By today’s standard Chinese artist of the medieval era depicted the cat poorly

This is a topic that interests me: how artists of the mediaeval era depicted domestic cats in their paintings. And I’m sure that they felt that they were painting an accurate representation of the domestic cat before them. But by today’s standards they are quite poor for one reason: they humanised them. They painted them with human faces or to be more accurate hybrid human/cat faces.

Katharine M Rogers in her book “Cat” writes that “Chinese artists in the Tang and Song periods created far more realistic and attractive portrayals of cats than did their mediaeval contemporaries in Europe”. I’ll agree that they are more attractive. Perhaps they are a little less anthropomorphized than European versions. The paintings of cats from 1,500 years ago in China are generally very gentle and charming.

The mediaeval artists made the domestic cat look like an ogre with a hybrid human/cat face. The painting are quite harsh. Perhaps this is in line with the centuries of persecution of the domestic cat during that era in Europe due to heavy superstitions about witchcraft.

By contrast, in China, there was a much more gentle and humane relationship with the domestic cat at that time although there was plenty of superstition. I wonder if they had the brutal cat meat trade in medieval China? I think not. The pictures below show the domestic cat as portrayed by Chinese and European mediaeval artists. I think you’ll agree with my assessment.

Rogers writes that cats probably arrived in China early in the Common Era and were certainly well known in China by the Tang dynasty. In old language “Common Era” means A.D. in case you wondered. Another author states that cats arrived in China around 200 BC according to Western accounts which is earlier than as stated by Rogers.

It is thought that Roman merchants brought their pet cats with them. Although the Chinese Book of Rites which was compiled during the time of Confucius (1050-256 BC) describes a sacrificial offering made annually in honour of cats by the emperor.

What is it about the domestic cat which causes humans to be superstitious about them? And why did humans paint the domestic cat with human faces? People have rectified that defect in the modern era. I have to suggest that in mediaeval times the world was more human-centric than it is today (which is saying something). People saw the world through the eyes of humans only in that bygone era. Therefore, they painted all animals with hybrid/human faces. And then when humans became more enlightened about nature thanks to science, they were able to disconnect that human centricity and see animals as what they are: sentient beings and individuals in their own right.

One superstition in China was that if a cat jumped over a coffin the deceased would rise and live again as a zombie. The zombie would only die if completely beaten with a broom. Or if a cat jumped over a corpse the person’s soul entered the cat. Or if a cat jumped over a girl’s coffin, she would become a vampire if the cat was not found and killed (Van Vechten 1921). Morbid superstitions concerning the innocent domestic cat. These sorts of superstitions have lasted for 1,500 years to the present day in some countries.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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