BASS 2020: Jane Pek, “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” from Witness #32.1

Daji, Pipa Jing, and Jiutou Zhiji Jing: The Nine-Tailed Fox, the Jade Pipa, and the Pheasant from 封神演义 (The Investiture of the Gods)
When I first started writing this story, in response to a piece of surprising real-life news, it was about a group of close friends who are flummoxed when one of their number gets married to a woman he has apparently just met and breaks the news on Facebook. I knew from the start that the wife would be a fox spirit, and specifically the nine-tailed fox spirit who is blamed in Chinese mythology for the downfall of the Shang Dynasty (rather unfairly, I always thought), but for a long time the story wasn’t about her. I wrote a few iterations and then set it aside. A while later I revisited the story as part of a larger project to rewrite various Chinese myths about women – in those women’s voices, and on their terms, combining the magical world that they inhabited with the historical world that we do – and that is what became “The Nine Tailed Fox Explains.”

Jane Pek, Contributor Note

A few stories back, we saw the Greek myth of Narcissus used as the basis for the narrative. Now we encounter a story that draws on a Chinese myth. The story uses the myth in a very different way: rather than illuminating the motivations of characters by hinting at connections with an old story, we have here a continuation of the myth into the present. We don’t call the fiction myth any more; we call it fantasy or maybe magical realism.

I’m surprised at how strongly I resisted reading this story as “The Spirit of the Nine-Tailed Fox from the ancient Shang dynasty is now telling her story of life in the early 21st century.” I thought the narrator/protagonist was highly imaginative, maybe trying to make a bad situation more interesting by seeing herself as an ancient spirit.  Maybe that’s because my imagination is too firmly reined in, so I translated it to reality.  Or maybe it’s because, after a brief mention of “the era of Shang, those silken days and pavilioned evenings. Dancing and verse and music, so much music. Every night we watched the moon floating in the lakes like a treasure to be netted and wished this would never end…” we find out she was now living in New York, the wife of a man who ordered her off of an Asian Brides for Sale website:

One version of what happened: my husband wanted a wife and he went to a website offering to match Asian women with American men. Maybe he bought into the submissive-Oriental myth, or he calculated that he would have higher odds this way of landing someone ridiculously fucking hot, to borrow his friend’s phrase.
Another version: I was searching for a way to escape the short straw of the birthright lottery that I had drawn. My husband is the patsy, and once I get my green card I will leave.
Here’s a third version. As a demon spirit, I can only tether myself to this mortal world with a human life. The unfortunate side-effect, for this human, is that he forfeits half of all the time he spends with me—but mortal lives are so brief anyway, what’s a lost decade or two?
And a fourth. I wanted to leave China but wasn’t sure where to go, so I let fate decide. I used to despise fate, that self-absorbed, incompetent cosmic bureaucrat, but now it’s a relief to abdicate responsibility. I created profiles on nine matchmaker websites—seduction is my skillset, after all—and waited. When my husband contacted me I could smell the spoor of his loneliness, and I thought: this one. This one I can help.
There are as many versions of this story as there are ways to lose the thing you want most in the world.

One of the aspects I particulary enjoy about this story is how present and past are compared, sometimes as duplicates, sometimes as mirror opposites. As was the case with Narcissus, and as Dija (the name she used in the Shang Dynasty, which I will use for simplicity) hints in the above list of versions of her current story, there are many versions of the Fox Spirit myth all over Asia from various times.

But don’t worry; you don’t have to do a lot of research. She – and I’m being deliberately ambiguous about whether, by “she” I mean the character or the author – will tell you the most important points. For the curious, it seems to follow (to a point) the myth as included in a sixteenth-century Chinese novel “The Investiture of the Gods” (封神演义). I’ve put a few links below that I found helpful, since it’s easy to get sidetracked into video games, fanfic, and manga. Apparently the Nine Tailed Fox is quite popular.

The story grounds us firmly in our time before transporting us to the past to engulf us in the Fox Spirit’s backstory:

My own group of friends, from the era of Shang: a nine-headed pheasant, and a jade pipa. I know, not the company one would expect a self-respecting nine-tailed fox to keep—and I must admit I was a little stand-offish at first. Foxes hunt pheasants, after all; and who the hell had ever heard of a pipa spirit? But it turns out, conspiring to destroy a dynasty by seducing its emperor is a remarkable bonding experience.
…This was what we were: Nüwa’s soldiers, imperial concubines, demon spirits. If there was space within those corseted certainties for anything else, we didn’t know it. I spent three hundred years meditating in the drippiest cave in Guizhou (long story) before it occurred to me: friends, that was what we had been, the fox, the pheasant and the pipa. So simple, and so grand. The only ones I would ever have.

