Cat Country (猫城记) by Lao She (老舍)
A compelling tale about a Chinese astronaut who crash-lands on Mars and comes across a group of cat-men. He lives with them and observe their daily life, but is astonished by their hedonistic and self-centred lifestyle. He becomes certain that the Cat People are on a decline and true enough, they are wiped out completely when foreigners invade the land.
What brings about the sad state of Cat Country? Firstly, the narrator observes the populace’s addiction to ‘reverie leaves’, narcotic leaves that are a food staple. He notes that ordinary food was eschewed when the leaves were brought in some 500 years ago. Next, he is disgusted at the shallowness of the people he interacts with, from Scorpion’s overbearing desire to save his trees to the greed of the onlookers who stole stones and bricks from Madam Ambassador’s collapsed house. The narrator also despairs at the state of culture and education: children on their first day of school are given university diplomas and deemed as graduants, while national artefacts are sold to fuel the emperor’s purchase of reverie leaves. What he finds most disturbing is the lack of cooperation among people: they cannot seem to work together for their greater good, even at the point of extinction. The narrator saw the last few Cat People kill each other, and the enemy locked the last two inhabitants in a cage where they bit each other to death.
From the narrator’s interactions with Young Scorpion, he begins to understand certain characteristics abd share his pessimism of his own race. Young Scorpion feels that the people do not have a mind of their own and are clueless of where to start. He lists examples of people speaking foreign languages/learning foreign ideologies without understanding the meaning. As a result, the common folk remain as worse off due to the leaders being unable to put theory into practice. Young Scorpion also answers the narrator’s question of child graduates: the emperor deemed normal progression from primary to university education a waste of money and this was compounded with frictional unemployment for the uni graduates. It was therefore ‘ingenious’ to give diplomas to children on the first day of school. Young Scorpion sees himself as being above the common rabble, stifled by the ineptitude of those around him. This self-righteous attitude drives him to suicide as he cannot forsee a future for Cat Country. His grandfather, Old Scorpion, behaves in a defeatist manner: when he invites the politicians for an emergency meeting on how to deal with the invading army, prostitutes are also called in to pleasure the men instead. His forces also retreat away from the enemy as “there is peace and security.” Furthermore, he attempts to be the first to retreat so that they can become officials under enemy rule. This is true to his stand of rejecting any foreign influence, even in battle.
Cat Country is an unbelivably rotten nation and Lao She meant it as a satire of China in the 1930s, as seen in the corruption and its weaknesses. Even the reverie leaves are a nod to opium. The red cords around the soldiers are reminiscent of the red cloths worn by students in China. While China would probably not be destroyed so easily, it is obvious how the Chinese have become self-centred. This also underlines the importance of education and heritage in Singapore, along with deterrance in keeping it safe. Above all, one must have a heart to care for others. It is apt how the currency of Cat Country is called ‘National Souls’. When souls become a commodity, living no longer makes sense, leading to senseless acts.