Part 238: Human and Animal Spirit Relation - by Tomn
Scalding Coffee posted:
I would. I would also like to hear if there are any stories of friendly relationships between any animals gaining human forms and humans.
What a coincidence, that was where I was going to start!
Now before I begin, two things I'd like to make clear - first, this is all stuff I picked up from bits and bobs of Chinese pop culture, I'm by no means an expert in Chinese mythology nor even really super representative of the culture. Second, it's important to note that xianaxia and its tropes and mechanics are a relatively new invention - new enough that my father, a Taiwanese Boomer, had never heard of most of the stuff in xianxia. In his time, the hotness was wuxia which is basically martial arts +1 without nearly as much in the way of magic and escalating power levels. This means that while xianxia does draw on a bunch of traditional Chinese mythological concepts, they bear as much resemblance to their original forms as modern Hollywood concepts of vampires and werewolves bear to their original Western roots - not that this is a bad thing at all, just important I think to keep in mind.
With that in mind, let's talk about animals. In most Chinese stories, animals are just animals - in Outlaws of the Marsh, for instance, heroes often go around killing tigers to prove their strength and courage, and nothing much is made of the tiger's thoughts on the matter other than that they sure want to eat them some manflesh and are dangerous. Traditional Confucian doctrine as practiced by Chinese elites (who usually wrote down said stories) tended to have a humanist worldview that disdained superstition and belief in magic, so animals only mattered in how they might potentially help or harm humans in the mundane way that animals do.
However, folk traditions and folk religions as practiced by the non-elite are another matter entirely. The idea of animal spirits with some kind of human or near human form are very common, though it must be said that the idea of, say, "humans with fox ears" are a relatively recent codification - older stories tended to be more vague about any tells of their animal forms, if any existed, or about what exactly their monstrous features looked like, if any. Just as commonly animals could just turn into human beings without any flaws and only a wise monk or a clever magician could see through their facade. Again, the mythology is kinda vague and takes multiple forms over time - there's a general agreement that animal spirits can transform into humans, but beyond that the extent of their powers, what rules if any govern their abilities, what weaknesses they possess and in general the hard mechanics of animal spirits are vague and pretty much up entirely to the whims of the storyteller.
These animal spirits would often be malicious in some way. Journey to the West is a standout example of this, where most of the demons trying to eat the monk Tripitaka were animal servants of various Buddhas and Taoist sages who managed to escape and set up shop in the mortal world so that Sun Wukong has something to fight. Outside of Journey to the West, the idea of animal spirits taking human form and then seducing or tricking mortals to suck away their life force is also pretty common, calling for the services of a dedicated exorcist - Daoist exorcists tended to use rituals to summon the powers of heaven and earth to drive away such demons, while Buddhists used sheer holiness and the name of Buddha to compel obedience from the demons. It's interesting to note that Buddhist stories, such as Journey to the West or the tales of the Mad Monk Ji Gong (look him up, he's a blast) usually focus on redeeming the demons somehow - forcing them into submission, and then extracting a promise from them to reform their ways and practice peaceful cultivation instead of being such a nuisance to humanity.
Which brings us handily to the friendlier forms of animal spirits. "Neutral" animal spirits tend to feature more in short ghost stories - a traveler runs across an elegant mansion in the wilds and has a pleasant dinner and conversation with the master/mistress of the house, only to wake up and find out that oh, actually the mansion was a ruin or a cave and the host was actually a fox spirit or something who just wanted a bit of company for the night, how mysterious! Such stories are more often about the strange whims of spirits rather than presenting them as threats or opportunities. There are I think a couple of more benevolent interactions, but the biggest one I'm familiar with is the story of Madam White Snake.
I know there's a story where a guy and a white snake lady fall in love
Yep, here we go!
Now there's a couple of versions of this story floating around, but the version that I'm aware of goes like this: A white snake either practices cultivation or manages to eat a pill of immortality and thus gains magic powers including the ability to transform into a human and naming herself Bai Suzhen. While wandering around as a human, she meets and falls in love with a human named Xu Xian, and the two get married. A local Buddhist monk called Fahai, himself in fact a turtle spirit in human form, notices this and for whatever reason resents this relationship, and so he advises Xu Xian to get his wife drunk and then look on her while she's sleeping. He does this, and sees her in her true form as a giant white snake. This causes the guy to have a heart attack and more or less die, so Bai Suzhen goes on a quest to find medicinal herbs from Taoist immortals to revive him. Upon doing so, he decides that you know what, it doesn't actually matter that she's a snake, she's still the woman he fell in love with so what the hey. Bai Suzhen eventually gives birth to a baby boy, Xu Mengjiao, but shortly after this the monk Fahai returns and after some shenanigans imprisons Bai Suzhen beneath a pagoda and scatters the family. Xu Mengjiao, however, grows up to become a respected imperial scholar, and in a display of filial piety returns to the pagoda to mourn his mother's imprisonment. Moved by such fine feelings, Heaven relents and permits Bai Suzhen's freedom, reuniting mother and son.
Note, by the way, that tribulation doesn't feature at all in any of these stories. In fact I don't think tribulation as a concept seriously exists outside of xianxia as far as I'm aware - heaven can certainly punish people sometimes but it's usually with less direct means than a magical thunderstorm with your name on it.
Again, not at all an academic or comprehensive overview of animal spirits in Chinese mythology, but I hope this was interesting!