The homophone hú: fox 狐 hú, hur and non-Han people 胡 hú, hur
I’ve been reading about traditional folk beliefs in pre-modern China and recently acquired Leo Tak-hung Chang’s wonderful and informative book The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts, Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling. In it he gives an interesting example of how homophones offered people an opportunity to express their aggravation with the government, while appearing to speak of something else.
Two of the last three dynasties were non-Han dynasties. The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was ruled by Mongolians and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was ruled by Manchus. Given that the majority of people living in China were Han, many of them deeply resented being ruled by outsiders, who were also non-Han ethnic groups.
Chang discusses how the literati, who were the Chinese intelligentsia as well as the bureaucrats comprising the political backbone of the country, would share supernatural stories centered on foxes and ghosts. While supernatural foxes could be benign, even good, in their relationships with humans, they were unpredictable and capable of being extremely dangerous. These stories were so popular and so much a part of the literati social life, that they were collected and put into anthologies. The authors often included the original story teller’s name and the exact place where the story was told. In many cases the reactions of the listeners was also recorded.
While it is not unusual for people throughout the social strata at this time to believe in supernatural foxes and ghosts, this was after all a part of China’s traditional belief system for hundreds of years—what is often called a culture’s folk religion—what caught my eye in Chang’s discussion was his mention of the word hú as a homophone: fox 狐 hú, hur and non-Han people 胡 hú, hur.
Because hú was a homophone for foxes and non-Han people, the literati could tell stories about the dangerous fox while in actuality condemning the Emperor and his government. If they had directly attacked the latter the literati’s comments could have been considered treasonous with potentially severe consequences, even death.