These are the three friends sculpted in relief above. It seems Pipa, named for a musical instrument something like a lute, became more than a friend. And through their own actions, committed in service to their god, they were separated: Pipa by death and resurection, the Fox by ongoing Life.

It is this separation that gives the present-day story enough poignancy to maintain itself next to this lovely tale of lost love and a long-ago life: the Fox’s husband is in love with his best friend, yet somehow unable to do anything about it. “I married the wrong mortal, I see that now,” she says. That’s ok, that’s what Fox Spirits are for, to fix things, armed with a vial of her own tears, “almost as valuable as a C-list deity’s blessing,” Language learning is part of this past/present comparison:

(I learnt the [English] language from a British missionary during the time of the Opium Wars. In exchange I liberated him from all that nonsense about original sin.)
Most of my students are in finance and corporate law, learning the language because China is where fortunes are made now, once again. They want to know how to say things like conference call and preferred equity and share purchase agreement in Mandarin. Just say it in English with a Chinese accent, I tell them.

The exceptions to this teaching of business Chinese to English speakers have a particularly touching motivation: they are, first, a grown child wanting to speak the language of his parents to hear their history because it is his history as well, and a husband wanting speak his wife’s language, in order to better connect, to understand. There’s a hint of the immigrant dilemma in there, as well as a mini-comparison: families come to America to improve their children’s lives, but the children often feel unmoored – as the Fox Spirit often feels unmoored in time, as she is virtually immortal.

 One of the stories the Fox Spirit learned in English was the story of Judas betraying Jesus. This also has a clear comparison to her own punishment for cruelty:

So we returned to Nüwa’s temple, and our goddess condemned us for our cruelty. That was how you made us, I wanted to say, unable to take a step within the mortal realm without human sacrifice. And also—you ordered us to overthrow a dynasty. Did you really think we could get that done without collateral damage? Of course I said nothing: it was our destiny.
A couple of hundred years ago, as part of my English-language education, the British missionary made me read the Bible. Mostly I found it dull—too little magic, and none of the demons aside from Lucifer had any personality—but the story of Judas enraged me. How was that fair, I asked the missionary: obviously Judas was only acting as Jesus had instructed. The man obeys his god and for that he suffers the brand of the eternal traitor? I was so upset I refused to read any more for weeks. The missionary was alarmed by my vehemence, but also heartened—this was when he still held out hope of saving me, and he mistook bitterness for belief.

I’ve always felt there was something wrong with the Judas story as well, though in a couple of different ways. First, I never quite understood why his participation was necessary at all. It seemed more like a set-up than a true need for insider cooperation, something akin to turning State’s Evidence. And secondly, given that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen, didn’t he have a duty to mitigate (as I said a few posts ago, everything I know about legal procedings I learned from Law & Order and LA Law), so doesn’t that reduce Judas’ culpability? Getting even deeper into it, as the Fox says, he’s part of a divine plan, and it seems to me his willingness to be the poster boy for betrayal for the Christendom forevermore makes him something of a hero. Then again, I’m on Lucifer’s side in Paradise Lost, and I think Job owes a lot to his PR agent who took a guy who complained prett much nonstop for forty chapters and ended up the symbol of patience. 

Another comparison is perhaps unrecognized by the Fox Spirit, but is clear to the reader. In wandering through an art gallery, she sees a painting (thank you to Jake Weber, link below, for pointing out this is Edward Hopper’s “New York Movie,” and saving me a lot of time trying to find it from the description). It’s surprising to me that she doesn’t see the similarity, but she definitely feels it:

I suspect that, as a result of being effectively immortal—assuming of course that I have a mortal handy, but that’s never been an issue for me—I experience time differently from most. It’s come to feel a little like walking in circles, always in one direction, through a vast landscape. I can never turn around, but after a while I start seeing the same sights all over again.
It’s a painting of the interior of a New York movie theatre, during a time when they were lush and ornate, curtained and chandeliered, palaces in their own fashion. But the focus of the painting is on the woman in an usher’s uniform who stands at the side, leaning against the wall. She’s not looking at the screen—probably she’s seen this movie a hundred times by now—but into the glowing darkness where the audience sits. Her hair is golden and her gaze is private, and I wonder about what she is thinking. I’m not sure what it is that moves me so—but maybe that’s not important; what matters is that I’m still capable of being moved.

