If you’ve ever been inside a Chinese restaurant or visited your local Chinatown, you’ve likely seen depictions of cats on the walls or shelves. This is because cats and China have a long and fascinating history together. If recent research is to be believed, this relationship between cats and the Chinese people and culture dates back to 3000 BC1. We’re sure you can just imagine what rich cat-centric folklore blossomed over the last 5,000 years, and that’s what we’re here to share with you today.
Keep reading to learn about cats’ place in Chinese culture and history.
The Rich and Poor Both Kept Cats
In ancient China, people of all statuses kept cats, albeit for very different reasons.
The noblemen and women viewed cats as beloved companions and were known as 狸奴 or “cat servants.” In addition, various paintings from ancient Chinese culture depict cats as companions for elegant court ladies.
China has been an agricultural-based country throughout its long history, so for its farmers and poorer folks, cats were simply a practical means for controlling pests that would otherwise destroy their crops. There is mention in The Book of Rites of emperors making sacrificial offerings to cats at the end of each year to show gratitude for them protecting their fields.
Cats Were Mystical Creatures
The Chinese thought cats were mystical creatures with incredible spiritual powers.
During the Sui Dynasty (581–618), the Emperor thought his family members called upon cat spirits to make his Empress sick. During the trial, a servant said that the Empress’ family members often sacrificed to the cat spirits to motivate them to kill the Empress. The belief at the time was that if a spirit killed someone, their possessions would be distributed amongst the people who resided in the same home as the spirit. The matriarch long envied the Empress’ riches and had hoped that by calling upon the feline spirits, the Empress would die, and she’d inherit her belongings.
After the trial, the Empress allowed her family members to live, but the Emperor banished anyone who tried to summon cat spirits.
There were many myths and legends regarding cats and the dead. Strict measures were implemented to ensure that a cat was not allowed access to rooms with corpses. One such legend says that if a cat jumped over the coffin, the dead inside would become a zombie. Another suggests that if a cat leaped over a female’s coffin, she’d transform into a vampire if the cat wasn’t located and killed.
Chinese “Foo Dogs” Are Actually Lions
Foo dogs are a traditional Chinese architectural ornament made of stone. They are often found in entryways outside Imperial palaces, tombs, and temples. Despite their very misleading name, Foo Dogs aren’t dogs at all, but lions. Because lions aren’t native to China, most artists hadn’t seen one in person. This explains why the ornaments look similar to the Chinese depictions of dragons.
Foo Dogs were believed to have protective qualities, but correct placement is essential to ensure they provide a beneficial effect. They are almost always in pairs, with one male and one female. The male is always on the right side with one paw upon a ball and is said to protect from physical threats. The female stands to the left of the entrances and holds a playing cub under her foot. She is said to represent nurture and ward off spiritual misfortunes.
Tigers Hold Much Symbolism
It’s not just domestic cats and lions that the ancient Chinese revered. Tigers have many symbolic attributes throughout many Asian cultures. They represent dignity, ferocity, courage, and “yin” energy and are the symbol of power and fear. Tigers are considered the king of all beasts and have always been featured heavily throughout Chinese culture.
In folklore, tigers were so mighty that they could ward off fires, thieves, and evil spirits. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see paintings of tigers facing the entrances of buildings. It was believed the presence of the tiger in the painting would make demons too afraid to enter.
Children in modern-day China wear hats and shoes with tiger depictions to ward off evil spirits.
Cats Became Popular During the Song Dynasty
Cats became increasingly popular during the Song Dynasty. They pawed their way into many Chinese poems and paintings from that time (960–1279). In 2019, five tombs dating back to this dynasty were discovered in China’s Shaanxi Province. Each tomb features brick chambers and contains many burial items ranging from bronze mirrors to pottery pieces. Also found in these tombs were cat friezes on the walls of two of the brick chambers. Archaeologists note that this is quite a rare find in ancient Chinese tombs and believe that their discovery supports theories that cats were kept as pets during the dynasty.
People of this time preferred long-haired cats and those with white and yellow fur. They often pampered said pets with gifts they found from the market and treated them with fresh fish.
Cats Are Depicted Throughout Written and Visual Arts
During the latter part of the Sung Dynasty, cats became the subject of many poems and paintings. The representation of cats in paintings during this period is so detailed that every hair was drawn on separately. Facial expressions were drawn to catch emotions like fear and joy.
Some depictions show cats as prized animals adorned with ribbons on their necks. In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), cats were often painted with tassels and gold collars. In an illustration by an anonymous Song dynasty painter called Calico Cat and Noble Peonies, a cat is shown tied up, indicating it was likely someone’s pet.
It’s not just paintings that depict cats; much poetry from the Song and Ming dynasties describes cat ownership. Various poems from the era discuss the process of acquiring cats. To formalize the adoption, families had to prepare small gifts like fish or string for the mother cat or a gift like salt for the owner. Mei Yao Ch’en wrote a poem called Sacrifice to the Cat That Scared All the Rats about his dead cat during the Sung Dynasty.
Cats Have Been in China For Thousands of Years
Researchers discovered cat bones in some farming settlements in the Shaanxi Province in 2001. They determined that these bones dated back to 3500 BC, but it wasn’t until recently that they could pinpoint what cat they belonged to. They found that the bones were from a leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), a small wild cat originating in South, Southeast, and East Asia. The leopard cat is a distant relative of the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), a small wildcat species native to Africa, West, and Central Asia. It is the African wildcat from which our modern domesticated cats are descended.
There Is No Year of the Cat
Despite cats having thousands of years of history in China, there is no Year of the Cat in the Chinese Zodiac. According to the original myth, the Jade Emperor selected the 12 zodiac animals by way of a race. Legend says that when the cat and rat got news of the race, the cat asked if the rat could wake it up in time for the race. On race day, the rat betrayed the cat and let it continue sleeping. When the cat woke from its nap, it found the race was over and was so angry at the rat it swore that they would be enemies forever.
China and cats have a very long history that spans thousands of years. Though cats are not worshipped in China as in Egypt, history shows us a beautiful and mystical relationship between the ancient Chinese civilizations and the curious furry four-legged creature we know today as cats.
Featured Image Credit: Tao Jiang, Shutterstock