The Five Virtues of the Cat
And other sweepings from the cutting-room floor
Master Bin sat across from the visitor to Wanshou Temple, a cat curled up beside him.
"You know how the rooster has five virtues,"1 the monk said. "Well, so does this cat. When he sees a mouse, he’s too Humane to chase it, not even if it’s stealing his food — that’s how Principled he is. And he’s always first to greet guests at dinner. Perfect Manners. When he finds the hidden food, even the very cleverly hidden food, he reveals his Wisdom — and every winter he warms himself, Faithfully, beside the stove."
While I was writing “The Naming of Cats,” I came across a bunch of little cat-related tidbits and anecdotes that were extremely cute but didn’t really fit with the whole lexicography-and-grief thing.
It has to be said that most of what I found was nothing to write home about. The Qing anthologies I looked at were not replete with minor masterpieces or forgotten treasures: the quest for comprehensiveness doomed them to including a lot of poems that were more or less identical. The similarities between them are not the deliberate product of subtle intertextual allusions and ingenious variations by brilliant, playful minds showing the literary world what they could do. It’s more like the “—wait, these all end in ‘…Burma-Shave’” kind of similarity.
I like Chinese literature considerably more than the average person does, but there’s no getting around the fact that 99.999% of poems ever written were disposable platitudes cobbled together to fit the demands of social or official contexts, not works of art or personal expression. Anyone inclined to get sentimental or mystical about the magical qualities of Chinese poetry should see how many pages they can stand to read of the I’m-not-going-to-check-this-but-it-sure-felt-like multiple fascicles of poems written by people requesting cats, which are, almost without exception, variations on the following:
Line 1: I have books, I have mice, I have very little else. Line 2: The mice are eating my books. I think I heard one call me a nerd. Line 3: (Unrhymed; go wild.) Line 4: Anyway I would like a cat please.
And look, there’s more than a quarter million poems in the Complete Shi Poetry of the Song Dynasty; they can’t all be bangers. But the anthologists did also turn up some really cute ones, as well as some relatively self-contained little anecdotes like the one above from the late-Ming anthology Tales Old and New (古今譚概), edited by Feng Menglong 馮夢龍. I thought they might make for fun, bite-sized updates.
Starting today, I’m changing the format of Stories from a Burning House. There’ll be regular short updates like this one — somewhere between a couple and a few per week — and at least one longer update per month. I’ll kick it off with a little something for my fellow 鏟屎官 Scoopers of Poop: some funny anecdotes and a bunch of cat-related poems that are worth reading. It’ll be fun.
Shen Qifeng 沈起鳳, Qing-dynasty cat-hater and villain, disagrees with Master Bin.
This is a line from an anecdote in Master Han’s Commentaries on the Book of Odes 韓詩外傳, attributed to Han Ying 韓嬰 (fl. 150 BCE):
You have seen the rooster, surely? The crown on its head reflects its civil virtue; the spurs on its heel, its martial virtue; its courage we see in the rooster’s readiness to face down any foe it finds. So humane is it that no sooner do you feed one than it starts clucking for its fellows to come and eat as well — and it crows, faithfully, every morning.
Also, I’m freely turning Chinese nouns (…-ish) into nonstandard translations and different English parts of speech in the bit about the cat’s virtues and shuffling stuff around there and in the footnote above, and will happily provide one-sentence, two-sentence, and interminably long explanations of why I’m right to do it. Live a little!)