At the last academic conference I attended, I ran into the professor who first taught me classical Chinese. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he’d go around the conference table in the library reading room where we held class, drawing out our halting translations of the Mencius against the backdrop of dark-spined Sinological classics lining the walls. Nine years later, he sat in the audience as I gave my talk on gender and tattooing in Ming-Qing literature.
During the post-conference dinner, I sat across from my old professor, and we talked about the pop-cultural reception of premodern Chinese literature. His current research project was on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in video games, and I’d been thinking about something along those lines as well—a short story by the speculative fiction writer Ken Liu, one that remixed tropes from Western science fiction and premodern Chinese supernatural fiction. I’d read it years ago, maybe even when I was still his student. But it periodically resurfaced in my mind, when I paged through monographs on early Chinese history or plotted to sneak pop-cultural references into my dissertation.
As I smeared university-purchased goat cheese on university-purchased crackers, I started cataloging all the moving parts I could remember from the Ken Liu story. Colonialism. Posthumanism. As I piled on the details, my old professor exclaimed that he knew this story—he’d seen an animated adaptation on Netflix.
“It’s like a steampunk zhiguai, right?” I asked.
“It is like a steampunk zhiguai!”
At the cluster of tables where we sat, Sinologists all, everyone had studied zhiguai, but no one else knew the story. Even I had forgotten its title, which I had to look up after I got back from the conference. It was “Good Hunting,” first published by Strange Horizons in 2012, when I was still a college student majoring in East Asian Studies.
Stranger Than Fiction
Zhiguai, variously translated as “accounts of anomalies” or “tales of the strange,” emerged in the Six Dynasties, that politically fragmented swathe of history between the unified empires of the Han and the Tang. Despite the brevity of most zhiguai, the genre is haunted by both the burden of didacticism and the actual shades of the dead—the uncanny acts swiftly on the careless and the wicked, in the space of very few characters. A stranger’s ghost eats the sacrificial pork; a faithless widow falls down dead, throat pierced by a phantom arrow. A young man slowly wastes away in the company of a new lover—a mysterious beauty who turns out to be a sexually vampiric fox spirit, draining him nightly of the semen that is his life force.
Suffice to say, zhiguai are weird little texts. But the didactic intent borne by all this strangeness is easy enough to parse. Feed your ancestors so they don’t resort to eating other spirits’ food. Be faithful to your departed husband. Don’t have torrid affairs when you’re supposed to be doing something more important—like discharging your filial duties or studying for the civil service exams. Zhiguai carry these lessons well because, in their earliest incarnations, they weren’t meant to be read as fiction. When I encountered the genre for the first time, as a college freshman reading in translation, my classmates compared it to the sort of tabloids that report sightings of Bigfoot and Elvis. Better yet, we might think of the National Enquirer-type stories that trumpet Jesus’s appearance on a slice of toast. In addition to their mix of piety and sensationalism, zhiguai share, with these stories, a twisty relationship to the truth-claim.
Even tabloid stories have their sources: the astonished breakfaster who looks down at her plate to see the generously buttered face of God. Zhiguai, for their part, tend to open or conclude with secondhand statements of authenticity— the tale’s narrator heard it from an old friend, who took the licentiate exam with a man whose brother was drained by a fox. By exploiting the logic of hearsay, the genre generates plausibility and deniability all at once, positioning itself somewhere, in our modern eyes, between history, reportage, and myth.
The earliest zhiguai insisted so stridently that they were merely records of true stories already circulating by word of mouth. As a result, the whole genre is often examined under the rubric of folklore. It’s assumed, of course, that all zhiguai passed through the silk-soft, ink-stained hands of literati—someone, after all, had to write them down. But these gentlemen-folklorists were presumed to be just that: record-keepers painstakingly transcribing the words of illiterate, salt-of-the-earth believers. But the line between the editorial and the authorial wavered. And as the elite collected uncanny experiences—from one another, as well as from peasants, women, and the like—they inevitably shaped the zhiguai according to their own concerns.
