Chinese cats

Julia has attempted to find a name for her new cat via an internet poll, and we have recommended to her the name Chifu which, although rather popular in Spain, sounds quite Chinese. On this occasion it came up whether the Chinese have traditionally kept cats.

Naturally the Chinese have kept cats, and primarily for catching mice (and, er, for consumption). Already the Book of Rites, attributed to Confucius, remembered about the hosts of cats defending the granaries against the mice and rats, to whom the emperor offered a sacrifice each year. Buddhist monasteries also kept cats for the protection of the holy scripts. Emperor Ming-Ti (A.D. 58-76) had them directly brought from India for the Temple of the White Horse where the first Chinese sutra translations were preserved. And Lu Yu (733-804), author of the Book of Tea has even dedicated a poem to the cats protecting his library and tea collection.

Cats being kept as pets are first remembered by the sources from the Tang period (618-907). This was an age when China was extremely open to the outside world, and the Iranian merchants arriving in large number from the West brought at this time the long-coated Persian cat to the country. This race became the favorite of the noble ladies, as it is attested both by classical novels and the paintings left to us from the Song period (960-1127) and later.

Classical cat paintings of a thousand years from the Taiwan National Museum

Demand generates offer, and Chinese painting, which has been traditionally differentiated by themes – bird and flower painting, mountain and water painting, horse painting, bamboo painting – also created the genre of cat painting. Cat painters were provided by special manuals – such manuals are being published and widely used even today –, and the rules of the new genre were summarized by such authoritative books like the 相貓經 Xiāngmāojīng, The Classic Book of Cats or Cat Painting, included among the great classic books (經 jīng). This latter has even used special terms for different fur colors and defined their order of rank:


As to the color of fur, the perfect yellow ones are called “golden cats” after their color. The second place is for the perfectly white ones, called “snow cats”. The Cantonese do not like this kind. They call it instead “the cat of filial piety” and consider it a [bad] omen. After this follow the perfectly black ones, called “iron cats”. The cats with a perfectly homogeneous color are called “excellent in all four seasons”. The yellow-brown-black cats are called “golden brown”. The yellow-white-black ones – like the one Julia has [translator’s note] – are called “turtle shell spotted”. And those with a black back and with white legs and belly are referred to as “black cloud covering the snow”.

Cat, crab and quail from the animal painting model book of Shen Zhou (1427-1509)

The establishment of cat painting as an autonomous genre was also supported by the fact that the word 貓 māo cat is a homonym of 耄 mào “eighty-ninety years old”, so such paintings were a perfect gift for a birthday. Especially if they also represented a 蝶 dié butterfly, because then the names of the two figures, pronounced loud, also had the meaning 耄耋 màodié “very long old age”.

The late Qing court painter Shen Chenlin (active between 1850 and 1870) composed a whole album with the title “Cats” or “Elders” which became an estimated coffee table book of the last emperors. The twelve pages album was published as a wall calendar by the Taiwan National Museum. It is worth to observe how much the last page follows the four hundred years earlier model page of Shen Zhou.

The tradition of the classical cat painters has been continued by Gu Yingzhi, professor of the Tianjin Academy of Art, one of the greatest authorities of cat painting in contemporary China.

The modern cat paintings by Wu Guangwei already trespass the border separating the stylized figures of classical Chinese painting from Western hyperrealism, so fashionable nowadays in China.

But the word 貓 māo cat is not only a homonym of “old age”, but also of the name of Chairman 毛 Mao. Even their meanings are somewhat close to each other, for the latter means hair or fur. No wonder that some contemporary Chinese avant-garde pictures, inspired by pop art, occasionally represent Chairman Mao with a cat’s face, perhaps as a kind of a shock therapy.

Qiu Jie: Chairman Mao, 2007

Qiu Jie: Chairman Mao on the lands, 2006

And finally Classical-inspired modern Chinese art also uses the motif of the cat without any secondary meaning, just for the sake of the gracious and elastic lines which are so akin to Chinese calligraphy.

Chen Yang

Din Yanyong

Tien Yuchang

Vlad Gerasimov is a Russian painter, but his pictures, inspired by Chinese art,
are very popular on Chinese sites as well.

Taipei, switchboard of the Cat 107 coffee bar imitating a shelf with classical Chinese books.
The titles of the books are: Seeing cats. Dreaming cats. Home with cats. Cats,
friends of the virtue. The cat has left for a coffee. The cat has come.
Cats around the world. One town, six cats. Encounter with cats.

On the switcher: Second volume, which, when pro-
nounced, also means “Switch it on”.

18 comentarios:

Julia dijo...

