Fox Spirits, Gate Towers and Old Peking

By M. A. Aldrich

In modern Beijing, there is a remnant of the old Ming capital city. It stands not far from the main Beijing Train Station, at the intersection of the East Second Ring Road and a municipal park adjacent to the fragments of the Ming city walls. It is a sight that is neglected by most passers-by, whether they are foreign tourists or Chinese on their daily commute. It is dwarfed by old and new high rises, governmental buildings and concrete fly-overs. Modern Beijingers are more interested in the fruits of consumerism than reflecting on this lonely sentinel with its graceful curving eaves, multiple portals and solid gray foundation.

Guide books seldom mention the Fox Tower. Even its name is a relic of a forgotten past. Let any Beijing taxi driver know that you want to go to the Fox Tower and you will be met with a blank look and perhaps a gruff shenme difang’r delivered as a tu hua challenge.

Nevertheless, while your taxi flies you past this august structure, you can look through the mirror of the past and sense what Old Peking looked like in all its architectural majesty, if you close one eye and squint with the other.

The Origins of the Fox Tower

The Fox Tower was never one of the major conduits into the city. In 1439, it joined the other stately gates such as Chong Wen Men (the Gate of Literary Excellence) and Xuan Wu Men (the Gate of Martial Prowess) on the city walls. However, it served the function of a watchtower and a lesser passage way for building materials and other types of freight being transported into the city proper.

It was a late entrant to the scene of Ming Peking’s landscape; Peking was officially inaugurated as a capital city in the year 1421 with extravagant celebrations and diplomatic soirees hosted by the Yong Le Emperor. The Fox Tower was an after-thought, something necessary to reinforce an image of an imperial capital and a useful look-out point just in case marauding Mongols were to return to claim ownership of the city (which they did in the 1450s).

Nonetheless, the Fox Tower occupied a corner of Old Peking that boasted an ancient dynastic pedigree. This is the same spot where Khubilai Khan built the south-east corner of the rammed earth walls that enclosed his capital Daidu (as the city was then called by the Mongolians) in 1271. Nearby a Mongol nobleman, Prince Hata, had his courtyard residence, probably with a ger installed in the court, near today’s Chong Wen Men intersection. Among Old Peking folks, the area is still called Hata Gate as a misty recollection of a foreign resident who lived here 800 years ago.

To the north of the Fox Tower was the Mongolian imperial observatory, an essential tool of government for the predictions of eclipses and the setting of the times and dated for the emperor’s rituals. In the Mongolian years of the Yuan Dynasty, Muslim astronomers from Central Asia and the Middle East applied their skills here, though the original observatory and its Mongolian/Muslim instruments were destroyed by the first emperor of the Ming, an erstwhile rebel and Buddhist monk named Zhu Yuan Zheng, who found the artifacts too exotically foreign in design to be acceptable in a China cleansed of foreign symbols of authority. His imperial successors rebuilt the observatory nearly in the same location at the same time that the Fox Tower came into existence and again sought the services of Muslim astronomers until they were displaced by the Jesuits with their more exacting Copernican skills in the 17th century.  The observatory still exists, next to the intersection of Chang An Avenue and the Second Ring Road, which was built on the 1960s on the site of the old city walls.  n a different age, the Jesuits might have actually taken the evening air by walking along the city wall from their observatory to the Fox Tower.

A Fox Spirit in the Gate Tower

It was only in the 19th century that the people of Peking began to say that a fox spirit haunted the tower, thus giving it a name that endured until the Liberation of 1949.

In Peking folklore, fox spirits were a potentially lethal-type of supernatural being.  The legend held that on a nocturnal visit to a cemetery, a fox would exhume a deceased body and then balance a skull upon its head. It then bowed reverentially to the God of the North Star. If the skull did not topple from the fox’s head, the fox would be transformed into a spirit who would live for eight to ten centuries. One version of the legend held that the fox spirit could chose to the take the form of a ravishing beautiful woman who could sustain her existence by stealing the yang essence of a male lover by loving him to death. Other fox spirits were less predatory in nature and might choose a convivial and benevolent human form.

It was said that fox spirits immensely enjoyed human company and had a taste for a dram, or two, of fine spirits fermented from rice and other grains. If a spirit took too much on board, it could only retain its human guide with an extraordinarily exercise of will. If not, then it gradually resumed a fox appearance.

In Peking, the Fox Tower was believed to be the home of the King of the Fox Spirits.  A tale from 19th century Peking recounts the experience of the tower’s watchman, a lonely widower who worked here at night and as a hawker in the Hata Men market during the day in order to make ends meet. The watchman had befriended an elderly man – a master raconteur of stories – who would visit the watchman during his lonesome shift and regale him with stories and poetry. Over the years, the two became close friends, probably resembling the elderly gentlemen that still sit in the animated discussion on the benches in the Ming Wall Relic Park, serenaded by pet larks in their bird cages or fanning themselves briskly in the summer heat.

