A Fox Woman Tale of Korea

by Heinz Insu Fenkl


Korean fox lore, which comes from China (from sources probably originating in India and overlapping with Sumerian lamia lore), is relatively straightforward compared to the complex body of fox culture that evolved in Japan. The Japanese fox spirit, or kitsune, is remarkably sophisticated, probably due to its resonance with the indigenous Shinto religion, and the fox spirits of Japan can be male or female, malign or benign. In Korea, the demonic fox is called a kumiho; they are almost exclusively female, and almost always evil. Korean fox women are generally seductive creatures that entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang (their masculine force) and leave them dissipated or dead (in much the same way as the fairy woman in Keats's poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" leaves her parade of hapless male victims).

The Korean kumiho is most often used as a cautionary symbol for the danger of female sexuality. Traditional Korea is a culture dominated by Confucian morality and ethics, but the rule of Confucian culture is built over a tenuous framework woven from animism, shamanism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Its patriarchal structure, which privileges male over female, also masks (and explicitly undermines) the power of women.

The best–known Korean fox tale is "The Fox Sister," which can be found in my essay, "Fox Wives and Other Dangerous Women." It is a cautionary Confucian story about the dangers of wishing for a female child. She literally destroys the family, and it is up to the disowned brothers to restore the order of patriarchy by killing her. In "The Saltseller and the Fox" (which can be found on my Korean Folktales site) the fox figure is determined to end an entire family line, using her disguise as a female shaman to enter the household. Both of those stories are developed from oral renditions that are relatively well–known in the storytelling culture.

This particular retelling, "The Tale of Fox's Den," is somewhat different from other Korean fox stories because it presents a more fully–developed literary sensibility. Although it claims to be a historical tale explaining the origin of a place name, it is understood to be a legend in its own right. What makes it unusual is its style, which suggests it was written, at some point, with a conscious understanding of Confucian literary conventions. The use of symbolically loaded names resonates strongly with the Korean tradition, during the 17th and 18th Centuries, of imitating earlier Chinese literary genres — in this case the T'ang Dynasty "strange tales" (most popular in the 9th Century). Since I happened to be emulating that form myself in my own short story, "How Master Madman Came to Ch'ing Feng Temple" (which is also a Buddhist story based on a sutra), I translated and retold "The Tale of Fox's Den" partially to learn that narrative form.

The symbolism in the names is especially elegant in "The Tale of Fox's Den." The father's surname, Song, suggests "eulogy" and "corpse" (songjang). If one were to shorten the vowel sound, his name would mean "saint" or "sage." The daughter's name, Panya, is unusual, and so it would attract attention to itself, thereby revealing an underlying Buddhist theme. Literally, panya means "midnight" or "the middle of the night." It could also be read as "half wild," but it happens to coincide with the Korean term for the Buddhist Prajnaparamita sutra, whose shortened form, The Heart Sutra, concludes with the line: "Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone entirely beyond, awakened, ah!" The sutra begins with the lines "Form is nothing but emptiness and emptiness is nothing but form," and teaches one how to transcend the world of illusion. The young protagonist of the tale embodies such ability, though perhaps not in the way a Buddhist would imagine.

The name of the village, Yosu, with a short initial vowel, would be a "female prisoner" or the tiredness or loneliness following a journey. With a long initial vowel, Yosu sounds like yosul, which means "magic" or "witchcraft." The Korean word for fox also happens to be yowu.

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