Precioso! Valió la pena la espera.
En Argentina a las gatas de tres colores como la mía, (que sólo pueden ser hembras, además) las llamamos "mariposa". No sé si en otros países de habla hispana también les dicen así.

Julia dijo...

Ah y otra cosa, hablando de gatos que se comen... ¿no habían publicado una receta de gato en Mesa Revuelta hace unos años?

Araz dijo...

In my childhood I read in Russian translation a popular XIX century Chinese novel about Judge Bao "Three Brave, Five Just" with a classical "cat and butterfly" picture on it: It is said that the idea of the stories arouse after the author saw this picture hung on two nails on a wall. So in addition to Judge Bao he included heroic Emperor's Cat, sneaky Motley Butterfly and two Rat Brothers named Din (written using same hieroglyph used for the word "nail").

Studiolum dijo...

That's really interesting and fitting to this post! I have not read this work of Shi Yukun. Now I’ve downloaded the Russian version from the above place and will search and include the story as an appendix.

Julia: A Hungarian reader has just asked exactly the same in the Hungarian version of the post Bestiary. To her I answered that although I had been hesitating, at the end I decided that it did not fit here where the animals figure as living beings and not as raw materials. (How clever it is of the English language that it uses different words for the same animal in its two avatars on the field and on the dish, respectively.)

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Beautiful, beautiful! A masterpiece!

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

How clever it is of the English language that it uses different words for the same animal
I don't like it. It's used euphemistically, in my opinion. Although we eat "lanb" and "chicken", English-speaking children are often still quite revolted when they learn that foreigners eat "cows" and "sheep" and "pigs".

It's funny that there is only one Siamese-looking Chinese cat drawing.

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks a lot, Poly! I feel really honored that you like it. You will be certainly enchanted to know that 貓經 Māojīng the Book of Cats is the title of the Chinese translation of Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Megkoronáz: That’s a very interesting point. I did not know that. I thought it was only a practical distinction (developed on socio-historical grounds, obviously). But now I can see it from the native speaker’s side as well and understand its euphemistic connotations. Certainly, having eaten lamb and beef and chicken and pork all your life it can be disquieting to hear that foreign people (barbarians?) eat sheep and cows and hens and pigs.

Studiolum dijo...

And yes, I myself have not seen many Siamese-looking cats in China. Most of them are the kind of our fluffy cats.

Megkoronáz dijo...

(I probably ought to say that many children find it quite amusing, and that it may only be me who's bothered by the euphemistic side of it.)

Julia dijo...

Nunca había pensado que para un niño de habla inglesa era menos traumático comer pollo, vaca o chancho porque lo llamaban con otros nombres.
Mi madre -siempre tan ocultadora- me decía, cuando yo lo preguntaba, que lo que estábamos comiendo había muerto de muerte natural... Y a mí todavía me da cierto escozor cuando tengo que explicarlo a mis hijas. Hipocresía absoluta, ya lo sé (debería ser vegetariana o dejarme de melindres).

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Dear Tamas,

I have posted your beautiful post on the Facebook profile of Pavlina Pampoudi, the poet, who is (on of) the Greek translator(s) of the Old Possum.
And she has indeed enjoyed your work!
I am now forwarding this detail!

Thanks again for this excellent post!

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you very much, Poly! What an honor! She must be also extremely proud of having translated, without knowing it, one of the 經-s, that is great classics of Chinese literature :)

Language dijo...

A wonderful post! And I'm interested to learn our Pushkin is an "iron cat."

Studiolum dijo...

If Pushkin, then he deserves a golden chain even if he’s an iron cat, like the кот учёный in his namesake’s Ruslan & Ludmilla:

У лукоморья дуб зеленый;
Златая цепь на дубе том:
И днем и ночью кот ученый
Всё ходит по цепи кругом;
Идет направо — песнь заводит,
Налево — сказку говорит.

There’s a green oak-tree by the shores
Of the blue bay; on a gold chain,
The cat, learned in the fable stories,
Walks round the tree in ceaseless strain:
Moves to the right – a song it groans,
Moves to the left – it tells a tale.

Araz dijo...

Just came across a WWII photo with a courier cat. Watch out Nazis, heroic soviet cats are coming!

Studiolum dijo...

Heroic Soviet cats are already in action!

But how does the courier cat exactly work? How does he know where to deliver the message? And if it was a widespread practice in the Soviet army then why does there exist about it only this photo, repeated all over the Russian net?

Araz dijo...

Interesting questions, and you could see people discussing them under the photo. It seems that this was not a wide-spread practice, maybe even this was the only case, probably because cat was a trained one.

Anónimo dijo...

I think Chinese eat both cats and dogs, like they do in Korea for example.