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A kumiho (Korean pronunciation: [kumiho]; Hangul: 구미호; hanja: 九尾狐, literally nine tailed fox) is a creature that appears in the oral tales and legends of Korea. According to those tales, a fox that lives a thousand years turns into a kumiho, like its Japanese and Chinese counterparts. It can freely transform, among other things, into a beautiful woman often set out to seduce boys, and eat their liver or heart (depending on the legend). There are numerous tales in which the kumiho appears, several of which can be found in the encyclopedic Compendium of Korean Oral Literature (한국 구비문학 대계).
Originating in Chinese myths dating back centuries before being introduced to Korean mythology, the Korean kumiho shares many similarities to the Chinese huli jing and the Japanese kitsune. All explain fox spirits as being the result of great longevity or the accumulation of energy, with kumiho said to be foxes who have lived for a thousand years, and give them the power of shape-shifting, usually appearing in the guise of a woman. However, while huli jing and kitsune are often depicted with ambiguous moral compasses, possibly good or bad, the kumiho is almost always treated as a malignant figure who feasts on human flesh. It is unclear at which point in time Koreans began viewing the kumiho as a purely evil creature, since many ancient texts mention benevolent kumiho assisting humans (and even make mentions of wicked humans tricking kind but naïve kumiho). In later literature, kumiho were often depicted as bloodthirsty half-fox, half-human creatures that wandered cemeteries at night, digging human hearts out from graves. The fairy tale The Fox Sister depicts a fox spirit preying on a family for livers.
Most legends state that while a kumiho was capable of changing its appearance, there is still something persistently fox-like about it (i.e. a fox-like face, a set of ears, or the tell-tale nine tails) or a magical way of forcing; its countenance changes, but its nature does not. In Transformation of the Kumiho (구미호의 변신), a kumiho transforms into an identical likeness of a bride at a wedding and is only discovered when her clothes are removed. Bakh Mun-su and the Kumiho (박문수와 구미호) records an encounter that Pak Munsu has with a girl, living alone in the woods, that has a fox-like appearance. In The Maiden who Discovered a Kumiho through a Chinese Poem (한시로 구미호를 알아낸 처녀), the kumiho is ultimately revealed when a hunting dog catches the scent of a fox and attacks. Although they have the ability to change forms, the true identity of a kumiho was said to be zealously guarded by the kumiho themselves.
Some tales say that if a kumiho abstains from killing and eating humans for a thousand days, it can become human. Others, like the drama Kumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child, say that a kumiho can become human if the man who sees her true nature keeps it a secret for ten years. Or in the drama The Thousandth Man, it is said that if a kumiho eats the total amount of 1000 men's livers in a period of 1000 years, it can become human, otherwise it will be dissolved into bubbles. In the latest drama that features the Kumiho, Gu Family Book, it says the Kumiho can become human if he/she can last 100 days without eating or killing anything, not showing his/her true identity to a human, and he/she must help any human that is in need of help or he/she will become a demon for a thousand years.
Much like werewolves or vampires in Western lore, there are always variations on the myth depending on the liberties that each story takes with the legend. One version of the mythology, however, holds that with enough will, a kumiho could further ascend from its yokwe (monster) state and become permanently human and lose its evil character. Explanations of how this could be achieved vary, but sometimes include aspects such as refraining from killing or tasting meat for a thousand days, or obtaining a cintamani and making sure that the Yeoiju saw the full moon at least every month during the ordeal. Unlike Yeoiju-wielding dragons, kumiho were not thought to be capable of omnipotence or creation at will, since they were lesser creatures.
In popular culture
Works focusing on kumiho include:
Film and television
- The 1994 horror film The Fox with Nine Tails
- The 2004 KBS drama Forbidden Love
- The 2006 musical comedy The Fox Family
- The 2007 animated film Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox
- The 2008 and 2009 KBS drama Korean Ghost Stories
- The 2010 SBS drama My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox
- The 2010 KBS drama Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho
- The 2012 MBC drama The Thousandth Man
- The 2013 MBC drama Gu Family Book
- The 2013 MBC drama Nail Shop Paris
- In the 149th episode of SBS's Running Man, the female guests and the female member Song Ji-hyo must collect nine tails on their back to become human
- The 2006 series Laon by YoungBin Kim and Hyun You.
- The 2011 series A Thousand Years Ninetails by Giryang
- The Fox Sister, an ongoing webcomic started in 2011
- The God Of Highschool (webcomic), an ongoing webcomic started in 2011. The plot involves one of these Kumihos as a powerful deity bent on revenge.
- Korean Mythology, on unsolvedmysteries.com. Retrieved 15 March 2007
- Heinz Insu Fenkl, "A Fox Woman Tale of Korea"
- Wallen, Martin (2006). Fox. London: Reaktion Books. p. 69-70. ISBN 9781861892973.
In China the nine-tailed fox has its own name, Jinwei hu, while in Korea it is Gumiho [...] from China to Japan and Korea in the ninth century.