Lao She Cat Country

ethnic china

Cat Country – Lao She

Sometimes we say that a poet or a writer writes with his blood, and there are many occasions in which writers end up paying with their lives for having written a book. This is possibly one of them, and we can say that Lao She paid with his life for having written this work, this satire of the Chinese society of his time, and all the love that transcends it to improve the situation of that country of cats, was not enough for those who do not admit the slightest criticism, and during the Cultural Revolution Lao She was attacked and attacked until he ended up putting an end to his life. Mao already said that revolution is a very serious matter. 

Originally written in 1932, the plot of the book is that a Chinese person, because he insists several times on calling himself as such and not as a human as a kind of opposition to the country of cats in which he lives, travels to Mars where the landing is very rough, so that his spaceship is destroyed and his companion dies. Shortly afterward he is rescued, in reality, taken prisoner by the inhabitants of Mars, or by some of the inhabitants of Mars, who are the inhabitants of the Cat Country that gives the book its title.

As soon as he begins to characterize the country of the cats, where people survive by taking leaves from a tree that has a tranquilizing effect similar to opium, which calms their hunger and at the same time dulls all kinds of actions and feelings, and where foreigners, by the mere fact of being foreigners, are respected, feared and imitated, we already realize that he is establishing a parallel between Chinese society in the 30s of the twentieth century with the society of the country of the cats that is on Mars.

The first part of the novel simply shows us the protagonist integrating himself into the life of the cat society, since after escaping from his captors he ended up living in the house of the aristocratic Scorpion.  His host, and the rest of the society, are presented in a negative light: selfish, careless, concerned only with their own benefit, etc. Some of these situations have a markedly comic character.

Later, on the occasion of Scorpion’s trip to the capital, the City of Cats, the protagonist, rejecting the invitation to live in the foreigners’ neighborhood, has the opportunity to get to know this society better, especially through Mr. Scorpion’s son. A young man with a clear vision of the defects of his society that makes him a pessimist. From his hand, or rather from his house, the human is discovering that all institutions are empty, that there is no moral feeling, but each one is dedicated to deceive the other as he can and to get the greatest possible benefit, yes, everything is masked with great titles and beautiful words, which is also very reminiscent of the China of that time.

From his hand, or rather from his house, the human is discovering that all institutions are empty, that there is no moral feeling, but each one is dedicated to deceive the other as he can and to get the greatest possible benefit, yes, everything is masked with great titles and beautiful words, which is also very reminiscent of the China of that time, and we could say that the usual.

From the hand of these gentlemen we learn about the nature of education, which exists, of the senseless copying of the fashions of other foreign nations and applying them without understanding them, of the sale of all the cultural goods of the museums to keep getting opium and keep everyone quiet, of the nature of an emperor who has absolutely no government or power, being the concern of all the leaders only to have enough leaves of this tree to keep the people quiet and stay doing their lives with their numerous concubines.

Some paragraphs, such as the following, seem foreboding. «Since theft and destruction were the two most common habits of the Cat People, it was certainly far better that the precious relics of their past be sold to foreign countries where the people would keep them, rather than be destroyed by the Cat People themselves.» And it is amazing how he could have come to imagine the unprecedented destruction that took place 30 years later.

On education his words should be read again: «When the new education system came along, what did people want it for in the first place? It was not in the hope that students would broaden their understanding, but that they thought they could use it to get rich.»

The protagonist obsessively searches for a ray of hope for this society that seems doomed to disappear, and all the groups that pass before him end up being so integrated in the general atmosphere that there is little light left for hope. Events seem to accelerate when news of a foreign invasion from the west arrives. While the emperor flees eastward with his generals, the young Scorpion is the only one who, at the head of his father’s army, puts up a small resistance, only the prelude to a tragic end.

Although the theme is original and interesting, the pain with which the writer involves himself in this exploration of the surrounding reality prevents him from contemplating it with a little distance, and from being able to describe the same facts with a more elegant sarcasm. On the contrary, his search for social collectives that can shed a light of hope is doomed to failure after somewhat repetitive descriptions of their shortcomings. Perhaps he stretches the descriptions of situations too far from an excessively paternalistic and didactic point of view.

His obsession and preoccupation with the China of the time prevents him from discovering that there are other elements, similar to opium in their effect, that were already beginning to numb and manipulate Western societies, and having given a slightly more generalized vision of decadence, anchored in vices that society has maintained for centuries, he could have turned this novel into an example of universal decadence, but there it is only relatively successful, and in these months that we are now seeing the inability of Western governments to deal with the COVID pandemic, the environmental crises we face and other global threats, well, we could identify our own societies with that of this Cat Country. 

By which I am not saying that his criticism is not fair because I think it is, but by setting it out in a novel and not an essay, he forces himself to give it a rhythm, to provide an interest to the reader, to encourage him to continue with his reading and to provide him through it a distinct spiritual experience, and in these aspects he is only relatively successful.

Lao She. Cat Country. Translated by William A. Lyell. Penguin Books.

Image by Bessi from Pixabay

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Lao She Cat Country," in Ethnic China, 22 junio 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/lao-she-cat-country/.

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