The Chinese Year of the Horse will be galloping in this Friday. Have you ever noticed that there is no Chinese Year of the Cat? Yes, there is a Tiger, but no domestic cats. Somehow the house cat was passed by in the Chinese Zodiac and the  28 Xing Xiu ( a system that divides the 28 areas of the constellations). There is also no mention of cats on the Buddhist list of protected animals. Did they not know about cats? Actually, one Chinese myth says that cats fell asleep at Buddha’s funeral and, therefore, were not added to the list of protected animals. Join me for a look at where cats are found in Chinese history!

The Science of History

Cats in Chinese History Bone Fragments

Feline bone fragments found in China.
Photo courtesy of motherboardvice.com

In November of 2013 it was announced that archaeologists from the National Academy of Sciences had found some new and compelling evidence about the domestication of cats.  At a dig site in the village of Quanhucun in China, 8 bone fragments belonging to at least 2 different cats were found: one left jawbone, 2 pelvic bones, and 5 leg bones. The bones were carbon dated and revealed to be about 5,300 years old. What does that prove? Well, the earliest art we have from Ancient Egypt depicting domesticated cats is 4,000 years old. Cats were in China about 1,300 years before they were domesticated in Ancient Egypt.

There is even more interesting news to come from this study. The bones were put through isotope analysis to determine what the diet of these cats was like. As one would expect, the diets were largely made of protein (probably from eating rodents), but one of the cats also showed a large amount of grain. The scientists have proposed that the grain in this cat’s diet could be a sign of domestication.

Here is how how the theory goes; the ancient Chinese farmers had a diet high in grains, millet, and other agricultural sorts of foods. Rodents would get into the fields and storage facilities and eat the grains – which posed a real problem for the farmers. Following the food chain, cats would come along to eat the rodents and thus would gain favor from the farmers. Recognizing the mutually beneficial relationship they could have with cats, farmers would feed the cats from their own stores of food to keep them coming around.  Scientists believe that this relationship between cats and ancient Chinese farmers would explain the grain in the cats’ diets and provide the earliest proof of the domestication of cats.

Presenting the Myth of Cat Goddess Li Shou

Cats in Chinese History Black and White Cat 1

Xu Beihong’s Cat
Image courtesy of Asian-Antiquities.com

After the gods had created the earth and all of it’s  beautiful creatures, they decided that they would give one of the earthly creatures the responsibility to oversee the running of the world. The examined creature after creature to determine which one would be most suited for the job. Finally, they decided that they would put the goddess Li Shou, a cat, and all of her fellow cats in charge of the earth. Li Shou gladly accepted the offer and was given the ability to speak and communicate for her willingness.

Once the gods had left, Li Shou went out to begin patrolling the Earth. Everything was in perfect order. After a while of walking she came across a beautiful cherry tree and decided that she would take a nap for just a moment. She awoke suddenly to the gods standing above her.

“How can you be sleeping, Li Shou?” One of the gods asked. “The Earth is falling into chaos! We put you in charge of running this world.”

“Well… I…I just shut my eyes for a moment,” she said thinking of her blissful sleep.

“Get back to work!” Another of the gods said. “We’ll put things back in order this time, but we need you to take your responsibility seriously.”

“We will be back to see that you’ve done what we’ve asked of you,” said a third god.

Cats in Chinese History Monkey and Cats by Yi Yuanji

Monkey and Cats by Yi Yuanji (11th Century)
Image is in the Public Domain

“I will,” Li Shou said,” You can count on me.”

With that the gods reordered the world and the chaos was no more. Li Shou set out again to watch over the  workings of the earth. Diligently she tried with all of her might to fight the urge to take a nap.  Once again, she was lulled to sleep under the blossoming of a cherry tree.  The gods appeared again and found taking another nap.  Li Shou was scolded worse than before and promised yet again that she would be mindful of her responsibilities. They would not catch her sleeping on the job again.

On her third round of watching the Earth, Li Shou found herself full of energy. That second nap really did the trick! She ran and frolicked and this time when she found a cherry tree, she had no desire to sleep. A single leaf fell from the tree right before her eyes and was blown by a gentle wind. What fun! She chased the leaf, batting in with hear paws. Then another leaf fell and another and another! Li Shou was having the time of her life.  This time the gods appeared and found her playing among the leaves.

“Li Shou!” The first god said.

“Yes!” Li Shou said, standing tall and removing a remaining leaf from her fur. “I did it! I didn’t fall asleep!”

“The world has still fallen into chaos, under your watch,” said the first god.

“But, I…”said Li Shou.

“You ignored your responsibilities once again!” said the second god.

“We have reprimanded you 3 times,” said the third god. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Li Shou thought carefully before she began to speak. The gods waited eagerly for her reply with the sternest of stares.  ” There isn’t much I can say,” Li Shou said. ” I have been terrible at watching over the earth. Perhaps this job is not best left to me.”

“And who do you suppose would be better fit for the responsibility?” Asked the second god. At that very moment a human man and woman appeared, walking together and picking cherries from one of the nearby cherry trees.

Chinese History Zhang Zhen Lady at a Window with two cats

Lady at a Window with Two Cats by Zhang Zhen (early 18th century)
Image courtesy of the University of California Berkley Art Museum

“How about them?” said Li Shou pointing toward the humans. “They are a very good creature and I have liked being around them very much.”

“So be it!” Said the first god. “You have chosen well, Li Shou.”

The gods beckoned the humans to come near. They placed the responsibility to oversee the running of the Earth on mankind and gave them the ability to speak. As the humans began to speak, Li Shou and the other cats lost their ability to speak.

” We will be back to see how you have done with the  earth,” said the third god to the humans. The humans just stared blankly and began to talk with one another. The god repeated himself. The humans still did not understand. Realizing that the humans would never understand the language of the gods, they turned back to Li Shou.

“Humans can not be in charge of everything,” the first god said to Li Shou. She nodded showing that she understood what he had said.

“Since you can understand us,” the second god said to Li Shou,” we will still leave you in charge of keeping time for the earth.”

” Your eyes shall control the movement of the sun,” said the third god.

From that day forward, the Chinese would believe that you could tell the time of day by looking into a cat’s eyes. The pupils of the cat’s eyes control the height of the sun above the horizon.

One Good Myth Deserves Another

  • The cat goddess Li Shou was worshiped by farmers as a goddess of fertility. Sacrifices were made to her in exchange for her pest control, for favorable rainfall, and for success with their crops.  She was also said to ward off evil spirits at night.
  • Ceramic candle lanterns shaped like sitting cats with hollow eyes were used to scare away mice and ward off bad luck.
  • White cats were linked to the moon and known to steal moonbeams.
  • Cats were seen as mysterious creatures that could detect ghosts and evil spirits – or be one.
  • Instead of burring dead cats, they were hung from trees to deter any evil spirits from bothering people passing underneath the tree.
  • It was said that some people would change into cats after death. If you were afraid of cats, it meant that you were a rodent in a past life.
  • Cats born with certain black markings on their backs were called “Kimono Cats.” This meant that the cat was the reincarnation of one of the owner’s ancestors. This belief was also held in Japan.
  • Cats were sometimes believed to bring poverty on the people they lived with.
  • One legend says that an emperor owned a black cat that bathed in a puddle after it had rained for 3 days. Then, all of the sudden, the cat turned into a dragon and flew away. No one ever saw the cat again.
Chinese history Japanese Kimono Cat

Japanese “Kimono Cat”
Image courtesy of messybeast.com