- Mouse vs. Cat in Chinese Literature: Tales and Commentary by Wilt L. Idema
The exploration of the theme of mouse versus cat in this wide-ranging, lively, and enjoyable book takes the reader on a tour of heaven, the underworld, and domestic scenes of daily life. With material ranging from the Book of Odes (Shijing 詩經) through twenty-first century dystopian fiction, Wilt L. Idema crafts a valuable guide for scholars that is at the same time accessible to students and the general reader. As the title suggests, the center of this volume is the many versions of the lawsuit of the mouse against the cat.
The introduction to the book takes a comparative perspective, explaining the relative dearth of talking animals in most genres of Chinese written literature due to distrust of fiction or fantasy; since its earliest expression, "Chinese poetics has insisted on truth as the hallmark of literature" (7). Thus, it is in the popular genres with connections to China's rich oral traditions, like ballads, where one can find gems like the case of the mouse versus the cat—yet another reason why these genres deserve scholarly attention. Chapter 1, Thieving Rats and Pampered Cats, surveys the ways that mice or rats and cats figure in literati genres in China. Chapter 2, The White Mouse and the Five Rats, explores two legends of magical mice/rats who, like fox spirits, can change their shape to seduce people or cause mischief. Chapter 3, A Wedding and a Court Case, traces the stories of the mouse's wedding and the case of the mouse versus the cat in the underworld, which are widely known through popular prints and ballad literature, respectively. Chapter 4, A Tale Without Shape or Shadow, centers on a particularly full version of the story from the nineteenth century that includes the mouse's wedding, the war of mice and cats, and the court case. Chapter 5, Peace Negotiations and Dystopias, gives an overview of how the case of mouse versus cat (and the image of mice and cats) has been reshaped in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Chinese literature. The traditional images of cats and mice are overturned; mice now represent the downtrodden, while cats become the villains or the butt of satire. The Epilogue: Cats and Mice in Love and War from East to West demonstrates that there is not much evidence of influence between cat and mice stories in different cultures of the world; they are treated independently in each tradition. A preface by Haiyan Lee discusses the theme in terms of animal studies and the Anthropocene. Throughout the book, Idema's voracious reading, encyclopedic knowledge, and scholarly acumen shine through.
The ballads and performance-related literature give us a valuable glimpse of stories that were widely known in the Ming and Qing and continue to circulate today. Some formed the basis for folk practices, like the mouse's wedding around Lunar [End Page 65] New Year, but rarely were written down. The tales discussed in Mouse vs. Cat represent numerous genres across China, including ballads from Sichuan and Guangdong, "pure song" (qingqu 清曲) from Yangzhou, and folksongs and ballads collected from illiterate performers in Shandong. With its wide chronological and geographic range, this is great material for the study of genres and the transmission of culture.
Besides the poems translated in chapter 1, Mouse vs. Cat includes full translations of four texts. In the earliest-known prose version of the tale of the Five Rats, a chapter of One Hundred Court Cases (Baijia gong'an 百家公案, 1594) entitled "The Execution of The Five Rats That Created Chaos in the Eastern Capital," the Five Rats nearly get the better of even the legendary Judge Bao, but he travels to heaven to request the help of Buddha's jade-faced cat and thus resolves the case. The other three full translations are Newly Composed: The Mutual Accusations of the Cat and the Mouse (Xinbian Maoshu xianggao 新編貓鼠相告, early nineteenth century), a short prose account from...