Mouse vs Cat in Chinese Literature:
Tales and Commentary

Translated and introduced by Wilt Idema

Reviewed by Xiaorong Li

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2019)

Mouse vs. Cat in Chinese Literature: Tales and Commentary, translated and introduced by Wilt L. Idema. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. 272 pp. ISBN 9780295744834 (paperback); 9780295744858 (hardcover)

Mouse vs Cat in Chinese Literature is a new book by Wilt Idema, yet another showcase of his extraordinary scholarship and translation skills. Judging by its cover, the book might appear to be just a collection of translated cat-mouse tales with the translator’s introduction, but it is much more than that. In addition to the translation of important texts, it is a broad and rich survey not only of literary representations of mouse versus cat within the larger context of Chinese history, but also of anthropomorphism in world literature.

The book begins with an introduction on animal tales in various literary traditions around the world and continues with general observations on the distinctive ways in which Chinese literature of different historical periods and cultural genres features animals. Although there is a lack of “talking animals” in the classics or other forms of high literature, popular entertainment literature, Idema observes, is rich in animal characters that plead for justice, such as the mouse in underworld court case stories.

The book is divided into five chapters, as well as an introduction and an epilogue. Before proceeding to focus on the underworld court case stories of the mouse against the cat, chapter 1 examines the most salient aspects of the two animals as represented in Chinese literature from the earliest times until the Qing. This chapter establishes the archetypes of the mouse/rat as despised thieves and the cat as pampered mousers and pets. Chapter 2 discusses the stories of the White Mouse Demon and the Five Rats, which have intertextual links with the court case tales covered in the following chapters.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on legends of the mouse as victim of the cat’s cruelty, leading them to seek justice from King Yama in the underworld. Some readers may have already learned about the motif of the mouse wedding on New Year’s Eve through folk arts, such as popular prints and paper cuts, but few have read these stories. (This is true in my case, someone who grew up and was educated in China, so I assume there must be many like me.) This is largely because these stories had been circulated mostly as oral folklores. The texts translated and discussed in these chapters are based on manuscripts or transcribed texts from twentieth-century scholars. One such text is “A Tale Without Shape or Shadow” (無影傳), which had been particularly popular in Shanxi, and of which the book includes a full translation. This story, along with some others in the book, is to my knowledge being presented to the world for the first time. In Chapter 3, readers not only discover riveting details on how the mouse’s parents choose a bride or a groom for their children, but also learn that the cat turns out to be the chosen groom or bride that eventually raids the whole wedding party. Chapter 4 is an examination of the further developments of the court case or the mouse vs cat war by looking into the legal procedures related to and prequels to “A Tale Without Shape or Shadow.”

Chapter 5 moves on to discuss how the mouse vs cat antagonism continued to fuel Chinese literary imagination well into the Republican era. The selected texts include a Minnanese ballad (early 1920s), a long fable in classical Chinese called A New History of Rats (新鼠史, 1908), and a poem titled “The Admonition by the Cat” (貓誥, 1925) by Zhu Xiang 朱湘 (1904-1933) who wrote in modern, free-style poetry. Although some of these texts, such as the long fable, have been examined before, this chapter on modern Chinese literature adds historical depth to the topic at hand. Furthermore, in using the epilogue to trace the mouse vs cat theme in Near Eastern and European literatures, as well as Chinese and Japanese literatures, Idema concludes the study from the same world literature perspective that opens it. Although there are interesting parallels between these different literary traditions, he argues, there is no evidence pointing to mutual influence.

Although focusing on only two animals—the antagonistic mouse and cat—the book is impressively ambitious in its scope. The study is framed and substantiated with the author’s extremely wide and deep knowledge of world literature, culture, and history. His discussion of the literary representations of the mouse and the cat is not only well informed by his erudition in Chinese literature and culture from all time periods, but is also enriched by comparisons with other cultural traditions.

Readers of Idema’s books, myself included, have benefited from his scholarly vision, which always goes beyond classical texts and well-studied genres. With a focus on the mouse vs cat stories in popular genres such as performance ballads or prosimetrical narratives, he once again sheds light on a fascinating area of study that may not be known to many, including well-read specialist readers in Chinese literature.

The Foreword, written by Haiyan Lee, is a great addition and pushes the critical perspective of the book to an even higher level. As the critical term “anthropomorphism” suggests, animals in the human imagination are always projections of human emotions and values. Whether “victims” or “villains,” the talking animals  in human literature can never do justice to the silent ones, even the well-represented ones such as the mouse versus the cat. Justice, Lee notes, is after all “a human achievement” (xiii). Lee invites readers, “human beings,” to rethink “animals” through profound ethical and philosophical questions like: “If animals serve so well to illustrate human morals, on what grounds do we justify excluding them from moral concern? Is there a bright line between animals as symbols and animals as creaturely beings?” (viii-ix).

I absolutely recommend this book to my fellow human beings.

Xiaorong Li
University of California, Santa Barbara