The Cat in China:
By Western accounts the cat arrived in China around 200BC (Turner et al., 2000) most probably acquired from Roman merchants. However, Chinese mythology mentions the cat goddess Yifan Zhang, who was known to have led a legion of cats to uphold righteousness and to found the Chinese nation before the Shang Era. In addition, the Chinese Book of Rites, compiled during Confucius’ time (1050-256BC), describes an annual sacrificial offering in honor of cats made by the Emperor. “They met (and gave sacrifice to) the representatives of the cats, because they devoured the rats and mice which injured the fruits of the field.”
Above all, the Chinese believed the cat to be a mystical creature that had unfathomable spiritual powers (Werness, 2006). The Emperor Wen, during the Sui Dynasty in 598AD, believed that his brother-in-law and his mother had used cat spirits to cause his Empress to fall ill. At the trial, a female servant testified that the brother-in-law’s mother had regularly made sacrifices to cat spirits encouraging them to murder the rich Empress. If killed by a cat spirit, all the possessions of the victim were inherited by those who lived in the same house as the spirit. The brother-in-law’s mother had coveted the Empress’ riches and jewels, and by persuading the cat spirit to haunt her, she had hoped she would die. In an unexpected act of kindness, the Empress took pity upon them and spared their lives, but consequently, the Emperor exiled all those who summoned cat spirits (Van Vechten, 1921).
The Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) established the short lived Zhou Dynasty and was the only woman to rule China as an Emperor rather than an Empress. By ruthlessly manipulating the Emperor Gaozong into believing that the Empress Wang had killed his only daughter, Wu, who was only a lowly consort at the time, began her plot to cast suspicion on the Empress in order to take her place. In fact, historians today believe that she cold-heartedly killed her own daughter. However, the Emperor believed the story and replaced the Empress Wang with Wu. It was not enough to have the Empress’ throne, and so, both the Empress Wang and her consort Xiao were tortured, suffering slowly in wine jars before they were taken out and beheaded. The consort Xiao cursed Wu as a monster and said that she hoped to be reincarnated as a cat and Wu as a rat so that she could chase her into eternity. The Chinese believed that after death a person became a cat, and the Empress Wu took the curse seriously, thereafter forbidding anyone in the palace to keep one.
Other fearful beliefs concerning the cat took the form of eerie tales, myths and legends. In one such story an old woman was accused of keeping a baby up at night by riding her cat and terrifying the poor child. To solve the problem, the woman was starved to death and the cat beaten to death; the child was said to have slept peacefully afterwards. Additionally, if a cat jumped over a coffin, the deceased would rise and live again. The zombie only succumbed to complete death if beaten with a broom. If a cat jumped over a corpse, the person’s soul entered the cat. If a cat jumped over a girl’s coffin, she would become a vampire if the cat was not found and killed (Van Vechten, 1921). According to the Chinese, each person had two souls: one called a Yin, or higher consciousness, and the other called the Keui, or lower consciousness, which stays in the ground until the corpse has totally decayed. Strict measures ensured that a cat never entered a room with a corpse, as it was feared that the cat, while leaping over the dead body, would impart an evil force causing the person to turn into a vampire.
Although seen as a magical animal with supernatural powers over life and death, in many instances the cat was a loved and devoted pet. In fact, during the latter part of the Chinese T’ang and Sung Dynasties (618-1279 AD) cats were pampered and often interesting subjects of poems and paintings. Here Mei Yao Ch’en (1002-1060) writes a heartfelt poem to his dead cat.
Sacrifice to the Cat that Scared all the Rats
When I had my Five White cat,
The rats did not invade my books.
This morning Five White died,
I sacrifice with rice and fish.
I see you off in the middle of the river,
I chant for you: I won’t neglect you.
Once when you’d bitten a rat,
You took it crying around the yard.
You wanted to scare all the rats,
So as to make my cottage clean.
Since we come and board this boat,
On the boat we’ve shared a room.
Although the grain is dry and scarce,
I eat not fearing piss or theft.
That’s because of your hard work,
Harder working than chickens or pigs.
People stress their mighty steeds,
Saying nothing’s like a horse or ass.
Enough—I’m not going to argue,
But cry for you a little.
The poet scholar Chang Tuan in around 1,000AD had seven cats with names such as, Phoenix and Drive-Away-Vexation, Guardian of the East, White Phoenix, Purple Blossom, Brocade Sash, Cloud Pattern and Ten Thousand Strings of Cash (Bast, 1995). Cats also became the main subjects of many Chinese paintings. The Chinese word for cat is a homonym for the word octogenarian, and so from this association, the cat symbolized long life. The calico cat, for some unknown reason, has been blessed as the symbol of wealth (Lang, 2004). And so, when pictured in paintings or scrolls, cats denote the meaning of longevity and wealth. In the early 10th century painting ‘Wasps and Cat’ from Tiao Kuang-Yin’s album ‘Flowers and Sketches from Life’ a white cat intently watches a wasp flying in front of it.
Another early painting called ‘Lady’ by Chou Wen-chu of the Five Dynasties portrays a lady sitting peacefully reading a book in her garden as a black and white cat sits at her feet.
Sung Dynasty (960-1279) representations are so detailed that each hair has been drawn in separately while capturing the feline emotions of fear, surprise, and joy. Many depictions show cats as prized pets with some wearing red ribbons around their necks, and later, in the Ming Dynasty, they are adorned with red tassels and gold bell collars. In the painting ‘Calico Cat and Noble Peonies’ a black and white cat is even tied up, inferring that it must be someone’s pet.
A calico cat bristles and hisses at an intruding dog in a hibiscus garden in the painting ‘Hibiscus and Rocks’ by LiTi.
In yet another painting by LiTi entitled ‘Portrait of a Cat,’ an orange and white cat holds its paw up expectantly waiting for something interesting.
I Yuan-chi, another Sung Dynasty artist, captures a monkey clutching one of two kittens. The kitten’s features clearly express fear as the second kitten looks on worriedly. The monkey’s expression is one of unconcern. Both kittens have red ribbons around their necks.
In the painting ‘Children Playing on a Winter Day,’ two children, most probably a sister and a brother holding cat toys, are ready to play with their black and white cat that is again wearing a red ribbon collar.
In an anonymous painting of the same period called ‘Cats Playing,’ eight cats are in various positions of play in a garden.