Still, in light of the genre’s emphasis on authenticity, I’m struck by the fact that my Intro to Classical Chinese professor and I both instinctively classified “Good Hunting” as a zhiguai. Published in a magazine of speculative fiction, the story is precisely that: undisguised fiction, and Ken Liu claims no friend-of-a-friend reporting on the ground from Qing-dynasty Hong Kong. “Good Hunting” does feature, as one of its protagonists, a hulijing, or fox-spirit—a mainstay of zhiguai stories. But there’s another classical Chinese narrative form also haunted by these seductive, shape-shifting foxes, one that seems a better fit for Liu’s work: the longer, more self-consciously literary chuanqi.
Literally “stories of the marvelous,” chuanqi originated in the Tang dynasty. Unlike zhiguai, the genre revels in art and artifice, dazzling the reader with intricate plotting, rich characterization, and high style. In place of the zhiguai’s penchant for moralizing, the chuanqi offers a breathless romanticism, unfurled through lavish accounts of true love and worldly glory. It’s a genre of pleasures, the sensual and the rhetorical alike—a paean, even, to the sensuality of language at its artful height.
Though they differ in style and sensibility, the zhiguai and the chuanqi tend to converge on the same narrative ground. Because both genres concern themselves with the strange, it’s no wonder that they tend to fixate on the figure of the fox spirit, and to stage-manage her (they are most often, though not always, female) into the embraces of a human lover. Fox tales written in both the zhiguai and chuanqi modes tend to begin with the trope of the hulijing as a force of seductive danger, captivating and destroying their ensorcelled lovers with their unruly, animalistic sex appeal. A tale might go on to subvert this constellation of stereotypes—for instance, by making its vixen loyal, virginal, or even simply ugly. Yet it remains in dialogue with them even as it writes against them.
Tellingly, both types of tales tend to associate fox spirits with sex workers, another category of woman operating outside the conventional strictures of conjugal sexuality: both, as the literature scholar Rania Huntington notes, are treated as “sexually aggressive, available women of unknown origins, whom men pursue at their own cost.” In light of this reading, it’s hard not to read the trope of vulpine sexual vampirism—fox spirits draining men of their life through repeated trysts—as a paranoiac allegory for venereal disease. Both zhiguai and chuanqi fox tales associate the hulijing’s modus operandi with sex work and foreground her seductive power. However, they tend to diverge, in other respects, when it comes to the work of characterization. To put it in Huntington’s terms, zhiguai render them as “phenomena” while chuanqi are more likely to treat them as characters proper, possessed of backgrounds, motivation, and interiority.
Seen in this light, “Good Hunting” appears to begin in the zhiguai mode, only to become a chuanqi. The genre shift happens after its narrator, the demon hunter Liang, befriends a fox-spirit, Yan. At the story’s opening, a thirteen-year-old Liang accompanies his father on his first hunt, an experience that puts him face-to-face with Yan’s mother, their quarry. The boy perceives her, through the filter of his father’s teachings and his own burgeoning sexuality, as a cold vision of impersonal beauty, verging on the sublime: snow-pale skin, coal-dark hair, and eyes like “two shimmering pools.” She looks, he thinks, like “paintings of the great beauties from the Tang Dynasty,” the age of chuanqi.
The story itself shifts into chuanqi mode after Liang’s father kills the vixen, the specter of zhiguai. Now, Liang himself encounters the vixen’s daughter, a puppy-sized kit who soon changes shape to become a girl his own age. She’s even more beautiful, he thinks, than an opera singer he once admired. In contrast to his instinctual reading of her mother, Liang perceives Yan herself in terms of life, not art—comparing her to an old crush instead of a visual trope.
If Yan’s mother is the zhiguai fox, a phenomenon of cold, inhuman beauty, then Yan herself fulfills the narrative destiny of a chuanqi fox: a character whose feelings and fortunes move the plot. Liang’s nameless father was the hunter, Yan’s nameless mother his prey. The son takes on the role of a student, with the daughter as his teacher. In their first conversation, Yan neatly dispels his father’s misconceptions about hulijing, forcing Liang to confront her as a person, potentially even a friend.
Genre as Allegory
This zhiguai-to-chuanqi shift is striking now that I’ve revisited “Good Hunting.” But in truth, generic hybridity, and slippage between these two modes of writing the strange, wasn’t terribly unusual in the context of the classical Chinese fox tale. Though both zhiguai and chuanqi emerged out of China’s Middle Period, they enjoyed an efflorescence during the late imperial era. During this time, stories of the strange filled the print books that glutted the market, courtesy of the mainstreaming of woodblock printing; they even appeared, toward the end of the period, in newspaper articles. In this milieu, writers concerned with depicting the strange mixed the zhiguai and chuanqi modes freely—circulating collections that included stories of both types, and writing individual tales that combined their sensibilities.
