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The Taoist deceived me! Why do I give up the prey I was just about to devour?!
~ The demon in original short story Painted Skin

The Painted Skin is the main antagonist of its titular short story included in Pu Songling's short story collection Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, being a demon who disguised itself as a beautiful woman by hiding inside a painting as its skin, granting the story's title.

In its 2008 film adaptation and its sequel, the monster was described as a female fox demon and was given the name Xiao Wei, with a more tragic tone. She acted as the main antagonist of the first film and the secondary antagonist turned anti-hero in the sequel. In both of the films, she is portrayed by Zhou Xun

Original Story

Once in Taiyuan there was a scholar called Wang (王). In an early morning, he met a girl on the road who had been sold to a rich family by her parents. She could not stand the abuse of the wife of the rich and flee. The scholar agreed to give her refuge, let her stayed in his studio in secret, and slept with her. Suspecting that the girl could have been a concubine in the rich family, Wang's wife asked him to send the girl away without success.

One day, Wang encountered a Taoist priest in the market. The priest stared at Wang in surprise and asked him whether something strange had happened to him recently because Wang looked enchanted by a ghost. Wang denied and left without taking the priest seriously. The priest lamented that Wang was going to die without noticing the precursors.

When Wang returned home, he found that the door of the studio was firmly closed. Having been stirred by the words of the priest, he sneaked to the window and peeked in. In the studio was a ghost with a green face and teeth like those of a saw spreading a piece of human hide on the bed and painting it. Then, the ghost lifted up the hide, shook it like a piece of cloth, cloaked itself in the hide, and transformed into the girl.

Being greatly shocked, Wang rushed to the priest and knelt before him, seeking help. The priest told Wang that the ghost was also having a hard life finding a victim, and he would not want to hurt it. The priest gave Wang a chowry and made him hang it on the door where he slept. After returning home, Wang dared not sleep in the studio, so he slept in another room and hanged the chowry there.

Every night, Wang heard sounds outside the door. Too fearful to investigate, he had his wife check in his place. At first, in fear of the chowry, the girl stood outside the door for a long time before she left. Shortly afterward, scolding the priest, the girl returned. She took off the chowry, destroyed it, broke into the room, went to the bed directly, opened Wang's chest, and went away holding his heart. Wang's wife yelled. A maid came with candlelight. Wang was found dead with the messy body. His wife was too scared to cry with sound.

The next day, the wife of Wang made his younger brother Erlang (二郎) tell the priest. The priest was angry and went with Erlang to Wang's house, but could not find the girl. The priest looked around and found that the ghost was in the house near the south yard, which turned out to be the house of Erlang. The priest told Erlang that the old woman, who came to Erlang's house in the morning saying that she wanted to work as a servant, was the ghost.

Erlang returned home together with the priest. Seeing the priest, the old woman was very scared and fled through the door. The priest chased and attacked her. The old woman fell down. The human hide slipped away, and the old woman turned into the ghost, lying on the ground and crying like a pig. The priest beheaded the ghost with a wooden sword. The body of the ghost dissipated into smoke on the ground. The priest took a gourd out and pulled out the plug, and the smoke was sucked into the gourd. Then, the priest plugged the gourd and put it in a sack.


Film adaptations

Painted Skin (2008)

In the desert, General Wang Sheng and his men attack a Xiongnu camp, where Wang chances upon a maiden called "Xiaowei" and brings her home. Xiaowei is actually a fox spirit who feasts on human hearts to maintain her lovely and youthful appearance. Trouble brews when Xiaowei falls in love with Wang, who already has a wife, Peirong.

Another love triangle is also present, with the members being Wang Sheng, Peirong and Pang Yong. Pang Yong is a former general in the same army as Wang Sheng. He was in love with Peirong, but she married Wang Sheng eventually. A series of mysterious murders occur in the city and the victims have their hearts dug out. Peirong becomes suspicious of Xiaowei after a diviner told her that Xiaowei is actually a demon and after she accidentally cut Xiaowei but Xiaowei showed no sign of bleeding. Peirong approaches Pang Yong for help. In the meantime, Pang Yong meets Xia Bing, a young and inexperienced demon hunter, and befriends her. The murders were actually committed by Xiaoyi, a chameleon spirit who shows unrequited love towards Xiaowei and helps her obtain the human hearts she needs. Xiaoyi fought with Pang Yong and the soldiers on a few occasions and was nearly captured by Pang but he always managed to escape. At the same time, Pang Yong and Xia Bing come to Wang Sheng's house and accuse Xiaowei of being a demon, but Xiaowei succeeds in maintaining her disguise, much to the ire of Peirong and Xia Bing.

When Xiaowei gets closer to Wang Sheng, Xiaoyi turns jealous and attacks Wang, but is driven away. When Xiaoyi meets Xiaowei again later, she is so furious that she shouts at him to leave, despite him warning her that love between demons and humans is impossible and pleading her to allow him to remain by her side. One night, Peirong's suspicions about Xiaowei are confirmed when she chances upon Xiaowei peeling off her human skin right in front of her and revealing her true form. Peirong and Xiaowei come to an agreement: Xiaowei promises to stop killing people; in return, Peirong offers her place as Wang Sheng's rightful spouse to Xiaowei and takes the blame for the murders. Xiaowei gives Peirong a potion to drink, after which Peirong's hair turns white and her features become "demonic". The city's residents are horrified when they see Peirong and think that she is the demon. Just as Peirong is about to be killed by the citizens, Pang Yong and Xia Bing show up, save her, and bring her to a cave.