It’s an interesting choice, to have her not recognize this sense of being separate, watching others watch time while she is pretty much tired of it. She describes the millennia of history she’s seen, the invasions, the ups and downs of China’s fortunes, in this rather jaded tone, that she’s seen everything. Her observation of others observing time is just as pronounced, even in her brief description of the students who are taking Chinese to connect with the past of the people they love in the present. These students recognize that their present needs to contain their past, and they are working to achieve that.

This past-within-the-present is the heart of the story. It’s the choice the three spirits made when they were punished for their actions in the Shang Dynasty. Pipa and Pheasant chose to drink the Tea of Forgetfulness, thus dying and reincarnating with no memory of the past. The Fox Spirit chose otherwise, wanting to remember Pipa’s songs. Even though she can no longer recall them, she recalls Pipa. Whether this is now a burden or a gift is uncertain.

Even the structure of the story evokes this past-within-the-present. The present of the story is very brief, only the first and last few paragraphs, set off typographically by white space. Everything in between is a flicker of thought; it might happen in an instant or in a longer time, but it’s about the past. It’s something like an envelope story, where the present, literally via structure, contains the past.

 While this is a highly romantic story in a soft tone, it’s also carefully constructed. I’m intrigued that Pek has a larger project of rewriting Chinese myths about women; given how she handled this one, I’d love to see more. She has a novel, The Verifiers, forthcoming in 2022. And, in an unexpected nod to the Fox Spirit’s business Chinese, she is a lawyer for an investment firm. I didn’t see that coming.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “In a world (dramatic movie preview voice?) where she is forced to continue wandering in a circle, the fox is trying to do what the pipa spirit recommended to her long ago–find her moorings. She is beginning to find them, for the first time, in pathos for the sorry mortals she hasn’t always given much thought to. It’s her tears, her pathos, that gives strength to others.” Jake has a much better handle on the mythology behind the story than I do.

Anna Amundson at Ink Stains On A Reader’s Blog: “Familiarity is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of it, but, of course, if one does have some background knowledge the story is read in a bit different way. For it’s a retelling – Pek is giving the fox spirit’s experience of the events that resulted in the fall of the dynasty.”

Complete story can be found online at Witness Magazine

I found Wikipedia a good place to start for more information about the myth featured in the story.

The blog Lost In Chinese / Found In Translation was also quite helpful.

10 responses to “BASS 2020: Jane Pek, “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” from Witness #32.1

  1. Your resistance to reading it as the modern incarnation of the fox spirit is sort of warranted by the story. It kind of throws out the “If you hate reading magical realism, then read it like this” passage, which you quoted above. I stuck with reading it magically, mostly because I thought it led to a more compelling interpretation. Or at least easier. We’re in the home stretch. I go with easy at this point.

    • Easy is good. I’m impressed, though, that BASS has so definitively moved beyond the steady diet of mainstream domestic realism of seven, even five years ago to include science fiction (slipstream is the term Jim taught me) and fantasy.
      You know what I realized while on the bus to the supermarket this morning (I was too distracted to read so I thought about this story, still fresh in my mind): We know so little about the husband. This is a gender-reversal of a typical American adventure story, where the guy does all the cool stuff and he has this love-interest with a vague backstory and he gets to kiss her to keep a certain segment of the audience happy, but she’s mostly irrelevant except for where they intersect and is thus one-dimensional. It’s the same here, but it’s the Fox who gets all the ink and the husband is only important as he serves for something she needs to fix.

      • Yeah, there’s a couple of reversals of the traditional story going on here. One you just pointed out in your comment. The other is that instead of enlightened Westerners guiding grateful savages toward the promised land, in this case, it’s a Chinese female helping lost Americans to figure their shit out, and the Americans are treated like the strange and exotic thing.

  2. I loved all of the ways she weaved together past and present, and I loved the parallels between hers and Judas’s story as well as the comparison with the woman in the painting. Excited to hear that she’s planning to write more!

  3. Hi! Someone pointed me to this review and I wanted to say thanks for the thoughtful and insightful read of my story. Also, what a great project!

    I’m honoured that you’d like to see more of my writing — I actually have a new story out in the most recent issue of Conjunctions which is also a retelling of another Chinese myth. My novel which will be out in 2022 (fingers crossed) goes off on another track altogether (murder mystery/romantic comedy/social commentary about technology), but hopefully you will also find it enjoyable. 🙂

    • Thanks for visiting – I’m glad you like our little BASS club, we have a lot of fun, and I know I’ve learned a great deal about reading by sharing thoughts on stories with Jake, and now, with Andrew, Jim, and Anna (and, I hope, Ben, when his life gets less complicated).

  4. Pingback: BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things | A Just Recompense

  5. Pingback: Jane Pek: The Verifiers (Vintage 2022) [IBR2022] | A Just Recompense

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