Cat Country

I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before, but for the last however long I’ve been slowly (very slowly) working my way through Jonathan Fenby’s hefty Penguin History of Modern China, picked as a starting point for increasing my historical knowledge largely because my knowledge of its subject was so sketchy. A little while ago, this passage caught my eye, for reasons that will become obvious:

Between 1929 and 1935, 458 literary works were banned for slandering the authorities, encouraging the class struggle or constituting “proletarian literature”. A draconian press law was introduced in 1930. Film directors were told that their work should be 30 per cent entertaining and 70 per cent educational, to promote “good morals and demonstrate the spirit of fortitude, endurance, peace and the uprightness of the people.”

Though the regime was not strong enough or sufficiently centralized to exert repression on the scale of Nazi Germany or the Stalinist USSR, progressive writes and intellectuals were marginalized, harassed and, at worst, arrested and killed. […]

A cutting allegory of China, Cat Country by the Beijing writer Lao She, carried the sense of despair to a pitch of high irony, telling of a Chinese who landed on Mars, where he found a population of cat people who were lazy, dirty, cruel, undisciplined, disorganized, and addicted to drugs. The cat emperor had been overthrown, and replaced by the Ruler of Ten Thousand Brawls. Then the ‘small people’ had invaded and slaughtered all the cat people except for ten who escaped to a mountain. There, they went on fighting among themselves until only two were left. Caught by the invaders, they were put in a wooden cage where they bit one another to death.* (211-12)

The asterisk indicates a footnote, which with delightful casualness relates that “The narrator gets back to China on a passing French spacecraft”. Anyway, on reading this my first reaction was ooh; and when I googled and discovered that Cat Country is “sometimes seen as the first important Chinese science fiction novel”, I thought ah-ha. Great was my woe when I discovered that it is well and truly out of print; and great my joy when Nic borrowed the Oxford Chinese Studies library’s copy on my behalf. (The benefits of an academic other half!)

Cat Country coverIt’s an Ohio State University Press edition, translated by William A. Lyell, Jr and published in 1970, and comes complete with an Introduction by Lyell that provides a bit more background about the life and work of Lao She — a pseudonym for one Shu Qingchun, b. 1898, d. 1966. The reason for his pseudonymity is not specified: given the situation in China at the time he started writing, I wouldn’t be surprised if a desire to speak freely had something to do with it; on the other hand, Lao She was living in Britain at the time he became a writer, and only returned to China in 1931, so maybe he just fancied (as, of course, is his right) having a pen-name.

Lyell provides a (slightly stilted) sketch of the political situation in China at the time Lao She started writing. His first novels were published in the heart of the warlord era, just before the worst of the Nanjing decade as it is described in the above extract: a time of national unification that was nominal at best, and a time when China faced continual aggression from Japan, and interference from other nations. In fact, the manuscript of one of Lao She’s novels was destroyed in one China-Japan incident, which led to Cat Country being written, in 1932, as a deliberate airing of his “disappointment in national affairs and indignation over China’s military failures” (xxxvii). However Lao She himself considered the book a failure; Lyell quotes him:

What I thought [about the situation in China at the time I wrote Cat Country] was what most ordinary people were thinking and there was really no need to say it since everybody knew it anyway … I simply gave a straight-forward presentation of what was common knowledge at the time and then dignified the whole thing by calling it “satire”. I guess I must have gotten carried away. In my hands “satire” became “preaching”, and the more I preached the more sickening it became. A man who takes it upon himself to preach to people is either exceedingly intelligent or an utter numbskull. Now I know that I’m not the brightest man in the world, but I’m not willing to admit that I’m an utter ass either. And yet, since in fact I did write Cat Country, what can I say? (xxxix-xl)

Lyell suggests that Cat Country is nevertheless worth reading because it “… is better than Lao She would have us believe. There is some spritely as well as tedious writing in it. Like most of Lao She’s novels, it is uneven in quality. In addition to literary value, however, it possess a great deal of worth as social documentation on China in the early thirties” (xli).