Pang Yong and Xia Bing deduce that Peirong has been poisoned by the demon and she is close to death because the lighter the colour of the poison, the more fatal it is. Peirong is gradually turning white. Not long later, Wang Sheng, his soldiers and members of his household (including Xiaowei) come to the cave. Wang Sheng swears to kill Peirong if she is really a demon and is responsible for all the murders, but also expresses his love for her at the same time. Peirong then impales herself with a dagger Wang is holding on to and dies in his arms. Xiaowei tries to gain Wang Sheng's affection by moving closer to him, but he takes no notice of her and continues to weep while holding on to his dead wife's body. At this point, Xiaowei realizes that Wang Sheng will never truly love her.

Pang Yong shouts to everyone that Xiaowei is the real demon and then slashes her with his weapon to prove it, but her body is as hard as steel. Wang Sheng approaches Xiaowei and begs her to bring Peirong back to life. When Xiaowei asks him what she will get if she restores Peirong to life, Wang replies that he loves her but he already has Peirong, and then kills himself. The heartbroken Xiaowei screams and reveals her true demon form. She then willingly attempts to bring Wang back to life with her magic powers in the form of a small orb. However, before she can do so, she is interrupted by Xiaoyi, who snatches away the orb and reprimands her for sacrificing all the powers she cultivated over thousands of years to save a man's life. He swallows the orb and tells her he is going to bring her home. Pang Yong and Xia Bing fight with Xiaoyi and eventually slay him but he kills Pang in the process. Xiaowei retrieves the orb from Xiaoyi's body and another orb containing Xiaoyi's powers and uses them to bring every dead person in the cave back to life.

Before the film ends, Xiaowei is shown manifested in her white fox form without her powers because she has already given them up to bring Peirong and Wang Sheng back to life.

Painted Skin: Resurrection (2013)

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Xiaowei in her custody

500 years later, the fox demon Xiaowei has been imprisoned in ice for violating the demon code. Que'er, a quirky bird demon, rescues Xiaowei, and two leave in search of a man who is willing to give his heart to Xiaowei so that she may become human. They first encounter a boorish prince who scoffs at the suggestion, so they take his heart. Xiaowei uses her magical powers to bait another potential donor, a general who dons a gold mask that covers half of his face. Curious about the general's identity, Xiaowei incapacitates him but discovers later that her rescuer is not a man, but a woman with half of her face disfigured.
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Princess Jing masked.

Xiaowei accompanies the mysterious woman to the White City at the border, where the woman is revealed to be Princess Jing, the youngest daughter of the ruling family who is inspecting the military outpost led by General Huo Xin. Huo once served as Jing's lead bodyguard and they developed a deep mutual affection. However, Huo remained faithful to his profession and spurned the princess's confessions to him. Princess Jing's face was disfigured by a monstrous bear while she was out in the forest. Huo showed up too late but still managed to kill the bear and save her.

That evening, while performing for Jing, Huo and his men, Xiaowei malevolently enchants the general. Unaware of Xiaowei's bewitchment and feeling betrayed by Huo, Jing throws herself into a lake, but Xiaowei rescues her. Revealing her magical powers to Jing, Xiaowei suggests that the princess's disfigurement will prevent Huo from ever loving her and convinces Jing that they should switch appearances to test Huo.

Meanwhile, Que'er, while walking through the White City at night, is accosted by two hooligans. Pang Lang, a town dweller who claims to have descended from a family of demon hunters, intervenes, but not before Que'er rips out the heart of one of her tormentors, revealing herself as a demon. Pang Lang tries to warn Huo about the demons but is prevented from entering Huo's residence by his guards.

That night, Jing, in disguise as Xiaowei, seduces enchanted Huo. The next day, exploiting Jing's desire for Huo's seemingly unrequited love, Xiaowei suggests she and Jing exchange appearances permanently. Huo enters and, in a final attempt to reclaim his affection, Jing exposes Xiaowei as a demon and orders Huo to kill her. The enchantment prevents Huo from following the order, so Jing attacks him in frustration.

Suddenly, the army of the neighboring Tianlang kingdom, led by an evil witch doctor, arrives at the White City to seize Princess Jing, who has been betrothed to the Tianlang prince. Jing refuses to accept the marriage, forcing Huo to protect the city. Jing ends the fighting by threatening to take her own life, and the Tianlang forces agree to retreat if Jing gives herself up in three days. Unwilling to marry a man other than Huo, Jing offers up her heart to Xiaowei so that the two may switch bodies and thus their destinies.

Xiaowei, in disguise as Jing, arrives at the Tianlang camp and discovers that her fiancé is the boorish prince whose heart she earlier consumed and that the Tianlang plan to reinvigorate him with her heart, which is actually Jing's. Without her demon magic, Xiaowei realizes she can not stop this plan.

Que'er reveals to Pang Lang that Xiaowei and Jing have switched identities, and the demon hunter disseminates the information to Huo. Just as Jing is about to consume her first heart, completing her transition into a demon, Huo intervenes. He blinds himself with his sword, demonstrating his commitment to Jing and breaking the power of Xiaowei's enchantment. Que'er, Jing and Huo then rush to the Tianlang camp to reclaim Jing's heart. The four defeat the Tianlang forces, but Que'er is killed in the battle. Huo offers his own heart to Xiaowei in exchange for Jing's, but Xiaowei decides to return Jing's heart unconditionally. Under the bewitching moment of a parting eclipse, Xiaowei's soul merges with Jing's body and Jing's face is healed in the process. The film concludes with Huo and Jing preparing to live happily ever after, while Pang Lang finds a bird resembling Que'er in her true form and obtains a feather similar to the one he got from her when they first met.

Five Seductions

  • Life
  • Heart
  • Lust
  • Love
  • Death
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