Lao she's Cat country (1932) is a kind of playful Nostradamus, full of prescient insights, inspired by China's century of humiliation at the hands of greedy, downright horrible imperialists and the scattershot attempts at revolution in the early 20th century. It is the only notable Chinese contribution to sci fi, and was poorly received and then politely ignored. It is without doubt the cause of his persecution by Red Guards in 1966. It's a miracle Lao reached the ripe old age of 67, in the hospital with bronchitis. Zhou Enlai visited him and advised him to stay put, but Lao was a writer, considered one of China's great modern ones – the revolution didn't produce many – and wanted to see firsthand what was going on. Very much like the protagonist of Cat country, who crashlands on Mars and becomes embroiled in the tribulations and joys of these catpeople.
So Lao had himself discharged the very day People’s Daily published a particularly infamous editorial applauding the Red Guards’ revolutionary spirit. Lao was set upon by the mob, taken to a Confucian temple, where religious relics were being burned in a bonfire in the despoiled temple. Much like the professors in Cat country, he and 28 other bourgeois devils were forced to kneel for 3 hrs, baptism by fire, heads shaved, ink poured on them, beaten, American agent ... till he was found the next day, drowned in the Lake of Great Peace. Cat people were also prone to suicide, and, like the madness of the Cultural Revolution, no one seemed to care.
China does not like sci fi. In the 1980s it was denounced as ‘spiritual pollution’. That is changing. Since 2014, there have been sci fi superhero films such as China Captain (2021). It follows a group of Chinese superheroes, including the Monkey King and Zhu Bajie, as they 'declare war on a bunch of foreign superheroes who have encroached on their turf in China.' But that just proves my point. Junk sci fi.
There are glimmers of critical reflection on contemporary China, such as the films of Jia Zhangke, but also a growing Mao cult. China controls media and whatever else the state deems necessary, at the same time, embracing capitalism, making it a strange hybrid of Soviet and exSoviet. There is the same cynicism about 'real existing socialism', but Russia gave up on the pretense.
Lao's startling fable was a reaction to a time when societies both East and West were degenerating into a violent, animalistic state. Mr Earth, as he is addressed in Catland, views cat people with pity and disgust. Dirty chaotic, their food poisonous, modern education and foreign travel only leading to superficial knowledge and alienation from traditions. Their capital Cat City was a confused maze of warrens which collapsed on top of him during a heavy rain, burying one and all.
Cat country is Chinese civilization in microcosm as Lao saw it, not based on the scientific method, war and progress, as occurred in Europe, where small warring, maritime states (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italian city states) were scientifically developing the latest in firepower to kill and conquer, to take others' lands. In stark contrast, China was always peaceful, a huge empire, the centre of the universe, complacent, stagnating. While Chinese were just as intelligent, discovering dynamite, steam power, the compass, and so on, these inventions were by chance and used as toys (dynamite for fireworks). And when the West finally discovered China in the 13th century, it immediately 'borrowed' gunpowder and put it to lethal use.
It is instructive to compare the Chinese empire with others such as Roman, Mongol, British, American. These were/are empires of conquest, so they were/are all bloody, killing millions. The Mongols were the only invaders until the British and others in the 19--20th century.
Catland too had an ancient, illustrious history (20,000 years) but had also lost its dynamism. All other life forms had been eaten up, only vicious buzzards (and cats) were left, and the buzzards, whose flesh was poisonous, feasted on dead cat people. What sustained the cat people was 'reverie' leaves. All other flora and fauna were eaten or died. This was the one plant they carefully nurtured, which was hardly a balanced diet, but had one great advantage. Eating reverie, the stomach feels full and languorous, the brain sluggish as if dozing off. Benumbed and excited at same time, the feeling one gets when slightly high. Every last pore felt related and happy enough to laugh, if pores could laugh. You didn’t mind the dirt, perfectly happy if never took another bath.
But a society of bliss seekers had many drawbacks. Everyone was lazy. Farmers no longer planted their crops and labourers no longer tended to their tasks. Too many robberies so stealing reverie leaves no long criminal act. This led to an age of plunder. Stealing most fully expresses a man’s freedom. It shaped their foreign affairs. Cat soldiers would fight each other, so they hired foreign armies. Breaking treaties and agreements was considered part of freedom. Friends are only for benefit. Trustworthy is inconvenient.
Lao was pointing at opium, but also at cannabis, which, unlike opium, grows just about everywhere in China. It has never become the craze that it is in the West, but memoirs such as Fan shen, Gang of One: Memoirs of a red guard (2004) mention how students sent to the countryside to work joined the peasants in dulling their hunger and pain with cannabis. Fan enjoyed it but wasn't hooked. The Chinese are just too industrious to become cat people. And cannabis is just not so addictive as the harder stuff. Lao needn't have worried. His fable is more a wake-up call for those in the West who want to legalize cannabis. As the West declines, it turns to drugs to entertain, to dull the pain of late capitalism with its apocalyptic overtones.
