I admit, I feel quite pleased with myself for understanding so much of Lao She’s 1932 satire Cat Country. Consider that most of my knowledge of late 19th/early 20th century China comes from movies, The Last Emperor in particular, and a couple of books, Boxers and Saints and The Painted Veil to name most of them. A few teacher seminars over the years.
I did pretty well recognizing just what Lao She was satirizing in Cat Country.
Cat Country is about a Chinese astronaut who finds himself marooned on Mars where he has landed in a country populated by a race of intelligent cats. Like Gulliver in Jonathan Swifts book, the astronaut wonders as something of a tourist, trying to survive but also commenting on the world he has accidentally discovered. Think Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s satire Herland. (Which is terrific by the way and features a species of highly intelligent cats.)
Lao She’s hero befriends the cat people, learns to speak felinese, begins to write cat poetry, and travels to the center of the country where the capital city lies. Along the way he begins to understand that he has landed in a country in decline. It won’t be long before the cat country collapses into ruin.
If you know at least as much about China as I do, and there’s a good chance you do, you’ll be able to appreciate how Lao She uses cat country setting to critique his own society. But even if you don’t, much of Lao She’s critique applies to a large section of human society as is the case in all good satire of this sort.
For example. The universities in cat country have faced a long series of budgetary crises. To raise money, in this case not for the university but for the students, they have sold off all of the university’s library books. Without any books left to arrange, the university librarians have started arranging the library rooms which will soon be converted to hotel rooms as a way to make money for the librarians who got nothing from the sale of the books.
I think that’s pretty good. It also hits a little too close to home for many of us.
Cat Country does suffer a bit from its format. There are a few plot like elements, there is something of a romance late in the book and the eventual fall of cat country does have some dramatic tension, but most of the time the narrator simply reports on what he learns about the culture and government of cat country as he travels through it.
It’s entertaining. It’s kind of funny in places. It still has something to say even in 2016. But having some knowledge of China will help.