On one Chinese lunar New Year’s eve, the watchman invited his old friend to share a ceramic crock of rice wine, much like those still on sale in markets and shops throughout the city. The friend drank deeply of this fine gift and insisted that the watchman accept two pieces of silver as a New Year gift. The friend exhausted himself in the attempt of overcoming the watchman’s refusal to accept the gift, a strenuous act as can be seen today in the fight between old friends to grab the bill in any Beijing restaurant. After draining the pot, the friend fell asleep. To the shock and amazement of the watchman, his friend metamorphosed into a fox, and then, like the Cheshire cat in Alice’s Wonderland, faded into nothingness.

The next evening, the fox spirit returned in human form, cap in hand, with profound apologies for having alarmed the watchman. He acknowledged that he was the King of the Fox Spirits and promised the watchman that his daily earnings as a hawker would increase every day by the sum of fifty coppers for the following three years, a tidy sum in those days which made for a comfortable retirement for the watchman.

Twentieth Century Scars, Stabbings and Lingering Spirits

The old watchman and his friend the King of the Fox Spirits might have encountered some unwelcome company during the twentieth century, a horrid time for Old Peking.  In 1900, imperial ineptness, absurd superstitiousness and foreign vengeance resulted in the destruction of many of Peking neighbourhoods as a result of the Boxer Rebellion. An “Eight Power” Army, an early version of our coalition forces, liberated the foreign embassy district after a 55 day siege by Boxer irregulars, Sino-Muslim infantry and assorted Qing imperial troop, all of whom were intent on sweeping China free from foreign influence. Instead, the victorious foreigners divided the city into different zones of occupation, anticipating the divisions of post-war Berlin or Vienna. The Fox Tower fell within the Russian zone of occupation with its daily patrols of the Cossacks keen to demonstrate their superiority over the vanquished Chinese of the city.

You can still see some curious relics of that era. By the stairways leading from the outside terrace to the ground, a sign in Chinese points to some barely visible graffiti, noting that these inscriptions were left by Russian and American soldiers and serves as “incontrovertible proof of their crimes” during the Boxer Rebellion. However, regular visitors to the Fox Tower will note that the English graffiti is of recent origin.  In childish handwriting, “”Dec. 16, 1900” and “U.S.A” can be discerned, though it is not clear what an American soldier would be doing in a watchtower in the Russian zone of occupation (the Americans were patrolling the Liu Li Chang neighborhood).  Russian graffiti, if there ever had been away, has worn away with time. However, there is an abundance of graffiti in Chinese, helpfully dated June 15, 1949, July 8, 1960 and the year 1971, along with other dates, written by conscientious (and no doubt patriotic) scribblers. Perhaps the King of the Fox Spirit continues to play a little joke on unsuspecting mortals.

As the twentieth century wore on and Peking became a backwater, the vicinity of the Fox Tower witnessed the arrival of foreign residents, renting renovated courtyard houses within the seemingly protective crook in the city wall’s arm. Gray walls and red gates provided the backdrop to a brutal murder of Pamela Werner, the daughter of a renowned English Sinophile and scholar, E.T.C. Werner. In January of 1937, her mutilated body was found by a rickshaw puller, lying against the Fox Tower wall, carefully dissected with her internal organs surgically removed. The Fox Tower murder became a media sensation among the English language press in North China, until Japan’s depredations at the Marco Polo Bridge edged the headlines into another direction. From a site of wondrous supernatural spirits, the Fox Tower had a backdrop for a tawdry murder, symbolic of the decline of old Peking and the ravages to be worked upon China during the war.

With the establishment of the New China, even the name Fox Tower disappeared.  Officially, Beijing city maps call it Dong Bian Men, or the East Convenience Gate, a name redolent in utilitarian practicalities rather than the romance and mystery of the past. Yet somehow, all the spirits of the Fox Tower played their shadowy hands in saving this corner of Old Peking from annihilation.

In 1986, I recall an elderly Pekinger in Taipei. He was living out his days as a Chinese language teacher, a sullen man who followed the script of his text books and felt the burden of his exile. In 1986, he made a surreptitious trip to the mainland to see his beloved city once more before passing from this world.

On his return, he was a renewed man. “Michael,” he said. “I was so saddened to see that the city walls had all disappeared. But then, I was in a taxi speeding down the Second Ring Road. And out of the corner of my eye, as I was sweeping down the highway, I could see a shadow of the old wall! And this shadow just became grander and grander the closer I came to the Fox Tower.”

“You see, we old Peking people believed that spirits lived inside the city walls. And how can you kill a spirit?”

7 July 2011


M. A. Aldrich has lived in greater China for more than 18 years. He is a partner of a London-based international law firm in their Beijing Office. He most recently co-authored The Perfume Palace: Islam’s Journey from Mecca to Peking with Lukas Nikol, a Munich-based photographer. His book The Search for a Vanishing Beijing: A Guide to China’s Capital through the Ages was published in 2006. He was also a contributor to Beijing: Portrait of a City, published in 2008.

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