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  • Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative
  • Lei Jin (bio)
Rania Huntington . Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative. Cambridge (MA) and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003. 370 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 0-674-01094-9.

Focusing on late imperial Chinese narrative, this book explores the figure of the fox—"one particular society's conception of one kind of alien"—in the narratives of the Ming and Qing (p. 4). The author illustrates that the fox, as a creature who frequently violates boundaries of species, gender, and the metaphysical realm, reveals "the anxieties of late imperial culture" (p. 4). This study is an important contribution in at least two respects. First, it represents an integrative look at a wide range of narrative texts on the fox from the late sixteenth to the later nineteenth centuries. Second, the comparative approach, which draws examples from both Eastern and Western literary traditions, is informative and stimulating and adds a helpful dimension to this study of supernatural tales.

The body of the argument is well constructed, with each chapter focusing on a particular boundary that is violated by the fox; moreover, subtitles within each chapter frame a clear structure for the discussion. The book contains an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction begins by quoting two famous definitions of the fox in the Chinese literary tradition as found in Guo Pu's (276-324) Xuanzhong ji (Records from within the recondite) and Ji Yun's (1724-1805) Yuewei caotang biji (Notebook from the thatched cottage of close scrutiny). They illustrate the fox's transgressive abilities and its simultaneously marginalized and ubiquitous textual and cultural existence, which the book investigates in the subsequent chapters. A survey of recent studies of the fox motif and an outline of each chapter of the book provide the reader an overview of both the book and the field as a whole.

In chapter one, a brief textual history of the fox motif goes hand in hand with the history of the two important literary genres that involve the fox figure— zhiguai (records of the strange) and chuanqi (tales of the marvelous). The chapter traces the fox's capacity for transformation to the Han dynasty, in which "a complex system of animals as omens developed" (p. 8). The survey reveals that the tradition of the transforming fox in particular began in the Six Dynasties and was one of the prominent topics of zhiguai. Fox tales were enlarged in the more complex plots and ornamental language of Tang chuanqi. In the Tang dynasty, the fox's ability to transform, deceive, and possess human beings was further explored. The author observes that although a few stories try to "create a positive vision of the vixen lover," more frequently "human relations with foxes often end in the violence of the hunt and the fatal exposure of the foxes' deception" (pp. 12-13). The author is aware of the importance of genre to the fox [End Page 115] tradition, and the generic terms wenyan xiaoshuo (classical tale); its subdivisions zhiguai, chuanqi, and biji (notation book); and their relation to the fox tradition are discussed.

Chapter 1 also outlines "the literary territory of the late imperial fox" (pp. 24-33) and thus provides a foundation for further discussion. The author rightly points out that "in the Ming, expanded interest in the classical tales prompted both the composition of original works and the reprinting and editing of the earlier material" (p. 25), but fails to give a further explanation for the renewal of wenyan xiaoshuo and the blossoming of zhiguai and in particular the revived interest in the fox motif. One of the fundamental questions is why zhiguai revived and flourished in the Ming and Qing, more than ten centuries after its first flowering in the Six Dynasties (222-589). A discussion of the social and historical conditions could help to explain this revival.

Chapter 2 discusses the species boundary between humans and foxes. The examination starts with two sets of stories from the Yetan suilu (Occasional records of conversations at night) of He Bang'e (active in the late eighteenth century) and the Huaixi zazhi (Miscellaneous records...


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