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Tom Marling reviews a collection of animal fables that adds an elegant new dimension to the anglophone understanding of the Chinese literary tradition.

Wilt L. Idema, Mouse vs. Cat in Chinese Literature: Tales and Commentary (University of Washington Press, 2018), 272pp.

In its preoccupation with the posthumous legal entanglements of animals, Wilt Idema’s Mouse vs. Cat in Chinese Literature often brings to mind the work of Carlo Ginzburg, as both belong to that category of history that deals not so much with what was thought as what was thinkable.

Among the more prominent Buddhist contributions to Chinese cosmology was the concept of the underworld court (difu 地府), presided over by a judge (King Yama) who was willing to hear the complaints of beasts and humans alike. Some illustrated versions of the Sutra of the Ten Kings uncovered in Dunhuang were found to depict working animals holding their statements of accusation in their mouths as they appeared in the underworld court – an idea that folk culture would go on to mine for its rich veins of absurdity. In “The Complaint of the Louse” (Baishi mingyuan 白虱鳴冤) – a Qinqiang Opera from Shaanxi – a louse takes action against a flea and a bedbug over the circumstances of its death, while a ballad from 1882 depicts a menagerie of litigious fauna, including “the loach… the rice-field eel… shrimps… the soft-shelled turtle who wants to lodge a complaint against the crab… [and a] chicken lodging a complaint against ducks.”

Though often humorous, the legal entanglements of animals were far from superficial in their renderings. “The Rhapsody on the Swallow” (Yanzi fu 燕子赋) – a prosimetric parody dating to the ninth or early tenth century – is the earliest known depiction of a trial in Chinese literature, and despite detailing the unlikely crime of nest theft, it remains an important resource on the workings of the Tang dynasty legal system.

The central topic of Mouse vs. Cat pertains to one of the more infamous cases on the docket of the underworld court. Commonly known as “The Complaint of the Old Mouse Against the Cat” (Laoshu gao limao 老鼠告狸貓), this tale of attempted redress on the part of a wronged mouse achieved peak popularity in folk culture of the nineteenth century.

In his wide-ranging history of this tale (and the wider cat–mouse theme as a whole), Idema draws from various strands of oral folk narrative, including drum ballads (dagushu 大鼓书), folk rhapsodies (sufu 俗賦) and Yangzhou “pure songs” (qingqu 清曲), a welcome bias that owes in part to staunchly anthropocentric tendencies on the part of the literati (the eighteenth-century Huangzhou scholar Liang Yusheng begins and ends his poem on the cat–mouse subject with an apologetic plea to his learned readers). As such, the language is distinctively earthy and often genuinely funny, qualities that are preserved with great skill in translation (one pampered cat is quite enjoyably described as “one big-stomach general / A ministerial belly in which a boat could be punted”).

Thanks to an exhaustive knowledge of folk culture, Idema builds a picture of how the archetypes of the cat–mouse court case were reconfigured in their peregrinations through place, time and form. The story gradually swelled over the course of the Qing dynasty, incorporating more detailed renderings of the underworld bureaucracy and even prequels elaborating on the origins of the imbroglio. In its extended versions it might begin with the cat’s ambush and murder of the bridal-fetching party of the mice, and move on to a war between the mice and the cats, ending with the slain mice making their posthumous case to King Yama.

A particular highlight of this excellent book is a wonderful translation of a mid-nineteenth century prosimetric version of the story from Shanxi, which had until the late twentieth century not been printed (in any language). The tense intercutting between the bridal-fetching party and the ambush-minded cats is a salient reminder of the story’s origins in live performance, while the martial poetics of the later battle scenes are unexpectedly mellifluous:

An auspicious ether wafts above the five battle flags;
The marching camps on our four sides were red in the sun.
Disposed in the order metal, wood, water, fire, and earth,
The twenty-eight lunar mansions connected to the stars.
Six stars of the Southern Dipper, seven of the Northern;
Celestial Nets and Earthly Killers arranged in two rows.
The beast-faced golden bells cast their rays of light,
Robbing the glare of the sun, outdoing the clear moon.
When the golden crow sank in the west, the sun in the sea,
They buried their pots, cooked their food, and made camp.

Considering its origins in folk culture, one might expect the cat–mouse motif to be a vehicle of class resentment (cats being commodities of the wealthy for much of their history), but what consistent themes do emerge rarely prove so explicit. It can be said however that while both cats and mice are both depicted as anthropomorphised, the mice are more frequently (at least to my reading) depicted as anthropopathic. The quotidian details of mouse life recapitulate the salient junctures of human life in pre-modern China: sending one’s child out into the world, navigating an implacable bureaucracy, and coping with death. As such, the lurch which many versions make from the merely Rabelaisian into more elemental violence wrought against the mice (in keeping with the story’s Buddhist overtones and settings) is affecting. As one tragic mouse disclaims: “What I fear most are those ignorant people who want to have some fun / And put a black bean up my asshole / And sew it tight with a needle and thread / Killing me in such a way that all turns black before my eyes / And in my panic I’ll bite half my children to death.”

Cat vs. Mouse echoes many of the themes of Shuhui Yang and Yanqin Yang’s monumental translation of Ling Mengchu’s Ming dynasty story collection Slapping the Table with Amazement, which was published last year (also by the University of Washington Press). Both share a preoccupation with legal entanglements, legalistic sentiments about propriety and justice and the law as a metonymic expression of the transcendental cosmic order writ large. A great deal of credit should be given to the University of Washington Press for supporting these important voices in the translation of Chinese folk narrative and for shedding light on interesting corners of cultural history in China.

In conclusion, research into the symbolism of animals in Chinese culture is surprisingly thin, and themes like anthropomorphism have been afforded almost no systematic attention. Idema (not only here, but also in 2018’s Insects in Chinese Literature) is taking vital steps toward rectifying this, albeit while remaining entirely accessible to the non-specialist reader. My only (minor) complaint is that although visual culture – in the form of New Year prints and paper-cut art – crops up in discussion, a beautiful example of paper-cut art by the Beijing artists Yu and Ren Ping on the cover of the book is sadly the limit of the included artwork.


Tom Marling is an independent researcher in the history of China and a professional copyeditor of China-related academic materials. He can be contacted at: tommarling22@gmail.com.

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