Malaysian author Choo Yangsze on the complex symbolism of fox spirits

SINGAPORE – Malaysian author Choo Yangsze does not know how many stories of fox spirits she read before writing her new novel, The Fox Wife.

After all, Chinese literature is teeming with the creatures, from Pu Songling’s 18th-century Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio to first-person accounts of spirit encounters in the 1950s.

“It wasn’t that hard to find a lot of material on it and, from there, to extrapolate and build a world of foxes,” Choo says over Zoom. “What’s always intrigued me is what’s on the other side. Why would foxes bother with people? Opening the door to the other has always appealed.”

The historical fantasy writer, based in California with her husband and two children, has built a career on writing about Asian ghouls and monsters.

Her 2013 debut, The Ghost Bride, sees a young woman in 1890s Melaka haunted by her ghostly suitor.

Her follow-up The Night Tiger (2019) then drew on the myths of shape-shifting were-tigers in South-east Asia, recreating a British Malaya full of magic and romance.

Published in January, The Fox Wife is told partly from the perspective of a female fox spirit, Snow.

It takes readers across north-eastern China in the dying throes of the Qing empire, as Snow attempts to track down the human killer of her cub, meeting old loves and masking her identity along the way.

Choo has chosen to set her novel in this period of social disruption as it lent itself to a surge in reported supernatural activity.

The early 1900s were replete with conflicts between the Han people and the ruling Manchus. Borders between China and Japan were also more porous.

The fox myth – along with Chinese students in search of modern education – travelled to Japan, and Snow and two male foxes also cause a stir there midway through the book.

“The whole idea of ‘are you human?’ speaks to a very ancient kind of reaction to a stranger,” Choo says. “You try to judge if a person is trustworthy. It is a means of trying to put all the strangeness into a box so that you can react.”

But like folk religions across the world, stories of fox spirits are both a site for the reaffirmation of social norms and a means through which women especially could challenge them.

One of the first things Choo notes in The Fox Wife is the formulaic nature of many fox stories: A male scholar, busy studying for his examinations, is interrupted in the twilight by a beautiful woman and lured to her den. “Pu Songling was a failed scholar,” Choo notes cheekily.

In general, the moral lessons are transparent: Female foxes tended to be subjugated by marriage before giving birth to sons who do exceptionally well in imperial exams, while male foxes who try to seduce married women meet ghastly deaths.

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