In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats

Here in Korea, where I live, cat own­ers aren’t called cat own­ers: they’re called goyan­gi jib­sa, lit­er­al­ly “cat but­lers.” Clear­ly the idea that felines have flipped the domes­tic-ani­mal script, not serv­ing humans but being served by humans, tran­scends cul­tures. It also goes far back in his­to­ry: wit­ness the 12th-cen­tu­ry vers­es recent­ly tweet­ed out in trans­la­tion by writer Xiran Jay Zhao, in which “Song dynasty poet Lu You” — one of the most pro­lif­ic lit­er­ary artists of his time and place — “poem-live­blogged his descent from cat own­er to cat slave.”

The sto­ry begins in 1138, writes Zhao, when “Down On His Luck schol­ar-offi­cial Lu You gets a cat because rats keep munch­ing on his books.” The eight poems in this series begin with praise for the ani­mal — “It’s so soft to touch and warm to hold in bed / So brave and capa­ble that it has oust­ed the rat nest” — and goes on to describe the cats he sub­se­quent­ly acquires, who self­less­ly van­quish the house­hold rats while indulging in noth­ing more than the occa­sion­al cat­nip binge.

Or at least they do at first. “Night after night you used to mas­sacre rats / Guard­ing the grain store so fero­cious­ly,” Lu asks one in “Poem for Pink-Nose.” “So why do you now act as if you live with­in palace walls / Eat­ing fish every day and sleep­ing in my bed?”

As time goes on, Lu finds him­self “serv­ing fish on time” to his cats only to find them “sleep­ing with­out wor­ry.” As the rats ram­page, he poet­i­cal­ly moans, “my books are get­ting ruined and the birds wake me before dawn.” Has it all been noth­ing more than “a ruse to get food from me?”

Yet it seems that Lu has no regrets about cat own­er­ship, if own­er­ship be the word. “Wind sweeps the world and rain dark­ens the vil­lage / Rum­bles roll off the moun­tains like ocean waves churn­ing,” he writes in 1192’s “A Rain­storm on the Fourth Day of the Eleventh Month.” Yet “the fur­nace is sooth­ing and the rug is warm / Me and my cat are not leav­ing the house.” This is relat­able con­tent for the cat but­lers of Korea (a cul­ture thor­ough­ly influ­enced by Chi­na in Lu’s day), or indeed any­where else in the world. The patri­ot­ic poet would sure­ly be pleased by the mod­ern-day ascent of Chi­na — and per­haps just as much by the high and ever-ris­ing sta­tus of the domes­tic cat.

via Xiran

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Preda­tor to Sofa Side­kick

Two Cats Keep Try­ing to Get Into a Japan­ese Art Muse­um … and Keep Get­ting Turned Away: Meet the Thwart­ed Felines, Ken-chan and Go-chan

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

T.S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats & Oth­er Clas­sic Poems (75 Min­utes, 1955)

What Ancient Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy Can Teach Us About Liv­ing the Good Life Today: Lessons from Harvard’s Pop­u­lar Pro­fes­sor, Michael Puett

Free Chi­nese Lessons

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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