Tricksters and Fools

March 28, 2013

Journey To The West

It’s almost April Fool’s Day, and while we won’t trick you (yet…), a lot of popular characters in legends across Asia would be happy to help! In many cultures, tricksters and fools are popular figures in fables, legends and other stories, often providing a subtle or overt lesson on proper conduct. Today, we’re looking at some well-known archetypes from Japan, China and Central Asia.


In Japan, the fox (or kitsune) is a common trickster character often identified as having nine tails. Often after food or vengeance, kitsune usually target men, sometimes even appearing as a woman. Foxes are also portrayed as tricksters in many Chinese and Korean stories, and scholars have also drawn parallels to Native American coyote legends. Kitsune are featured in many classic noh, kabuki and other traditional Japanese plays telling classic legends and folktales. One such legend is that of Tamamo-no-Mae, a particularly vengeful kitsune who transforms into a beautiful woman to catch the eye of Emperor Konoe. The emperor mysteriously falls ill, and after consultation with his priests and astrologers is told that Tamamo-no-Mae is a kitsune and cause of the illness as part of a plot to take the throne. She immediately leaves the palace and the emperor sends his best warriors and hunters after her, who eventually kill her in fox form. Today, the kitsune figure is alive and well in many contemporary manifestations, including video game characters like Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog and Ninetales and others from the Pokemon series.

monkeyMonkeys are also common trickster figures throughout the world, found in stories from India, Brazil, and other regions. In China, the monkey king Sun Wukong is the subject of the classic novel Journey to the West (summarized in this previous post and pictured at top). Sun Wukong has a variety of special powers including great strength and speed, the ability to assume many different forms and clone himself, and control the elements. After gaining these powers through Daoist study, Sun Wukong  became increasingly proud as he vanquished a range of mythological creatures, ultimately waging war on Heaven itself. Then, Buddha intervenes and imprisons Sun Wukong, who is not released until the monk Xuanzang finds him five hundred years later. Throughout the rest of the novel, Sun Wukong is both an intelligent and powerful asset to Xuanzang’s cohort and a troublesome trickster who often gets out of hand. In one part of the story, he attempts to borrow a magic fan to put out a mountain fire, but is turned down by the princess who owns it. Determined to get the fan, Sun Wukong transforms himself into a gnat to be swallowed by the princess, and then kicks and punches from the inside in attempt to coerce her. She instead gives him a fan that only makes the fire worse, and Sun Wukong transforms into her husband in another attempt to get the fan. When the real husband returns, he transforms himself into Sun Wukong’s comrade and offers to carry the stolen fan, thus recovering it for his princess.

Hoja (or Hodja) is a well-known human character from Central Asia and the Middle East, and is associated with Turkey today. Sometimes a trickster and sometimes a fool, Hoja’s plights and escapades often serve as humorous fables illustrating correct conduct in Islamic society. In one story, Hoja was wandering the marketplace when a stranger approached him and slapped him in the face. Angry, Hoja brought the stranger to the judge and demanded compensation. The stranger and the judge being friends, the judge ordered his friend to only pay a small amount in restitution. “This small amount is sufficient payment for a slap?” Hoja asked the judge. The judge nodded, and Hoja slapped him in the face. “If that is the only punishment, then you may keep my payment,” he said, and left. In a more foolish story, Hoja saw the reflection of the moon in a well. Panicked that the moon had fallen there, Hoja rushed to lower a bucket into the well to rescue it. After much tugging, Hoja pulled too hard, landing on his back staring up to the sky. “I may have hurt myself,” he says, “but at least I got the moon back where it belongs.”

These tales of tricksters and fools are a fun way to learn more about the stories behind many of the artworks in our galleries. On April 6, our storyteller Sunny Stevenson will be sharing Hoja tales and more at Silk Road Storytime. This great program is for all ages, includes a craft and a snack, and is completely free! ~CM

Images: Mask of Kitsune (fox), Japan, Wood, Gift of Hubert H. Weiser, 1982.58.30
Monkey god, China, 1800s, Porcelain and glaze, Gift of Harvey House, 1976.35.12