Colors, Fox Demons, and Folklore in “The Ninth Tale” from Black Cranes Anthology
By Rena Mason
It’s never one thing that inspires me to write any story, and the same was true for “The Ninth Tale.” With the popular resurgence of a modernized Huli Jing, (Pinyin – húlijīng) or Fox Demon/Spirit portrayed in anime and video games with a blending of cultures and added superpowers, many of the original stories get muddled and lost to younger generations. Because of my mainly Chinese heritage, which I grew up knowing little about, I wanted to write a classic folktale-style story using the Chinese mythos versus the versions from other countries like the Japanese Kitsune, or Korean Kumiho.
In Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a collection of myths, fables, and stories written in the mid 1600s to early 1700s, the majority of the works about the Huli Jing, Songling depicted the demon, and all women for that matter, as villains and the explanation behind men’s troubles. I knew I needed to take that and crush it. So I placed the character, traditionally seen and feared as a powerful woman, and set her in a time when the sexist practice of foot binding was at its peak yet nearing its end with changes occurring in the country’s political climate. Her complete disdain and disregard for the practice along with her sympathy for the women forced or encouraged to do it sets a character trait I wanted for my Huli Jing in the story.
I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast between the reverence for, and fear of women in East Asian mythos compared to the treatment of East Asian women by their male counterparts throughout history. I’m certain my curiosity began with the first stories I ever heard from my mom about powerful Thai female ghosts who’d enact their rage and vengeance upon their spouses.
Another component I wanted to incorporate in the story was East Asian interpretations for colors I’d mostly seen used in movies. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I was introduced to Zhang Yimou’s films. JU DOU was the first, and I was mesmerized by the story, but most of all by the colors that cued my emotional responses during different scenes (although I didn’t realize they were having that effect on me at the time). Culturally, I grew up knowing that different colors symbolize different things, and Yimou had tapped into this ingrained knowledge visually. It took me years and several of his movies to figure out what he’d done. Not until HERO was it so obvious and profound. So I was taken aback when I watched SHADOW this past year in its beautiful but bleak monochrome hues. Where were the colors? The lack of them made me suspicious of all the characters. I felt dread and impending doom and not much else. Then it hit me during The Black Cranes Skeleton Hour panel that every character in the movie is a shade of bad, or black, hence the monochrome hues. Yimou had done it again but with the absence of color—genius. PAINTED SKIN, taken from one of the stories in Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, loosely adapted by filmmaker Gordon Chang, uses colors this way in his acclaimed film as well. But could I pull it off in a written story? I had to try.
Red or vermillion is a popular color in Chinese culture, symbolizing luck, joy, and happiness. It also represents celebration, vitality, and fertility in traditional Chinese color symbolism. Think of the red envelopes handed out for Chinese New Year and on other celebratory occasions, and the “power” tie color businessmen wear with suits. Chinese brides wear red to ward off evil. The color also represents the summer and the element of fire. Red is the only color that has two different and almost opposite meanings, as it can also represent jealousy and anger.
—In “The Ninth Tale” the Huli Jing sets off on her journey and is excited and feeling happy, so I emphasized that with the scarlet leaves. I pictured her pale skin glowing red underneath the canopy as she headed out of the forest to complete her celestial ascension.
Yellow is an imperial color in traditional Chinese color symbolism, representing power, royalty, and prosperity. It also represents the late summer season, the central direction, and earth.
—As the Huli Jing meets the farmer in his wheat fields, the yellow represents the future prosperity she would bestow upon him and his family for revering her. (Although banned, Fox Spirit worship is rumored to exist to this day in parts of northern China.)
Gold symbolizes wealth and riches in Chinese culture as well as most other cultures.
—In the very beginning of “The Ninth Tale” the Huli Jing acquires a pair of slippers embroidered with a gold chrysanthemum. A double meaning, since gold represents riches and the chrysanthemum represents nobility. I also used the color gold when describing the farmer’s wheat fields because good crops are representative of wealth.
Blue represents the element of wood, and symbolizes freedom, the heavens, immortality and advancement.
—When the Huli Jing in “The Ninth Tale” meets Xin, her rival, the young woman is pale and underwater with a blue hue to her skin, hinting at Xin’s character being carefree. That she’s feeling indestructible, and wanting advancement.
Green is similar to blue, but also represents harmony, wealth, growth, cleanliness and purity from contamination.
—In the story, the Huli Jing is often flying and dancing in the air with evergreen branches behind her, showcasing the Fox Demon’s ability to remain unfazed by the ordinary around her.
Black represents water, and also symbolizes destruction, evil, cruelty, and sadness. Hei is Chinese for black, but it also stands for bad luck, irregularity, and illegality.
—When the Huli Jing visits her lover Zhang, it is always at night, under the cloak of darkness, and his black hair, and dark eyes, and all the shadows and absence of color in his room portend his “deception” and the evil of his character in the story.
White represents the metal element in traditional Chinese culture, and also symbolizes purity and innocence. It’s also commonly associated with death, mourning, and funerals in China.
—From the white light that comes from the Huli Jing when she’s injured, emanating from her celestial self, to their glowing faces in the moonlight, I used a lot of white toward the end of the story to symbolize death and the Huli Jing’s ascension to the heavens. I also used the silver blade to represent the metal element of white.
In the end, I felt I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do when I’d thought of how I’d wanted to write my Huli Jing story. I’ve never really paid much attention to what colors might mean in stories that I’d read, but I know now that I’ll take a closer look and scrutinize whether or not the author wants me to feel a certain way with the colors they incorporate into their stories.
Rena Mason is an American horror author of Thai-Chinese descent, and a three-time Bram Stoker Award® winner of the The Evolutionist and The Devil’s Throat, as well as a 2014 Stage 32 /The Blood List Search for New Blood Screenwriting Contest Quarter-Finalist. She has short stories, novelettes, and novellas published in various anthologies and magazines and writes a monthly column.
She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, The International Screenwriters’ Association, and the Public Safety Writers Association.
An avid scuba diver, she enjoys traveling the world and incorporating the experiences into her stories. She currently resides in Reno, Nevada but plans to relocate to the Pacific Northwest in 2021. For more information visit her website: www.RenaMason.Ink
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Stage 32: Rena Mason
In the works, she’s co-editing and reading submissions for the next HWA anthology Other Fears slated for publication with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2022. She’s excited to be participating in an anthology that will amplify diverse voices in horror and for her role in representing the long line of great horror from the HWA Presents publications. Her next novel is near completion, and she is also writing some nonfiction, short fiction, and a screenplay.