Do I agree? Broadly speaking, yes. Here is the narrator’s first description of Mars, shortly after he has crash-landed:

I saw a grey sky. It was not a cloudy sky, but rather a grey-coloured atmosphere. One couldn’t say that the light of the sun was weak, because I felt very hot; however, its light was not in direct proportion to its thermal power. It was simply hot, but not at all bright. The grey atmosphere that surrounded me was so heavy, hot, dense, and stifling that I could almost reach out and grab it. […] It wasn’t at all like it is back in Peking when we have dust storms of wind-blown sand. It was rather that the light of the sun was diminished upon first entering this grey world; what was left of it was then evenly distributed so that every place received some for the light, thus creating a silver-grey world. It was a bit like the summer drought in North China when a layer of useless grey clouds floats in the sky, shading the light of the sun without at all reducing the extremely high temperature; however, the grey atmosphere here was much darker and heavier so that the weighty ashen clouds seemed glued to one’s face […] In sum the atmosphere made me feel very ill at ease. (6-7)

Even allowing for translation deficiencies (for I am not convinced, on the evidence of his introduction, that Lyell has the world’s most sensitive ear for style; the inclusion of phrases like “got into her pants” [140] and “go blow it out your ass!” [191] later in the book also feel like clangers), and even allowing for the fact that it’s probably intended to be humorously over-the-top (the narrator goes on to tell us how the land is “flat … boringly flat” in every direction), surely it’s over-egging the pudding a bit. If it’s deliberately tedious, it does its job a bit too well for my taste.

But thereafter events develop fairly briskly, if very episodically. Cat people appear from the grey, and immediately take the narrator prisoner. In his cell, he frees his hands and legs using his gun (which the cat people did not confiscate because, the narrator deduces, they are scared of metal — the narrator deduces many things about the cat people, and is always correct; but I guess that goes with the territory of this sort of novel), and is then freed from his cell by one of the cat people, with whom he runs off into the night. There’s enough time, in all this, for the narrator to explicitly compare his plight to the situations in which Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver found themselves; this certainly makes clear what sort of novel Lao She is aiming to write, but the overtness of the references surprised me slightly, even having read in Lyell’s introduction that Lao She was much-influenced by Western writers as a result of his time abroad. As expected, however, for most of the rest of the novel, the narrator is a tourist, escorted around (quite consentingly; he is generally unfazed by his surroundings) by a series of cat people who lecture him on various aspects of Cat Country’s history and society.

His liberator, Scorpion, turns out to be an opportunistic and self-centred local lord – a stand-in for the Chinese warlords of the time — whose major motive in freeing the narrator is to gain the kudos and, more importantly, the security of having a pet foreigner. Scorpion is a landlord, and a farmer of reverie leaves, which are all at once a staple food crop, the underpinning of the economy of Cat Country, and the drugs mentioned in Fenby’s summary of the book. On eating one, the narrator feels “benumbed and excited at the same time — the kind of feeling that one gets when slightly high.” As the effect becomes more intense: “every last pore in my body felt relaxed and happy enough to laugh, if pores could laugh. I no longer felt the least bit hungry or thirsty, nor did I any longer mind the dirt on my body. The mud, blood, and sweat that clung to my flesh all gave me a delicious feeling, and I felt that I should be perfectly happy if I never took another bath as long as I lived” (36). As Lyell points out in a footnote, this is an obvious analog for opium, which in the nineteenth century was imported into China by foreigners in massive quantities, despite Chinese prohibitions against it.

In Cat Country, reverie leaves were not just imported, but actually first introduced by a foreigner. This happened several hundred years ago. In short order, everybody was addicted to them, with the result that everyone become addled and idle. In response, the emperor banned the leaves; but everyone went into withdrawal, so he rescinded that order and made them the national dish, instead. Then — three centuries or so before the novel is set — there’s a chronic shortage of leaves after a terrible flood, at which point all the cat people, desperate for their fix, start stealing leaves from each other, with the full approval of the government, “for stealing is an act that most fully expresses a man’s freedom; and ‘freedom’ had, throughout their entire history, always been the highest ideal of the cat-people” (freedom meaning, naturally, “taking advantage of others; non-cooperation; creating disturbances” [43]). Eventually we discover that the whole economy is even more of a house of cards than this makes it sound, being built entirely on the ruling class’s plunder of Cat Country treasures and land: these things are sold to foreigners, and the proceeds are distributed among officials, who use the money to buy leaves. Licensing this behaviour is the anarchic political system; in place of political parties, there are political brawls (d’you see what he did there?), one of which in particular has ruined the country in ways that seem not just reflective of Lao She’s present, but grimly predictive: “the members of our Everybody Shareskyism Brawl didn’t understand economics to begin with […] when all the killing was over, everybody just stood around and stared blankly at each other. They had hoped to build the new society on a base of peasants and workers, but they didn’t have the foggiest notion of what agriculture was or what work was” (222).

