Thursday, March 07, 2024


The Fox Wife: A Novel
Yangsze Choo
Fiction 392 pages
Henry Holt and Co., Press, 2024

“There are as many kinds of foxes as there are types of people. Some are criminals. Others seek to escape this world by refining themselves.”

“The Fox Wife” is told through two perspectives. First person narration comes through a female fox out for revenge, while an elderly detective’s attempts to solve a complex mystery are told through the third person. The chapters alternate, first one told in first person followed by the next in the third person. It works.

 I’ve had difficulty reading stories in which the main characters alternate. An interesting chapter can be followed by a dull one that ruins the effect of the first. But if dovetailed characters and plots are equally interesting, boredom doesn’t arise. An effective twined narrative requires a skilled writer and Yangsze Choo is that.

 Set in 1908 Manchuria, the year in which China’s empress died, and three years prior to its revolution, China’s Qing dynasty is in decline. Revolutionary fervor infects its students. The daughters of poor families are sold to brothels while multiple wives and concubines occupy wealthier homes. It’s a China on the edge of modernity. Old tales of shapeshifting foxes are increasingly considered superstition, yet Bao the detective puzzles over alternative explanations for unlikely occurrences. He has room for doubt remembering how in childhood his nurse worshiped at a fox shrine and his friend claimed to have met a fox in human form.

 This novel features love, lust, loss, mystery, murder and madness. It’s well worth a read.

Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio
Pu Songling (Died 1715) translated by Herbert A. Giles
Fiction 448 pages depending on edition
Public Domain, 1880 translation

Many tales of shapeshifting foxes can be found in Pu Songling’s story anthology. Here is an example.

Friendship with Foxes
A certain man had an enormous stack of straw, as big as a hill, in which his servants, taking what was daily required for use, had made quite a hole. In this hole a fox fixed his abode, and would often show himself to the master of the house in the form of an old man.

 One day the latter invited the master to walk into the cave, which he at first declined, but accepted on being pressed by the fox; and when he got inside, lo! he saw a long suite of handsome apartments. They then sat down, and exquisitely perfumed tea and wine were brought; but the place was so gloomy that there was no difference between night and day. By-and-by, the entertainment being over, the guest took his leave; and on looking back the beautiful rooms and their contents had all disappeared.

 The old man himself was in the habit of going away in the evening and returning with the first streaks of morning; and as no one was able to follow him, the master of the house asked him one day whither he went. To this he replied that a friend invited him to take wine; and then the master begged to be allowed to accompany him, a proposal to which the old man very reluctantly consented. However, he seized the master by the arm, and away they went as though riding on the wings of the wind; and, in about the time it takes to cook a pot of millet, they reached a city, and walked into a restaurant, where there were a number of people drinking together and making a great noise.

The old man led his companion to a gallery above, from which they could look down on the feasters below; and he himself went down and brought away from the tables all kinds of nice food and wine, without appearing to be seen or noticed by any of the company. After awhile a man dressed in red garments came forward and laid upon the table some dishes of cumquats; and the master at once requested the old man to go down and get him some of these. “Ah,” replied the latter, “that is an upright man. I cannot approach him.”

 Thereupon the master said to himself, “By thus seeking the companionship of a fox, I then am deflected from the true course. Henceforth I, too, will be an upright man.” No sooner had he formed this resolution, than he suddenly lost all control over his body, and fell from the gallery down among the revelers below. These gentlemen were much astonished by his unexpected descent; and he himself, looking up, saw there was no gallery to the house, but only a large beam upon which he had been sitting. He now detailed the whole of the circumstances, and those present made up a purse for him to pay his traveling expenses; for he was at YĆ¼-t‘ai—one thousand li from home.

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