearing . . .

Here, the narrative ends.

Version 3: Watching an All-Consuming Chess Match (Hubei)

A farmer took a little trip up the mountain, and there he saw two old men--one with a long black beard and the other, with a long white beard--playing chess. The farmer, intrigued, watched them for a long while.

The black-bearded man then stopped playing and addressed the farmer.

"There's a serious drought going on right now, isn't there?" he asked the farmer.

"Yes, that is the case. I have only a dou of sesame seeds to plant . . . "

"Suppose, Farmer, that I can show you how to plant a whole field with that small amount of seeds and how to reap a huge harvest?"

The farmer had his suspicions that this black-bearded man knew what he was talking about, but he, the farmer, was game and watched and listened as the old man with the black beard showed him the procedure. The farmer thanked him and returned home to his drought-stricken village. He decided to plant the seeds in the manner shown to him by the strange man up on the mountain.

In time the farmer had a huge harvest of valuable, useful, versatile sesame plants!

Overjoyed, the farmer filled a  sack of sesame seeds to take up the mountain to the old men, especially the black-bearded one, as a thank-you gift. He hoisted the sack onto his mule and off he went back up the mountain.

From afar he spotted the pair--still playing chess.

He approached them and explained why he had come. The two old men, however, continued to play their game of chess. The farmer felt compelled to watch them play and watched them for only a few minutes. He then bid them farewell and turned around to head home.

His mule was missing . . . Had it headed back down the mountain without him? Ahh, the stubborn old cuss of an animal! He went back down the mountain to look for it.

And once he found himself back on level land, he discovered from those he had encountered that several hundred years had passed from his time . . .

Lin Jifu. 中国民间故事类型研究. [Research on the Types of Chinese Folktales]. Liu Shouhua, ed. Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 179-190. 烂柯山_百度百科王质故乡——烂柯山的传说;
烂柯山 - Wikipedia

 The original source is perhaps "Wang Zhi and the Rotted Axe Handle" from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). 

In more than one culture, we can find examples in folklore of time dilation, a situation in which an incredible amount of time passes by in what seems like a short period. Time, that universal concept of measurement, here distorts itself, allowing years to be experienced as what had been regarded as minutes. Typically, such stories from East Asia may follow a pattern. A woodcutter, for example, heads off into a different part of the forest, or a fisherman lands on an uncharted island. In either locale, the visitor encounters some beings--old men or children playing xiangqi (i.e., "elephant chess"  象棋, or Chinese chess) in the forest, or, in the case of a native Taiwanese tale, beautiful but hostile Amazon-like females on a small barren island. (The latter story is "The Island of Women," an Amis legend in an anthology I'm preparing for future publication.) After tarrying among the beings or entities for what appears to be a brief time, he returns home, sometimes after extremely arduous circumstances, only to find that a huge gap in time has inexplicably transpired, that his village is now unrecognizable, that everyone he had once known is now long dead. The time traveler may then discover himself withered, prematurely aged, ready to die.

The three versions not surprisingly differ to some degree. The Henan version doesn't mention whether the visitor to the mountain ever saw his family again. The chances are he most likely didn't. The Hubei version has the old black-bearded  man offer lifesaving aid to the farmer but doesn't warn him not to return. (The farmer should have probably known better.) The very terse, somewhat elliptical original Chinese version doesn't state whether the two chess players greeted or spoke to the farmer upon his return visit. In any case, the farmer apparently overstepped his bounds by daring to return to the abode of immortals who were busily playing chess, the game which is a metaphor or symbol for life itself. The farmer had already had tremendous luck by visiting the two immortals, receiving a gift, and going back and being able, presumably, to talk about it. To go back up again to locate them was a foolhardy idea just begging for trouble. 

We find also similar motifs in "Rip Van Winkle," the well-known Japanese fairy tale "Urashima Taro," the Irish "Tir na nOg," and the Celtic fairy/leprechaun lore of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Among the latter are stories of individuals who left the safety of their homes to investigate strange, alluring music and then come across fairy fiddlers and dancers. Upon returning home, they then encounter what is now the predictable result of their lingering among otherworldly beings. One way or another, there is often an unpleasant price to pay for being in the company of the otherworldly. The Japanese have legends of children abducted by "sky dogs," tengu [天狗], weird anthropoid beings with wings who live in the forested mountains. Upon returning, if they ever do come back, these children are not necessarily prematurely aged but instead "touched in the head" and never quite the same again. Today we still hear incredible stories of missing time from those who claim to have encountered odd beings inside or outside "spacecraft" or UFOs, our very own modern versions of rendezvous with bizarre entities. The widely discussed Barney and Betty Hill case from the 1960's is a good example. In any case, the bottom line seems to be that a date with residents from the unknown is fraught with danger--mainly, because the natural order as represented by time is violated--and thus best avoided. 

For similar tales of inexplicable events and entities that are said to be still occurring in the mountains of Taiwan, see the post for 12/24/13, "The Little Flying Swordsmen of the Mountain."

Motifs: cA163.1., "Gods play chess"; C712, "Staying too long in fairyland forbidden"; F377, "Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland"; F971, "Miraculous blossoming and bearing of fruit."