However, China was prey to the revolutionary excitement of the 20th century. Indeed, the collapsed Qing dynasty left a void which the nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek was unable to fill. There is a certain inevitability to the collapse of 19th century empires and the embrace of Uncle Karl, as the new god Karl Marx is affectionately dubbed by the young feline revolutionaries. But there are no 'young people', only different age groupings. The young are more hopeless than the older generation. Mr Earth's friend Young Scorpion: we don’t have young people. Rootlessness prods our people into taking a backward leap of tens of thousands of years, back to cannibalism of antiquity.
Lao was worried that there were no moral guideposts. Whatever morality was in Uncle Karl's writings was ignored or distorted by those around him. Lao could remember the final gasps of the fearsome, scheming Manchu dowager, the destruction of the imperial order, attacks on traditional culture and religion. A truly frightening scenario, leaving a void. Lao converted to Christianity in 1922 but was frustrated by the lack of indigenous leadership; he realized it was just another imported ideology.
In Cat country, he pilloried the youngsters' mock Russian (the language of revolution) they can’t understand. Long live pinsky-pansky pospos! The ideology Everybody shareskyism: everyone lives for sake of everyone else. Everybody works, is happy, secure. Society is a great machine and each individual a part. Originally egalitarian, Everybody shareskyism quickly ossified, with entrench privileges. Lao was reflecting on the Soviet experience, and foreseeing Mao's hopeless obsession with routing out bourgeois revisionism, which came close to destroying China.
The emperor was replaced by the head of Everybody shareskyism. When there was unrest (brawl), the new emperor coopted the movement, became head of rebels, and was finally called Ruler of 10,000 Brawls, paying rebels as officials. Wow. Although Lao is poking fun at the ancient Ruler of the 10,000 Chariots, it's as if he was describing the future Mao and his exhortation: 'it is right to rebel'. (As long as you don't rebel against Mao (or the party, or Lin Biao.)
But cat people shifted their interests from revolution to devising ways of making money to buy reverie. The more brawls, the shallower our youth. The Everybody shareskyism emperor was murdered, and the new head brawler advocated getting rid of everyone except honest-to-goodness peasants and workers. Ouch! Watch out exlandlords and bourgeois. We have always killed people without so much as a second thought. The revolutionaries wanted meritocracy and equal pay. But they didn’t understand economics, so after all the killing everybody just stood around and stared blankly at each other. They distributed land, but everyone just planted reverie trees. They forgot the lofty character necessary for revolution.
As for sex, Lao was lampooning the discarding of traditional marriage and family for free love. We forget that promiscuity and sexual deviations are old hat, but seemingly rediscovered by revolutionaries or just by decadent members of a declining civilization as if it's new. This business of free love that modern people make such a fuss over, is still only for ''that'. They are facing immanent oblivion and all they cared about was their short-term happiness and convenience. Such devils hardly deserved to live!
He has a novel proposal for sex education, but in the interests of political correctness, I'll leave that for the diligent reader.
Young scorpion's father, Scorpion started out for women’s rights, but now did not want to expose his women to Mr Earth. However, he still borrows western things that are useful. Grandfather has only traditions. Young Scorpion's philosophy of life was to muddle through, individual initiative was useless, the masses docile, stupid, poor, easily satisfied.
Lao is also poking fun at the new science of anthropology. Mr Earth claimed he was just an observer, with disinterested attention. He tried not to interfere but in the end tried to help the sincere youthful revolutionaries to fight the invaders (who were not reverie consumers, so still had the will to fight).
Education (or Back to cannibalism)
Education had also fallen into decline. Students graduate at the beginning of the term, there are no exams, teachers are regularly tortured and killed by them. Student: 'I’ll tear out your heart, you dead beast!' So it was their principal and a history teacher that they were dissecting! Perhaps they deserved death, but I couldn’t allow them to butcher them alive. The concept of saving another’s life is probably unknown. Did any of them (Mme ambassador and her 8 prostitutes/ mistresses) have anything worthy of being called a life?
Lao's throw-away comment about reverting to cannibalism is particularly unsettling. Even as he was being tortured and driven to suicide, the horrendous lynching and massacre in Guangxi was taking place. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the official record shows an estimated death toll from 100,000 to 150,000. Methods of slaughter included beheading, beating, live burial, stoning, drowning, boiling and disemboweling. Human cannibalism occurred even though no famine existed. At least 137 people—perhaps hundreds more—were eaten by others and thousands of people participated in the cannibalism. Students were indeed dissecting their teachers alive. Mao's attempt to keep the revolution alive was killing the host and literally consuming it.
