With an ongoing history dating back over sixteen thousand years, China is the world's oldest known continuous civilization. While the 17 million square mile nation, now home to over 6 billion inhabitants, is known in the modern world primarily as a source for cheap plastic toys and bootleg CDs and DVDs, this gigantic portion of Asia is actually responsible for countless important and colorful discoveries and inventions; among them fireworks, tea, the modern mousetrap, kites, decorative vases, the fortune cookie, stationery, a variety of interesting and pain-relieving opiates, and the all-you-can eat lunch buffet.
Indeed, were it not for the important contributions of ancient China to the later civilizations of Europe and the Americas, the western world today might well resemble the crude and stinky medieval European world of the early fifteenth century. Luckily--thanks to the trade route known as "The Silk Road," and the riches it channeled toward influential western merchants like Pier One, life in the west has been forever enhanced by what were once considered exotic Chinese "novelties."
In order to understand the contributions China has made to the western world, it is important to try and unravel the mysterious traditions of its ancient culture--a culture whose earliest recorded history takes us back to nearly 14,000 B.C., back to the time of the first fumbling and painful experiments with acupuncture--the era of the Thang Dynasty.
The Thang Clan ruled most of what is now modern China for over twelve centuries. While little is known about Chinese life in those times, scholars do know that the written word made its first appearance during the rule of this powerful family. In 1969, archeologists digging near Feng To, in the northern province of Weng, unearthed the earliest specimen of human writing ever discovered, a scroll known popularly as "The Ancient Chinese Secret," a fifteen hundred word document listing the location and relative quality of all of Weng Province's public wells, washeries, and eateries. Amazingly, a few of the characters in this "pictograph" (picture-writing) document can still be found in the Japanese Kanji alphabet today.
One of the eight wonders of the ancient world, The Great Wall of China remains among the world's most thought-provoking antiquities still in existence. It was built by Emperor Tsu of the Chang Dynasty, a family of rulers who began their lengthy dominion in the eleventh century, B.C. Tsu was a deeply superstitious ruler, one who believed, as did most of his subjects, that spirits--both good and evil--roamed the earth in the form of animals. There were, it was believed, good spirits populating the Chinese countryside in the form of oxen, monkeys, giant pandas, dragons and rabbits. On the other hand, the Chinese during the Chang Dynasty were certain that other animals-- like snakes, ducks, voles and pigs-- had evil spirits within them, spirits intent on the destruction of their glorious empire.
Though cats were popular pets in ancient China, having been domesticated as early as the Sh'ing dynasty some four centuries earlier, Tsu was highly suspicious of one breed of cat in particular--the feral Siamese Cat. By the end of the eleventh century B.C., Siamese cats had begun to breed out-of-control in Mongolia, the untamed tundra north of Ancient China. The cats had thrived on the billions of mice that infested Mongolian granaries and barbeques, and had begun making their way south into China's northern provinces. Tsu, and the northern Chinese in general, were spooked by the breed's capricious and selfish behavior, their cold, vacant eyes, and their devilishly raspy "Mee--yeeooooww." At the end of the century, a strain of typhoid illness actually caused by unsanitary laundering practices was believed to have been caused by the invading cats, and Emperor Tsu publicly proclaimed that the deaths of over 15 million of his northern subjects was the direct result of "We Kha Tchi," or "Cat-Scratch Fever."
Desperate to "save face" as a ruler, Tsu ordered the building of what is now known as "The Great Wall of China" to prevent the further infiltration of Siamese cats. While most of the cats walled out over the next several centuries eventually succumbed to starvation due to overpopulation in Mongolia, those already pouncing within the northern provinces of Ancient China suffered a more immediate, and explosive fate: The Emperor declared that any Siamese cats found within the empire were to be enticed with catnip and gunpowder-packed cat-toys and summarily blown to bits. The subsequent unjust purging of millions of innocent felines is considered the low-point of the history of animal rights as we know it and Chinese folklore is peppered with gruesome accounts of otherwise still evenings punctuated with "flashing, screeching blasts of demonic yowling followed by baleful snowfalls of liberated fur."
Less than ten years after Tsu commissioned the construction of The Great Wall, he passed away and was succeeded by his son Nhu. Construction of the wall continued under the Nhu regime, and then continued for the next nine generations of the Chang Dynasty. When the relatively short-lived Mang Dynasty followed, the construction of the wall doggedly continued, and Siamese cats, gradually, became a rare sight in China, though a few had managed to make it to the empire's southernmost reaches. It was only during the Chung Dynasty, in the year 2560 B.C., that the massive undertaking was considered complete. On what would have been July 9, 2560 B.C. on our modern calendar, Emperor Wang declared the wall finished and ordered three weeks of celebration that halted all labor in the sprawling nation. Celebrated Chinese songwriter, poet, and philosopher Lao Tzu wrote a song to mark the occasion. The jubilant refrain is still remembered today:
[English translation by Dr. Ronald Sveeeres]
Evil cats are, at last, gone ,
Walled off as is their pestilent bite,
Now that there is nothing wrong,
Strike up this song and dance into the night:
So, HU! Everybody have fun tonight,
So, HUH! Everybody Wang Chung tonight!
Unfortunately, when the dancing and fireworks were exhausted, the Chinese soon realized that their land was, in fact, not entirely free from Siamese cats. Though they enjoyed a brief period, during the Ming Dynasty, where their homes were relatively free from the troublesome and creepy felines, soon the problematic pussies could be found all over Asia once again, scratching up China's finest silks and rubbing up against-- and smashing to bits-- some of the Dynasty's most exquisite period vases. Though the passive and reflective philosophy of Confucius had taken hold by 1500 B.C., Emperor Foo, who died in 1478 B.C. was one of the most outspoken critics of Siamese cats, calling them "an enemy to the prospect of traditional Chinese 'joy-luck' foretold in the crispy cookies of [his] forebears."
Shortly after Emperor Foo's burial, nearly all of China's remaining Siamese cats disappeared. Until 1992, this was dismissed as the result of a feline leukemia epidemic that was thought to have swept Asia in the fifteenth century B.C. But could there have been some Ancient Chinese magic responsible for the demise of the "evil" cat-spirits in China? The excavation of Foo's tomb in the early nineties has left many wondering. When the imperial tomb was opened, hundreds of life-sized terra-cotta statues, a statuary legion dubbed the "Terra-Cotta Army," was found. These imposing statues, it is speculated, were thought by Foo to have insured that all remaining Siamese cats would be, by the time the emperor reached the afterlife, literally stomped out. The statues all wear thick, cat-crushing boots, and many hold ancient cat-toys and cat-lances designed to entice, impale and eviscerate unsuspecting kitties.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once remarked that "it is the struggles of every civilization, no matter how misguided and downright freaky they might seem in retrospect, that shape them and fashion their unique contributions to our world as a whole." If that's true, it is perhaps also true that, without the Siamese cat, our world would not have the sparkly firecrackers, the tasty Pu-Pu Platters, nor the crispy and compelling fortune cookies that we enjoy today; all products of the cat-fearing land of Confucius; Ancient China.
Page created by Dr. Ralston Purina, Provost, Asian Studies Department, Her Majesty's University of Calgary.