Another consequence of the situation is that foreigners are both the bane and the life support of Cat Country society. They are entirely outside the law — hence the narrator’s ability to wander around pretty much as he pleases – and they know they’ve got a good thing going. When the narrator encounters other foreigners (who are, of course, also cat people; or at least, as they condescendingly explain, their ancestors were also cats), they automatically treat with him rather than with the Cat Country natives, knowing that it would be against their self-interest to fight among themselves. After the harvest, the narrator travels with Scorpion to the capital of Cat Country – called, naturally, Cat City (the total lack of imagination displayed in the naming throughout the book is, you have to assume, deliberate; the cat language is called “felinese”). Once there, he is sought out by foreigners who prove themselves to be more civil, reliable, and generally with-it than anyone else the narrator has so far met. They warn him not to let the cat people take advantage of him. “We foreigners have to look out for each other”, they explain. “To tell the truth, it’s a disgrace to Mars that a country like this should still exist. We’re so ashamed of it that we don’t even bother to treat cat-men as men at all” (111) — ashamed, but without sympathy; they feel that “the filthy habits of the natives here are past all rectification” (112), a position the narrator gradually moves towards as the novel develops and which, crucially, seems to be justified.

Cat City itself is certainly a pretty dismal place. Cat Country houses are made of mud and consist of “four walls surrounding a foul smell” (33), and Cat City embodies the same aesthetic. “As soon as I set eyes on Cat City,” the narrator relates, “a sentence took form in my mind: This civilization will soon perish!” (96). Yet in describing the place — or more accurately, in describing the behaviour of cat people en masse — Lao She produces some of the most memorable images in the book, such as this:

The arrangement of the city itself was the simplest that I had ever encountered in all my experience. There was nothing that you could really call “a street,” for other than an apparently endless line of dwellings, there was nothing but a kind of highway, or perhaps one ought to say “empty square”. If one kept in mind what the layout of a Cat Country army camp was like, one could well imagine the layout of the city: an immense open square with a row of houses down the middle, totally devoid of color and utterly drowned in cat-people. That’s all there was; this was what they called Cat City”. There were crowds of people, but one couldn’t tell exactly what they were doing. None of them walked in a straight line, and all of them got in each other’s way. Fortunately the streets were wide, and when it was no longer possible to go forward, they could switch to walking sideways as they crowded past one another. (97-8)

And this, describing how Scorpion, who at this point is carried aloft by a number of other cat people, negotiates the crowd:

With seven of them bearing Scorpion on their heads, they plunged headlong into the cat-surf! Then music was struck up. At first I thought it was a signal for the pedestrians to clear a right of way. But as soon as they heard the music, rather than shrinking back, the people all began crowding over in the direction of the reverie leaf formation until they were packed as tight as sardines in a can. I thought that it would be a miracle if Scorpion’s men ever made it through.

But Scorpion was much more capable than I had imagined. Bump-ba dump-dump-dump, bump-ba dump-dump-dump — lively as a roll of drums in a Chinese military opera, the clubs of the soldiers came down on the heads of the cat-people and a crack began to appear in the human tide. Thus the miracle of the Red Sea had been of Scorpion’s own making. Strange to say, the people’s eagerness to see what was going on was not abated one whit by the clubs, although they did fall back out of the way to open up a path. They kept on smiling at the formation. The clubs, however, didn’t stop merely because of this friendly reception, but continued with a bump-ba dump-dump-dump. By dint of careful observation, I was able to make out a difference between the city cats and the country cats: the city cats had a bald spot where a part of the skull had been replaced by a steel plate that was placed at the center of the head and also doubled as a drum — clear evidence that they had had long experience with having their heads drummed by soldiers while watching exciting public spectacles, for experience is never the product of a single, fortuitous occurrence. (101-2)

It’s still terribly long-winded (it’s very hard to quote from this novel other than in whole paragraphs), but: they have drums for heads! Is that not beautifully absurd?

