During the Zhenyuan period (A.D. 785-805) in the reign of Tang Emperor Dezong (A.D. 779-805), in Jiangling County in what is today Hubei Province, there lived a man named Pei Shaoyi. He was the proud, doting father of a ten-year-old boy, a quick-minded, lively, cute youngster.
One day this son came down with an illness which did not lessen after ten days; instead, it became increasingly worse. No doctor that Pei brought into his home was able to cure his son. Pei decided he would now seek a practitioner of alternative forms of medicine, a shaman, priest, or magician. He intended any shaman or the like he found to perform some chants to reduce the boy's fever which would thus lead to the boy's recovery.
Pei had no sooner come to this decision when someone approached the door and spoke to Pei's servant. The stranger introduced himself as a person surnamed Gao and as someone who happened to be experienced in reciting mantras that summoned healing spirits and expelled noxious ghosts. Furthermore, he added, chanting healing, demon-banishing mantras was his very profession. The servant brought his employer, Pei, over.
Well, Pei listened to this and quickly ushered Gao into his home and asked him to examine the boy, which Gao did.
After the examination, Gao said to Pei, "Listen. Your son doesn't have any kind of real illness. He is, in fact, currently bewitched by some evil fox shapeshifter. Let me apply some curative spells that will bring him out of it."
Pei thanked Gao and allowed him to perform the magic that would help his son escape the possession placed upon him by the werefox. The magic ceremony took the length of time it would take to eat lunch. Then, the son sat up in bed and exclaimed, "Father! I'm fine now! My illness is gone!"
Pei was overjoyed. He immediately thanked Gao profusely and gave him a large amount of money and fine, expensive fabrics, as well as treat the magician to a sumptuous meal. He proclaimed Gao as a master of the healing arts par excellence.
Before leaving the Pei house, Gao said, "I will come by every day to check the boy's progress."
He then left.
All was well . . . for a while. Shortly after Gao left, Pei's son began to display some disturbing behavior. He would blurt out incoherent, garbled nonsense, and sometimes alternatively laugh and then cry. He would also seem unable to control his actions.
The next day when Gao returned, Pei brought it to the magician's attention.
"All right," said Gao, "it is now clear that your son's soul has been snatched away by a goblin."
"Well," asked the anxious father, "can you treat him?"
"Yes, don't worry! Within ten days his soul shall be restored to him."
And so, with Pei's approval, Gao would return every day to treat the boy; some of the symptoms, however, persisted.
A few days later, another stranger, a Mr. Wang, came to the door. After speaking to the servant, he announced to Pei that he, like Mr. Gao, was adept at restoring spirits and driving away evil presences.
"It has come to my attention," said Wang, "that you have a beloved son who has been afflicted for a number of days. I would like permission to examine him."
"Thank you!" replied the grateful Pei. "Please come in."
Wang took a look at the boy and then said to Pei, "Your boy is in a very precarious state right now and needs immediate action! He's been made ill by a vicious, evil goblin. If his illness is not addressed right away, his symptoms will just worsen."
"That's so strange!" replied Pei. "I can't understand why this is happening. A Mr. Gao has been coming here daily to help him. At first everything seemed to be getting better . . . "
"Did you just say a 'Mr. Gao' was treating your son?"
"How do you know this Mr. Gao is not actually a fox demon in disguise?"
Who should then walk into the house but Gao himself? The two magicians then came face to face.
"Ohh! There's your son's source of illness and misery right here in the house!" shouted Gao. "This . . . this . . . werefox! No wonder the boy remains sick!"
"Ha!" said Wang. "You purveyor of illness and liar! You dare show yourself here! Well, that's convenient. I won't need to go far now to locate the cause of all the noxiousness! It's right here!"
The two magicians squared off and continuously screamed insults at each other.
Just when the shouting had reached its most feverish and angriest level, yet another person came to the door. The servant opened the door and inquired about his business.
"Good day, " said the stranger. "I have been made aware that your employer Master Pei has a son with a suspicious illness. I myself am very accomplished in expelling ghosts, demons, and goblins that prey upon people. Could you kindly inform your employer that I am here?"
The servant ran off to get Pei, managed to get him away from the two magicians who remained locked in their screaming match, and had him meet the latest magician to come to the door.
Pei explained the situation to the stranger, who said, "Allow me to enter to take a look at the patient."
This third magician walked into the house and encountered the two other magicians, who then finally stopped their noisy altercation only because someone new had entered the scene.
"Lo! Here's another fox in disguise!" cried Wang.
"Ha! The gall you have in dressing up as a priest!" cried Gao.
"You pair of cackling jackals! Speak of gall, will you? You both belong skulking among the desolate tombstones in a cemetery instead of being inside a house as if you were some kind of honored guests who then end up tormenting good people!" said this stranger.
The two-person heated quarrel became a threesome. Soon, the heated verbal exchanges escalated into shoving and then actual fisticuffs. The three, unceasingly fighting and hurling invective at each other, ended up in the courtyard. There, they continued on without letting up. Pei was frightened out of his mind, and he and his servant locked all the windows and doors. They listened to the brawling going on outside, which continued on into the night.
When the sounds of the fracas had stopped, Pei very cautiously opened the door a crack. Outside, sprawled out on the ground, immobile, panting, and obviously exhausted, were three foxes.
Pei took a club and tiptoed out into the courtyard. Klop! Klop! Klop! He finished off each fox, one by one, with the club.
Ten days later, Pei's son had made a complete recovery.
Azoth Translation and Editing Team, ed., 經典中國童話; pp. 72-74. (See 6/15/18 for full citation.)
Werefoxes or fox shapeshifters are a staple of East Asian folklore, and the craftiness traditionally attributed to foxes then becomes particularly dangerous for the humans who fall victim to their guiles. Of course, foxes are not the only malevolent shapeshifters in fairy/folktales. Wolves and tigers also appear as lycanthropes. See "Grandauntie Tiger," posted on 6/15/18, for example.
In addition, this story demonstrates one folktale variable that seems very stable: the utter cluelessness of the main character, here, Mr. Pei, who never questions how any of these three evil strangers ever learned of his son's plight. Pei, like many characters in these tales, doesn't appear able to put two and two together. On another note, there is no mention of a Mrs. Pei or of other children. The weapon Pei uses to dispatch the foxes is not specified in the text; that the three foxes end up outside the house is also suggested but not made specific. The text suggests the three werefoxes wear the garb of Daoist priests.
The original text is from the Tang dynasty anthology 宣室志 (Xuanshi Zhi) by Zhang Du.
Motifs: D113.3, "Transformation: man to fox"; cD696, "Transformation during sleep"; D2064, "Magic sickness"; D2065, "Magic insanity"; D2065. 7 "Insanity by curse"; D2072, "Magic paralysis; person rendered helpless"; D3131.1, "Transformation: fox to person"; E720, "Soul leaves or enters the bodies"; H48, "Animal in human form recognized"; cK307, "Thieves betray each other"; K1822, "Animals disguise as human beings"; Q261, "Treachery punished"; Q262, "Imposters punished."