When you grab hold of a whole pile of new knowledge, yet lack the inquiring spirit needed to nurture it, the inevitable result is cyclical education. You learn A and teach A but never add to it. Pride in one’s history is the most difficult of all natural feelings to eradicate, yet youth of Cat country were selling off treasures of their own heritage without the slightest trace of feeling. Young people didn’t have time to learn in school, so when in power they go to old people to find out how to do things.
Ironically reverie leaves make excellent medicine. The king of drugs here. Although the leaf can cure a number of serious diseases, it will kill a whole society. That’s one kink that we haven’t worked out of it yet. Now Mr Earth understand the wisdom of people from the light country. [a play on the words for US and Britain] If you got too close, the place seemed to grab you fast and drag you down against your will. Cat country like an undertow in the ocean: get too close and you’d be sucked in. absolute law: stay in Cat country, eat the leaf; don’t eat the leaf, don’t stay in Cat country. Cat people are not conscious of their impending doom.
Lao's conclusion? In any revolution the victorious ones are helpless. Understanding only how to tear down, they lack the imagination and ardour necessary to build things up again. The only result is more soldiers, more corrupt officials. Villagers flee to cities or join the army. Revolution is dangerous. People understand being swindled but are not able to do anything about it. We must turn back the clock, prohibit consumption of reverie, whoring. The political program must be grounded in economics.
Does that make you think of today's China? Have China's communists learned the lessons of Lao's parable? China is socially conservative now, once again promoting Confucianism, chastened by the mania of revolution. But do people take Confucius seriously anymore? Is there a moral foundation other than Deng's 'get rich'? The cat people thought only of reverie and money, had no sense of trustworthiness, lied and broke promises, were indifferent to death, even of their own death.
Much like the fate of such repressed writers as Bulgakov in the Soviet Union, who works were quietly published in the 1970--80s, Lao's works have been reissued. There were even a few productions of a play based on Cat country in 2013, but that was the year Xi Pinjing consolidated power as paramount leader (for life), and the status of the Cultural Revolution (CR) is up for grabs again. No memorial has been permitted to Lao or to the tens of millions who died from Mao's senseless faux revolutionary campaigns (100 Flowers Bloom, Great Leap Forward, Anti-rightist Campaign, Socialist Education Movement, culminating in the decade of Cultural Revolution).
The Cultural Revolution destroyed traditional culture and banned modern westernized culture. Bookstores and libraries were shuttered, you had to burn books to prove your revolutionary credentials, leaving only Mao's poetry, Little Red Book and Jian Xing's mind-numbing revolutionary operas. Together, they carried Stalinism to its ‘logical’ end. A country of permanent purging of each new crop of capitalist roaders. At least the Cat people had reverie to dull the pain.
President Xi Jinping came of age then, his father persecuted and jailed in 1968, his mother forced to publicly denounce him, as he was paraded before a crowd as an enemy of the revolution. A sister committed suicide. Xi Jingping was sent to work in Liangjiahe village. It was not fun, but he finally accepted it, returning to Beijing to study chemical engineering. Despite this descent into hell, Xi persevered in his desire to join the communist party, and proved to be a rising star. He is the first post-Mao/Deng leader of their stature. Xi's embrace of China's communist history, lumps included, is striking.
It's as if Xi is determined to shape the party, even the Cultural Revolution into his mold. The Cultural Revolution ritual of 'morning requests, evening reports', one-and-all holding their copies of Quotations of Chairman Mao close to their chests, replaced by apps for the 'social credit' system (to track and evaluate for trustworthiness) and Xuexi Qiangguo (to teach Xi Jinping Thought). Totalitarianism with a human face. Which is not to dismiss it. The human spirit is resilient. The West is moving in exactly the same direction and it is debatable whose elites are more suspect. At least the CPC does it scientifically – opinion polls and state media allow the party to formulate and coax citizens into following party guidelines.
Cat country and Lao's body floating on the Lake of Great Peace are a powerful testament to leave the world. The current campaign to intimidate Uighurs into submission, held incommunicado from the world, eerily smacks of the destruction of temples (and people) of the Cultural Revolution days. Instead of fighting its Muslims (20+m including Hui (9.8 million), Uyghur (8.4 million), Kazakh, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Salar, Tajik, Bonan and Tatar), their enduring moral compass could contribute to China's well-being. That would clinch 'best friends' with the Taliban. Now there's the makings of a great revolutionary opera.