Once in the city, the narrator ditches Scorpion for his rather more interesting relatives, notably Young Scorpion (see above re: naming) who explains that while his grandfather eats reverie leaves because he thinks it disgraces the foreigners who brought them, and his father eats the leaves to maintain his social status, he has to eat them because if he didn’t, he simply wouldn’t be able to deal with the mess that is Cat Country. (Ah, youth.) Young Scorpion introduces the narrator to, among other things, some Cat Country feminists (or “new women”), and the workings of the Cat Country educational system. The latter is evidently something of a hobby horse for Lao She, because he spends several chapters explaining and demonstrating how it is broken. There is a hint of the situation early in the novel, when Scorpion quotes Cat Country classics at the narrator in bizarre and non-sequiteur-ish attempts to justify his actions (a practice that was, at the time, not uncommon in China, as a footnote by Lyell reminds us), indicating a certain debasement of the value of knowledge. But in Cat City it’s taken to extremes. There are vacuous “graduation ceremonies” that take place on the first day of school, because the only reason to go to school is to gain status; pupils who literally dissect their teachers; and squabbling “young scholars”, who pose and talk in foreign languages “so that nobody understands them. They don’t understand what they’re saying themselves, but they enjoy the lively atmosphere that all those foreign sounds create” (197). And much more in that vein. It’s no surprise that, after rescuing two teachers destined for death, only to have them flee because they are unable to conceive of someone rescuing them for a reason other than wanting to kill them himself, the narrator despairs:

I wasn’t laughing at them alone, I was laughing at their whole society. Everywhere one looked in it, one found suspicion, pettiness, selfishness, and neglect. You couldn’t find an ounce of honesty, magnanimity, integrity or generosity in the entire society. In a society where principals are dissection material for their students, how could you expect a man to claim the honor of being principal? — darkness, darkness, total darkness. Was it possible that they were unaware that I had saved their lives? Very possibly, for in such a dark society, the very concept of saving another man’s life was probably unknown. I thought of Madam Ambassador and the eight little sexpots. They were probably still rotting away back there. The principal, the teacher, the professor, the ambassador’s wife, the eight little vixen — did any of them have anything worth of being called “life”? (166)

It’s passages like this, and more generally the development of the narrator, that give weight to Cat Country, and make it more than the preachy tome Lao She would have us believe that it is. Of course, it is preachy, the parallels with the China of its time transparent — at least to someone reading it now, with a knowledge of its context. Indeed, “70% education, 30% entertainment” isn’t a bad description of its content, though it’s almost certainly not the education the Chinese authorities had in mind when they established that specification. And its interest as science fiction is also largely historical, I think, though certainly echoes of its attitude towards authority can be detected in a book like Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes.

But ultimately, if there’s a single reason to read Cat Country, beyond that historical interest, it’s the narrator. From speculating, at first, on the possibility of driving Scorpion away and becoming a good leader for the cat people — forbidding them to eat the reverie leaves, and saving them from themselves — he becomes inexorably more cynical, not just about the possibility of improving the cat peoples’ situation, but, like the other foreigners, about whether they even deserve such improvement. Even before he arrives in Cat City, he has begun to lose respect for Scorpion and his ilk for seemingly inviting the abusive treatment of the foreigners; after a short stay there he, too, is regularly eating the leaves, and musing that “Cat Country was like an undertow in the ocean: get too close to it, and you’d be sucked in” (149). In its final third, the novel grows increasingly dark, and acquires more force than I would have anticipated either from Fenby’s summary or from its early chapters; and that’s because the narrator’s despair has the feel of something real, something to latch on to. Revolution and invasion bring the final doom of Cat Country; it is the end of both place and people, complete with mass graves that, like the descriptions of Everybody Shareskyism, seem chillingly familiar. Every scrap of hope, of light, is done away with by the end of Cat Country; and the narrator’s return to a China he insists is peaceful and happy — not at all like the place in which he finds himself! — turns out not to be in the least delightful, or casual. Rather it is a last, deliberate, bitter pill for the reader to swallow. It is, after all, a French spacecraft that rescues the narrator; the work of foreigners, taking him home.

6 thoughts on “Cat Country

  1. Just a note, it would be better to refer to the author as “Lao She” instead of breaking it up and using “She.”

    If you don’t know about it already, there’s a bilingual scholarly network at of people writing about Chinese science fiction you might find interesting.

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