House cats may not have made it into the Chinese Zodiac, but cats are definitely a part of Chinese history! Cats are celebrated in Chinese mythology and culture. Even science proves that the Chinese have been cat lovers since ancient times. Recent findings show that ancient China was one of the first places to domesticate cats. Let’s take a look at how it all happened!
Title Photo Credit: Mike Prince via Flickr
Mythical Beginnings: The Goddess Li Shou
Records of the relationship between cats and humans in Chinese history goes back to the time of Confucius (551 – 479 BC). The Chinese Book or Rites, a book containing moral principles, tells the story of the cat goddess Li Shou. It’s a story that teaches a lesson in responsible behavior and explains how humans came to rule over the creatures of the earth.
After the gods had created all of the earth, they decided to give one of their creatures the job of overseeing the running of the world. They examined all of the creatures. The decision was made to 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.
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. She decided to take a nap for just a moment. She was woken up by a stern lecture from the creator gods. The world had fallen into complete chaos while she was napping.
Not wanting to lose her job, Li Shou promised to be more responsible. She would not fall asleep again. The creator gods accepted her promise and set the earth back in order.
Li Shou set out again to watch over the workings of the earth. Though she tried to stay awake, she was lulled to sleep again. As the earth descended into chaos again, the gods found Li Shou taking another nap. She was scolded worse than before and promised yet again that she would be mindful of her responsibilities.
On her third round of watching the Earth, Li Shou was full of energy. She ran and frolicked. This time when she found a cherry tree, she had no desire to sleep!
A single leaf fell from the tree before her eyes and was blown by a gentle wind. What fun! She chased the leaf, batting in with her paws. Li Shou was having the time of her life.
A third time the creator gods appeared to find the Li Shou distracted as the earth was falling into chaos. Li Shou knew the truth. She was not the right creature to oversee the running of the world. Li Shou pleaded with the gods to give the responsibility to someone else.
Pleased with Li Shou’s honesty, the gods asked her which creature would be a better fit for the job. She pointed to some nearby humans. Her interactions with them had been pleasant and she found them to be very good creatures. The gods took her suggestion and transferred her authority (and ability to speak) to the humans.
As it would happen, humans gained the ability to speak, but not the ability to understand the gods. When the gods realized this, they knew they had to leave the cats (who could still understand them) in charge of something. They told Li Shou and the cats that they would now be in charge of keeping time for the earth.
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.
More Cat Mythology from Chinese History
- 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 burying 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.
The Truth About the Domestication of Cats in China
In November of 2013, archaeologists from the National Academy of Sciences found some new evidence in regards to the domestication of cats. At a dig site in the village of Quanhucun in China, 8 bone fragments belonging to at least 2 different small cats were found: one left jawbone, 2 pelvic bones, and 5 leg bones. Two findings from the analysis of the cat bones were particularly interesting:
- The cats had been eating grain.
Isotope analysis of the cats’ bones showed that there was a significant amount of grain in these cats’ diets. Why would an obligate carnivore have a diet with so much grain? Scientists propose that this is evidence of humans feeding the cats from their own food.
- The bones were about 5,300 years old.
The age of these cats’ bones show that cats were being domesticated in China for at least 1,300 years before they were domesticated in Ancient Egypt.
The domestication of cats in China must have started with grain stored by Chinese farmers. Over time, opportunistic rodents saw the grain fields and storage facilities as an all-you-can-eat buffet. The pillaging of these rodents would have caused serious problems for the humans who relied on these grains as their food supply. Noticing that cats had a natural inclination to eat the rodents, farmers encouraged cats to live on their farms by feeding them.
Science Shines More Light on Cats in Chinese History
More details about the domestication of cats in ancient China emerged in January of 2016. A new team of scientists headed by French researchers at the CNRS to identify the species of cat that had been found by the National Academy of Sciences. They wanted to know if the cats were of the same species and what relationship this species had with the Chinese people.
Since DNA evidence was not viable, geometric metamorphic analysis was used on the bones. The results were somewhat surprising. It was determined that the bones were those of a common east Asian wildcat known as the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus Bengalensis). These are the wildcats that were used to help create the modern hybrid cat breed, the Bengal.
What was the surprise? The Leopard Cat is not the ancestor of the domestic cat (Felis Catus) known today. Rather, the domestic cat is descendant from a distant relative of Leopard Cat, the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). There is no record of the African Wildcat living in China despite all of the current domestic cats being of the Felis Catus species.
This new revelation leaves scientists with even more questions about cats in Chinese history. The domestication of cats had independently cropped up in 3 separate locations in the world (Egypt, the Middle East, and China) as each began to develop agriculture. How and when did the domestic cat replace the Leopard Cat in the process of domestication in China? Was it the Romans, trade routes with the west, or something else that brought domestic cats to China? Only further studies into cats in Chinese history will tell.
Does your cat do a good job of keeping the time like Li Shou?
Sources & Digging Deeper
- Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication – Yaowu Hu et al.
- Cats in the Ancient World – Ancient History Encyclopedia
- Your Magickal Cat: Feline Magick, Lore, and Worship – Gerina Dunwich
- China Cat? Ancient Chinese May Have Domesticated Felines – Live Science
- Call of the Cats: What I Learned about Life and Love from a Feral Colony – Andrew Bloomfield
- Cats domesticated in China earlier than 3000 BC – CNRS Press Release
- Liji – Encyclopedia Britannica