“Good Hunting” takes place during this very era—specifically toward its end, when Western imperialism cut into the dying Qing empire like a surgical blade, carving railroads and treaty ports into its moribund flesh. Liu’s choice of a Qing dynastic setting feels like an allusion to the literary history he mines. But he also exploits it in order to bring another genre into his story’s narrative structure: steampunk. As science fiction scholars like Jaymee Goh have noted, steampunk is, on its surface, an imperialist and Eurocentric genre. Its distinctive look of brass and gears—a sleek, air-ballooned take on Victoriana—aestheticizes British adventurism by referencing the era of the empire on which the sun never set.
In “Good Hunting,” the dynamic of European colonialism plays out as an interaction between literary genres: steampunk colonizes the fox tale of zhiguai and chuanqi, displacing its tropes and taking over its narrative space. When the two protagonists reunite some time after their first meeting, Yan tells Liang she’s been finding it hard to assume her fox shape. Magic, she theorizes, is being “drained” out of the land—displaced, with the coming of the British, by the alternative energy of railroads, steel, and steam.
By the second act of this two-part story, imperialist violence has wholly leached the magic out of China, leaving Yan permanently moored to her vulnerable human shape. Unable to hunt as a fox, she’s turned to sex work, literalizing the old symbolism of the classical fox tale. When she sees Liang again, for the first time in six years, she claims, “Now I live by the very thing that you once falsely accused my mother of doing: I lure men for money.” The two meet by chance in Hong Kong—far from their unnamed home village, and ground zero of Great Britain’s inroads into China following the First Opium War. By this time, Liang’s father has died from suicide, unable to cope with his obsolescence in a land with no demons. In response, Liang leaves home and finds work as an engineer: he now operates the mechanical motifs of steampunk as he once hunted the demonic motifs of zhiguai and chuanqi.
Both characters swap out the roles they occupied under the narrative regime of the classical fox tale for the closest equivalents that can exist under steampunk. Liang himself has helped reshape his world according to the conventions of its new genre. By dint of his engineering, the expatriate over-class of Hong Kong live among unfeeling, steam-powered servants, with “mechanical arms” to pour their drinks and “automatic sweepers and mops” to clean their hallways: replacements for the native Chinese who would have otherwise served them.
Liang gleans from newspaper clippings that Yan has become the “Chinese mistress” of the British governor’s son. When she appears unexpectedly in his doorway, she shows him the truth of her position—revealing, under her dress, a pair of “beautiful mechanical legs” with articulated joints. The governor’s son has drugged her to modify her body for his own sexual gratification. Just as Liang’s designs substituted steam-powered automatons for living domestic workers, he attempted to replace a living sex worker with a robot.
Yan’s body, now incapable of transforming into the fox of zhiguai and chuanqi, has been forcibly turned into a machine. At this point in the story, “Good Hunting” seems to show us steampunk’s final colonization of the Chinese supernatural tale. But it inverts this very dynamic—once again using Liang, through whose eyes we perceived the zhiguai-to-chuanqi shift at the story’s beginning. Though horrified by what his old friend has suffered, Liang can’t help but philosophize on mechanophiles like the governor’s son: “I had heard of such men,” he thinks. “In a city filled with chrome and brass and clanging and hissing, desires become confused.”
These musings, evoking the old zhiguai tropes of rumor and hearsay, signal a decolonial moment in the story’s play with genre. The classical tales of the uncanny, seemingly submerged by steampunk, are allowed to peek out again through the narrative plating of chrome and brass. Once again, “Good Hunting” slips back into the zhiguai mode familiar from its very beginning. But the fox spirits of the traditional anomaly tale have been rehabilitated as characters through the sympathetic figure of Yan. This new zhiguai has, at its center, a different phenomenon—also wrapped up, like the hulijing of old, in violent eroticism and transformative power. As “Good Hunting” returns to its zhiguai roots, it figures the violent white colonizer, not the fox woman, as the “strange.”
In the end, the two protagonists collaborate to remake Yan’s body once again. Using her designs, drawn from memories of the precolonial past, and Liang’s engineering skills, acquired in service of the colonizers, they fashion a hybrid form fit for a steampunk hulijing. Liang’s new shape is also her old one, capable of shifting from the shape of a woman to the shape of a fox. But it’s made of metal instead of flesh and powered by the new magic of chrome and coal.
Elated by their success, Yan vows to find other hulijing, now trapped in their human guises, so that she and Liang might “set them free.” Through this ending, Ken Liu decolonizes steampunk by colonizing it on behalf of the Chinese supernatural tale. Yet the story’s final moments also evoke a commonplace from the classical Chinese fox tale. As the literature scholar Alan Barr has noted, when such stories feature sympathetic fox spirits and afford them their happily-ever-afters, it tends to strip them of their “deviant status.” Liberated, as it were, from the burden of their foxiness, they’re allowed to set aside their natural seductiveness and join their human lovers in respectable, socially sanctioned marriages.
In “Good Hunting,” Yan’s fox nature is violently wrenched from her. Still, the story offers her a happy ending of its own, accomplished through its painstaking, purposeful reconstruction. Furthermore, it inverts the chuanqi trope of a good hulijing’s embrace of the conventional: instead, it’s the human man who follows the fox woman out of convention. Liang, who has fallen in love with Yan by the story’s end, reflects on this inversion: “Once, I was a demon hunter. Now, I am one of them.”
I feel a little strange admitting this because it smacks of self-Orientalism. But my interest in premodern China is the same as my interest in speculative fiction. In sixth grade, I read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels out of order, snatching up whatever books became available at the public library because I just couldn’t wait. In high school, I spent my free time with Nebula Awards Showcases. My favorite, I remember, was the one that included Mike Resnick’s novella “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” which Wikipedia tells me was 1994. I’d check them out from the library at my Texas public high school which, in 2019, had a student body 71 percent white. But according to a Facebook post I sent to an old friend in 2009, the year I graduated, it was 79 percent white in my time.
In undergrad, I rushed headlong into Chinese studies out of curiosity, or diasporic guilt—I read the Analects first in translation, then in classical Chinese, as a way to make up for lost time. But I stayed in Chinese studies because it was interesting—and strange. The things I read, philosophical texts and historical anecdotes, tomb epitaphs and, yes, zhiguai and chuanqi, were unlike anything I’d seen before. The closest analogs I could grasp for were the richly imagined fictions I’d sunk into as a teen. Reading “Good Hunting,” which fuses Sinology with speculative fiction, makes me feel something I can’t quite articulate, between the Eureka spark of insight and the quiet thrill of winning a game.
I’ve argued that “Good Hunting” ends, as it begins, as a zhiguai. But of course these hard lines I’m tempted to draw, defining the inflection points where one genre becomes another, go against the spirit of the supernatural tale itself. As I’ve noted, chuanqi and zhiguai often existed, in late imperial times, within the same volume—even in the same tale. Rania Huntington describes them as a spectrum of literary sensibilities: moving further from or closer to fictionality, running from the didactic to the pleasurable, from the eerie to the romantic.
“Good Hunting,” with its clever symmetries and rich allusive webs, clearly tilts toward chuanqi in its transparent artfulness. At the same time, its postcolonial messaging brings to mind the old didactic functions of the zhiguai. I could keep going back and forth, assigning points first to one column, then to the other. But I guess truth is more complicated than mere genre.
Barr, Allan. “Disarming Intruders: Alien Women in Liaozhai zhiyi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49, no. 2 (1989): 501-517.
Goh, Jaymee. “Variations on a Name: The –Punks of Our Time.” Strange Horizons, April 22, 2019.
Huntington, Rania. Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Zeitlin, Judith. Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Supernatural Tale. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.
 For more on the distinctions between zhiguai and chuanqi, see Rania Huntington, Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003) and Judith Zeitlin, Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993). [return]
 Huntington, Alien Kind, 187. [return]
 Huntington, Alien Kind, 18. [return]
 Jaymee Goh, “Variations on a Name: The -Punks of our Time,” Strange Horizons (22 April 2019). [return]
 Allan Barr, “Disarming Intruders: Alien Women in the Liaozhai zhiyi,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49, no. 2 (1989): 506. [return]
 Huntington, Alien Kind, 17. [return]